When the Dallas Mavericks face the imposing front line of the Oklahoma City Thunder this Monday night, continued experimentation will be necessary as both Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman remain out with injuries and with Rick Carlisle using 4 different starting centers this season, the evaluation time might prove useful in the end.
This summer there was a reasonable amount of excitement amongst Dallas Maverick fans surrounding the arrival of some quality new personnel, particularly after the failure to land some key free agents (Dwight Howard or Deron Williams) and the loss of more popular veterans (Jason Kidd, Jason Terry) appeared to send the team into a free fall.
Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson managed to haul in a group of seasoned former All-Stars and young talent and other than O. J. Mayo, no one was heralded as a possible way to take attention away from Dirk Nowitzki more than Kaman. Indeed, based on his history and that of the Mavericks, he was instantly identified as likely the best offensive center the Mavericks have ever had and potentially the best overall.
Kaman has been well-known throughout his career as a versatile scorer both inside and from midrange and during the early part of his career he teamed with once and future teammate Elton Brand to form an All-Star duo that gave the Los Angeles Clippers one of the only recent playoff appearances the franchise ever had prior to the current incarnation with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. The knock on Kaman generally was generally considered to be his injury history and that he was at best an average defender, something that certainly shows up on your radar after winning a championship with Tyson Chandler, who later won the Defensive Player of the Year award with the New York Knicks.
But Kaman didn’t immediately follow Chandler of course – he followed Brendan Haywood. In fact, last year’s “three-headed monster” was Heywood, Ian Mahinmi and Brandan Wright, none of whom was considered to be a defensive standout and for widely different individual reasons.
So it stands to reason that Kaman, averaging over 12 ppg and 6 rpg in under 24 minutes (the least of any regular starter on the team, the lowest since his rookie season and less than Vince Carter) would be considered to be doing at least an adequate job. He is the highest scoring rotation player per 36 minutes.
But with the early season struggles across the board and most notably interior defense, everyone is subject to some scrutiny and prior to his concussion, Kaman played a season-low 11 minutes after ending up in what appears to be Rick Carlisle's doghouse. The sentiment amongst fans is to dump Kaman pretty darn quick and Carlisle seems to be questioning his value as well.
After a decade of Shawn Bradley, Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood with Tyson Chandler being the only saving grace, this seems a tad peculiar.
Of course it’s often been surmised, and perhaps now in evidence that Dirk plays better with a defensive-minded center. Fortunately or unfortunately during his career we’ve never had a chance to find out…until now.
The promise of signing Kaman was to take some offensive pressure off of Dirk while bringing in Elton Brand was presumed to have been slated as more of a backup TO Dirk, as well as offering a defensive presence. While it was understood Brand would likely play some time at the 5 as well, Brandan Wright showed significant improvement last year and Bernard James appeared to be a promising defensive addition.
For the first part of the season with no Dirk, Kaman was likely the most consistent player on the team. While O. J. Mayo ran hot and cold and Brand shot well below his career averages, Kaman held down the fort and still leads the team in scoring per 36 minutes for the year.
Now that Dirk is back, things are different. Offensively, having an additional post scorer has not helped Dirk significantly and other teams have exploited the lack of defensive quickness. While Kaman has a significant physical presence, he seems to often be out of position and subsequently even less effective protecting the rim than Haywood.
Michael Dugat and Mike Fisher of scout.com get much more specific in contrasting the statistics with Dirk paired with Kaman or Brand:
“Dirk has played 199 minutes with Kaman, 244 with Brand.
Per 36 minutes with Brand, Dirk is averaging: 17.1 points, 39.0 field-goal percentage, 30.8 3-point percentage, 6.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.5 turnovers … and the Mavs, as a team, have a total plus/minus of plus-5.
Per 36 minutes with Kaman, Dirk is averaging: 17.9 points, 46.3 field-goal percentage, 47.1 3-point percentage, 6.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.6 turnovers … and the Mavs, as a team, have a total plus/minus of minus-49.
Note the vast difference in the team’s raw plus/minus numbers. If you want to break that down to plus/minus per 36 minutes, it’s plus-0.7 with Brand, minus-8.9 with Kaman.
For further illustration, Dallas has offensive and defensive ratings of 96.3 and 108.5 with Dirk and Kaman on the floor (a net rating of minus-12.2), offensive and defensive ratings of 105.6 and 105.2 with the Dirk/Brand pairing (a net rating of plus-0.4).
