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Strategies for improving the Dallas Mavericks' defense

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Saturday night the Dallas Mavericks suffered a blowout loss to the Portland Trail Blazers that was another confirmation of what people already know and have been fearing since the offseason: that Dallas had assembled a powerful offensive machine that would struggle on the defensive end.

The franchise is no stranger to having an outstanding offensive team that is somewhat lacking on the other end of the floor. Even in the days of the original Dallas big 3 (Dirk, Steve Nash and Michael Finley) the Mavs were known as an exciting team to watch but weren’t expected to go far in the playoffs, mostly due to defensive struggles. Even with shot blocking specialist Shawn Bradley, a defensive presence and overall defensive mentality was largely missing from the team.

The shortcomings eventually led to probably the most inexplicable contracts in team history, signing Erik Dampier to a seven-year, $73 million contract after he had a career year averaging 12.3 points and 12.0 rebounds for the Golden State Warriors in 2003-04 – numbers he never came close to matching in Dallas.

The culture started to change when Rick Carlisle arrived – known for his defensive-minded coaching, and by the time the 2011 had rolled around, the Mavericks had managed to sign Tyson Chandler, who would make the All-Defensive team. Surrounded by other solid defenders including DeShawn Stevenson, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Brendan Haywood, the culture of the Mavericks had changed and netted them the ultimate prize.

Since the well-chronicled breakup of the champs, however, good defense has been harder to come by and while this year’s team resembles the Mavericks of old on offense, the struggles on defense have returned in force. While they are near the top of the league in scoring, field goal percentage and offensive efficiency, they rank near the bottom in points allowed and opponents field goal percentage.

With perhaps the most exciting offensive team in Dallas since the original big 3, headed by one of the NBA’s best duos in Dirk Nowtizki and Monta Ellis and surrounded with plenty of other scoring options, the Mavericks are a fun team to watch who can score against anyone. But it is a well-known tenet that defense wins championships and what the franchise has in mind to “step up” is hard to determine. Rick Carlisle has proven adept at making the most of what he has and it appears that’s exactly what is needed.

The departure of Chandler was the most significant loss from the championship team but why both DeShawn Stevenson and Corey Brewer were allowed to go when resigning them wouldn’t have been expensive remains a mystery. Caron Butler was also allowed to walk and brought much more to the table than solid defense.

Other attempts to keep defensive-minded players have misfired or fizzled. Lamar Odom was a solid defender when he still wanted to play but that clearly wasn’t in Dallas and while Delonte West made a splash, his antics led to his release as well. Last year’s hope for a new “Secretary of Defense” also fell short as Dahntay Jones saw little playing time and was oddly traded midseason for Anthony Morrow, a one-dimensional three-point shooter who was not needed and not re-signed after the season. Finally, none of the defensive specialists brought into training camp (Devin Ebanks, Renaldo Balkman) made the team.

The Mavericks fortunes this year are going to largely rely on Carlisle making the most out of what he has on defense. Shawn Marion will always do what he can do and in the latter stages of his career, Vince Carter has become a reliable defender. Samuel Dalembert was hoped to be a help and while he’s no Chandler and his minutes have fluctuated, he’s averaging nearly 11 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks and a steal per 36 minutes. When his energy level is high and he's engaged, he makes a difference.

But the Mavericks need more. Where are they likely to get it?

Wayne Ellington was brought in at least partially for his defense and he’s hardly seen the court.

Presumably, Devin Harris’ return might help. While Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon are scorching opponents with their scoring, neither is known for defense and their primary backups are rookies. However, expectations of Harris shouldn’t be too high – he has always been considered a good defender as opposed to a “lockdown” defender and has some of the lateral quickness that helped him in earlier years, mostly due to injuries and that’s what he’ll be returning from this year as well. Still, he has managed to compensate for a number of shortcomings and proved in his short time in Atlanta that the team did much better overall defensively when he was on the floor while also being an excellent mentor to their young guards.

But besides Harris, the real difference may have to come from other existing assets, most notably Jae Crowder and Brandan Wright and perhaps most importantly, how Carlisle manages rotations including the ever-important Marion.

As a player, Crowder has done relatively well for a second-round draft pick but relative to what he was in college, his game has been almost unrecognizable. For the majority of his rookie season and parts of this one, he has largely been known for jacking up threes and stretches during which not many of them were falling. Based on his college resume, we should be able to expect more.

At Marquette, Crowder impressed scouts with his ability to cut to the basket, something we haven’t seen much of in Dallas.

But DraftExpress.com mainly touted his defensive chops, tweeting on 6/28/12:

“Toughest SOB in the draft, and probably also the best defender."

Overall, his physical attributes and unconventional style of play made him an offensive factor both in the paint and beyond the arc but what impressed most was his defense.

