In just over a month it will be time for the annual NBA All-Star game and with stellar point guards such as Chris Paul and Stephen Curry in the Western Conference, it’s pretty clear who is likely to be voted in as starters. As for the reserves, amidst the scoring tandem of Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis, José Calderón doesn’t make the headlines much as far as the Dallas Mavericks go. But Calderon's star may actually be shining a little more brightly now that he's alongside some bona-fide stars.
It was presumed in moving from Toronto to Dallas via Detroit that Calderón’s style of play would have fertile ground. His high intelligence and superior court sense were ideal and top priority for Dallas in the off-season. A pass-first shooter who had never in his career been surrounded by numerous capable scorers such as Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, Vince Carter and Shawn Marion his career numbers nonetheless show an impressive 7.2 assist-per-game average including three seasons when he averaged almost 9.
Despite Calderón himself being an adept shooter he has never really asserted himself as a high-volume scorer when he likely could have. He has focused on passing the ball while hitting pay dirt when he does take the shot. A career 48% shooter, he has averaged over 50% three times and led the NBA in 3-point shooting last year. He set an NBA record for free throw percentage hitting a staggering 98% in 2009 and perhaps most importantly, whether shooting or passing there is no one better at protecting the ball.
Wikipedia describes the 2007-2008 season for Calderón:
“35 games into the season, the Spaniard increased the turnover ratio to 6.15 to 1, setting him on course to break an NBA record (he went to end the season as the league-leader with 5.38 to 1). He shot at least 50% on field goals, 40% on three-pointers, and 90% on free-throws, and is sometimes listed as a member of the NBA's 50–40–90 Club, even though he was sixteen free-throws shy of attaining the NBA league minimum number of makes in this category.”
Coming to the Mavericks, José was touted by Dallas Morning News sportswriter Eddie Sefko as being in the mold of two future Hall of Fame guards who passed through Dallas:
“While he joins the Mavericks as a B-lister who has been functional but not dynamic throughout his career, he’s a point guard in the same mold as Nash and Kidd – one who has the ability to lead the league in assists and who can make a shot when defenses disregard him.
What Calderón does best is take care of business – and the basketball. While he’s probably a little more conservative when he’s running the point than Nash or Kidd, Calderón had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.11 last season. Only Chris Paul at 4.26 had a better average and no other player in the league was better than Jason Kidd’s 3.28 assists per turnover.”
Since his arrival in Dallas, things have been similar in some ways, yet different in others.
His assists are near a career low at only 4.8 apg…of course, that is due to a lot of facilitating on the part of Monta Ellis, who surprisingly leads the team in assists. The Monta experiment has been a huge success as he not only leads the NBA in scores on drives to the hoop, but is finding collapsing defenses and easy way for him to pass to his teammates for an open look. That includes Dirk, who not coincidentally is third in the league in catch-and-shoot scoring.
The rest of Calderón’s game are is strong as ever: he is averaging close to a career-high 12.1 points per game and after starting the season slow is averaged nearly 13.5 points in December. At the same time, he is averaging a career low in turnovers (1.3) and despite fewer assists, is still in the top five in assist-to-turnover ratio. He is still connecting from downtown and is 3rd in the league in 3-point percentage as well as hitting nearly 90% of his free throws.
Calderón is not a volume scorer and with assists down, many may overlook his contributions. He works hard but is not a great defender. Still, his contributions are not one-dimensional. A willing passer who can score from the outside or on a drive and plays virtually mistake-free basketball is not to be undervalued. Perhaps more importantly, while Monta will get most of the headlines for the Mavericks improvement this season. Calderón’s heady play, experience and the change in the Mavericks’ basketball IQ over last season can largely be attributed to his leadership and style. Anyone watching Calderón play has to be entertained by his enthusiasm and constant communication that are reminiscent of European soccer players. He talks and he directs traffic and it’s fun to watch, which is a refreshing change from last season, when, as Sefko put it,
“the Darren Collison/Derek Fisher/Mike James experiment ended like one of those 9th-grade science projects gone wrong – with stuff stuck to the ceiling after the explosion and a mess that nobody wants to clean up.”
While the All-Star game is a game of superstars, there is room for others. The Mavericks are no strangers do “shoulda made it” and “just barely made it” players on their roster.
Derek Harper was a superior point guard during his long tenure with the Mavericks and is widely regarded as one of the best players in NBA history to never make it to an All-Star game. Considering he had several years averaging over 17 ppg, 7 apg and a couple of steals while also making the All-Defensive team twice, his omission truly is unfathomable. Fortunately, the Mavericks are soon to retire his number.
Yet James Donaldson, the Mavericks’ last solid presence in the middle prior to Tyson Chandler, made the team in 1988 on the virtue of his very solid but certainly unspectacular game and largley on the previous season. He has averaged around 11 points and 12 rebounds the previous year but both stats were considerably down. He had cemented his reputation as an anchor around a star-studded team and had previously set an NBA record for field-goal percentage at nearly 64% in 1984-85.
But in a league obsessed with flash, is there a place for Calderón on the All-Star team? He’s already arguably been overlooked in the past. Rob Mahoney wrote in the New York Times in 2010:
“There are plenty of low-profile NBA players with understated significance, largely due to the subtle nature of their contributions to their teams’ success. Those players rarely find a place in a game of spectacle; there’s just no room for screen-setters, dive-cutters, and intelligent defenders of the pick-and-roll unless they can also drop 20 a night. Defensive mastery is largely disregarded, and maybe that’s for the best. The All-Star Game, as currently constructed, is a game of flash…of…dominance.
In 2008, the Toronto Raptors’ José Calderón was left off the Eastern Conference All-Star team despite having the league’s best assist-to-turnover ratio, a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 20.5, and per game averages of 11.2 points (on 52% shooting) and 8.3 assists. In terms of point guards, they didn’t come much more efficient than Calderón that season."
So…he won’t be voted in a starter and shouldn’t be. But his game is as solid as ever. Scoring is a little up, PER and assists a little down, everything else pretty much where we're accustome to and there are some things, like basketball IQ, that don’t show up in statistics. And let's not forget: the Mavericks are back.
Whoever ends up as the head coach in the Western Conference, let’s hope he takes a serious look at adding José Calderón.