With Brand/Dirk, opponents are averaging 97.6 points per 48 minutes. That jumps to 104.2 with Kaman/Dirk. “
So in spite of the fact (and another attraction of Kaman) that he and Dirk played together for the German national team, the numbers don’t look good and it is clear from watching that the two of them defensively don’t pair well, a fact that has only been exacerbated by Dirk’s coming back from an injury.
Of course Brand hasn’t provided all the answers either. While he’s generally been solid on defense and the boards, he struggled throughout the early part of the season shooting well below his career lows and only started to turn things around during the stretch when the whole team started to improve and the last couple of games has been ineffective again. Defensively, things have also been better but having Brand up front didn’t stop the Spurs sans Tim Duncan and the Trail Blazers from having their way inside and regardless of his defensive skills, he isn't going to be able to handle bigger or faster 7-footers.
Kaman has been a consistent scorer on the team this year and for the majority of the season was the team’s second leading scorer behind O. J. Mayo and has the team’s highest field-goal percentage among regular rotation players. While his rebounding numbers have been close to career lows, so have his minutes and yet his scoring has been above his career average and fg percentage closer to career highs. But the pairing with Dirk seems to be problematic on defense and Brand as a center doesn’t work consistently either – in fact both Brandan Wright and Bernard James showed in the most recent victory over the Suns why, despite their weaknesses, they deserve time as much as Brand does.
Ian Levy does an incredibly detailed analysis of various combinations for The Two Man Game and also observed:
“Kaman has had a solid individual season putting up 18.8 points per 36 minutes, the second highest of his career, on a TS% of 53.3, his highest since 2008-2009. However, his rebound percentage is the lowest since his rookie season and the Mavericks have generally struggled when he’s on the floor. Dallas’ defense is 3.6 points worse per 100 possessions with Kaman in the mix, a margin that’s ultimately not all that surprising. However, the Mavs’ offense is also 2.9 points worse per 100 possessions with Kaman involved.”
Of course, the cries for more of fan favorites Brandan Wright and Bernard James have been sounding all year and with good reason despite their individual weaknesses. Wright remains far and away the most accurate shooter on the team with a staggering field goal percentage of over 62%, the highest PER by far (21.0) and is the only Maverick who can consistently be seen playing above the rim. Meanwhile, “Sarge” is the sentimental choice for many after serving the country in the Air Force but he has also been the team’s most efficient rebounder and shot blocker per 36 minutes. In spite of their play, Wright has spent much of the season in Rick Carlisle’s doghouse and James has been largely ignored.
But with both Dirk and Kaman out the last two games, both Wright and James had a chance to log significant minutes and they responded. Against Golden State and Phoenix, Wright has 20 points, nine rebounds and four blocks, and was 9-of-15 from the field in 44 minutes. James scored 13 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked one shot and was 5-of-6 from the floor in 35 minutes. In fact, they also spent a good bit of time on the floor together, which makes the next situation ever more surprising.
It is evident to anyone who is watching that Elton Brand is spending his time at center rather than his natural position of power forward; in fact referring to Levy’s chart, a pairing of Kaman and Brand has never occurred, which is strange considering they played together successfully with the L.A. Clippers, taking the team to the playoffs while both of them became All-Stars.
The original promise of Kaman has not really had a chance to be fulfilled and under the circumstances it seems clear that large amounts of floor time paired with Dirk present a defensive liability. However, benching the team’s most consistent scorer doesn’t seem to make sense either, particularly when he can easily spend most of his time on the floor paired with Elton Brand rather than Dirk and unlike trying different combinations of the other bigs, that duo has a proven track record and should also benefit from having another player on the front line—Shawn Marion—who is a superior defender and rebounder.
While there is a lot of benefit and great potential in giving time to both Brandan Wright and Bernard James, particularly in light of Brand struggling with his shot for much of the year, there is a lot to be said for veterans who are still productive. Brand seems to not have lost his chops grabbing rebounds and playing defense, although asking him to guard bigger centers hasn’t worked out well either and his shooting has been hot and cold.
For a team in need of a physical player on the front line who can do the blue-collar work, Brand is still a great choice but the place to play him is at power forward where he belongs, both individually and as a complementary piece to Kaman, whose offensive prowess should not be overlooked and should continue to get time when surrounded by defensive-minded teammates, just the way Dirk has been most successful. When Kaman returns, hopefully Carlisle will take advantage of this historically successful pairing.