Jonathan Givony wrote:

"Crowder's best attributes revolve around his play on the defensive end, where he's one of the most versatile and effective players in all of college basketball. One of the rare players who truly guards every position on the court one through five, often within a single game, Crowder takes great pride in shutting down his matchup, and is a willing contributor as a team defender as well.

Physical and intelligent, with long arms, a strong frame, good footwork, excellent fundamentals, and nice anticipation skills, he follows the game-plan, gets in the passing lanes prolifically (ranking 5th amongst NCAA prospects in steals per-40), steps in for charges and never takes possessions off.

Despite possibly lacking a degree of lateral quickness to shut down some of the quicker wing players he'll match up with in the NBA, Crowder knows how to force opponents to settle for the shot he wants them to take, and won't give up an inch when matched up with bigger forwards."

Of course, some of Crowder’s best defense was in the lane and in college he was playing primarily power forward, whereas he has had to move to the wing in the NBA. The challenge for Rick Carlisle is figuring out how to use him. Like DeJuan Blair, Crowder likely holds his own better against bigger players and in his case may do a better job down low than on the wings:

Jeff Rush added:

Crowder was most effective in the post, despite his lack of height and jumping ability, he showed great positioning and was very good at staying under his man and not allowing himself to be backed down into the post. Defending on the perimeter was a little bit more of a struggle. Even though he has good feet, Crowder was not as effective staying in front of quicker players.

Crowder has been used more in defensive situations of late, subbing in for Monta, Calderon or others at the appropriate times – but it may very well be that he can be used more around the lane even on bigger defenders, which plays to his strengths.

The Mavericks also have an opportunity to continue seeing what progress Brandan Wright makes. The knock on Wright earlier in his career was a lack of bulk and strength, mostly reflected in his struggles with rebounding and not being able to maintain position against bigger, bulkier players down low.

But last season, after spending his share of time in Carlisle’s doghouse, Wright returned to the rotation and was a big help on both ends of the floor and a big reason the Mavericks turned around a losing season.

Josh Bowe wrote in April of last year:

"When Wright's on the floor, the Mavericks defensive efficiency is 101.8, a much better mark than the 104.1 the Mavs overall defense posts.

Last year, when Wright and Dirk shared the court, the Mavericks scored at a blistering pace but couldn't defend. Now, the Wright + Dirk tandem is still destroying teams at an astonishing rate on offense but…they're holding their own on defense, somehow, with a net-plus rating of over 14. Wright's limitations as a defender and rebounder are less felt this season, thanks in majority to Wright's improvement and Carlisle's lineup rotations."

Ultimately the decision on how to use players is up to Carlisle, a coach with highly respected defensive chops. But while the Trail Blazers are admittedly the best offensive team in the league right now, some of Carlisle's defensive assignments exacerbated the problem. After all, even Carlisle has never been infallible and after the lopsided loss DallasBasketball.com's Mike Fisher pointed out:

"[Shawn] Marion is a special defender, a special player. He’s a whirlwind of awkward releases and swiping hands at the end of long, cleverly deployed arms, an intelligent player capable of hurting opponents in as many ways as almost any other … ever.

Even so, he’s a 35-year-old athlete best suited for the small or power forward positions, and Saturday night, he was asked to begin the game defending a 23-year-old point guard overflowing with quickness and offensive ability in Damian Lillard.

It’s not a fair proposition for Marion…it’s too much to ask for more than short bursts, especially if you also expect him to be his usual opportunistic self at the offensive end (note Marion was 1-of-6 from the floor for three points and three rebounds).

Against the Blazers, this is only compounded by forcing Jose Calderon to enter into his own mismatch against someone almost half a foot taller, in Nicolas Batum … and, not surprisingly, it was Batum that stormed from the gate, leading all scorers with 15 points in the first quarter.

In essence, Dallas may be creating two mismatches rather than living with one … while also pulling one of their better rebounders from the rim.

And the rebounding … was worse.

The final rebounding differential (-25) was the worst of the season, and the worst since Dallas was also -25 against Chicago Nov. 19, 2010 … and only the 14th time since the 1985-86 season the Mavs have been dominated to such a degree on the glass (per Basketball-Reference.com). Not surprisingly, Dallas has been 0-14 in those games.

Only one team has had a worse differential this season.”

And in reality, this is not the first instance of a disturbing trend – over a series of games in which Marion is being assigned to point guards, his rebounding and scoring suffer and other mismatches are created.

It is unlikely that something magical will happen and land Omer Asik or a comparable defensive wing player in Dallas, although Don Nelson has made it clear that the Mavericks are open to a difference-making trade that doesn't destroy the core.

With so many players coming of the books over the summer, however, it is more likely that the Mavs will try to make the best of what they have this season and supplement the remaining core next year. What a shame that didn’t happen in 2012...but I digress. Judicious and analytical placement of Harris, Wright, Crowder and Marion, along with perhaps the added bonus of the improving confidence and quickness of Shane Larkin, are the keys to making the best of what the Mavericks already have.

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