Head Coach: Rick Carlisle
Team MVP: Dirk Nowitzki (21.6 Pts/6.2 Rebs/2.7 Asts/ 23.6 PER)
First Round Opponent: San Antonio Spurs
Record vs. SAS this season: 0-4
How they got here:
The short answer for how Dallas made the playoffs is, obviously, Dirk, Dirk and more Dirk. Nowitzki has been outstanding this season for Dallas. He’ll probably finish somewhere around fourth or fifth in MVP voting behind LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and possibly Joakim Noah or Steph Curry. It’s even more incredible when you realize this was Dirk’s sixteenth season in the NBA.
I could talk about how good Dirk has been for another 10,000 words, but it takes a team to be successful, even though it doesn’t feel like it at times in the NBA. Head Coach Rick Carlisle has done a good job getting the most out of his players, maximizing their talent, and putting them in the best situation to be successful. This season, Dallas finally got Dirk enough help to stay in games when Dirk had an off-night or when he just needed help carrying the scoring load.
In the longer story of how Dallas made the playoffs, it came down to a three-team race between Phoenix, Dallas, and Memphis for the final two playoff spots in the West. Phoenix dropped three very winnable games down the stretch against San Antonio, Dallas and Memphis. If Phoenix wins any of those three games, the playoffs look a whole lot different. Dallas beat Phoenix and took care of business to get in the playoffs. The Mavs almost won 50 games, which is pretty remarkable for the eighth seed. They definitely deserve to be in the playoffs, and so does Phoenix, but that argument’s for another place and time.
Dirk and Coach Carlisle
I just mentioned two of Dallas’ main strengths in Dirk and his abilities, and Head Coach Rick Carlisle getting the most of his players. Those are probably the most important strengths Dallas has. When Dirk and Carlisle are on point, the Mavs have a great chance to win.
Offensively, Dallas is one of the best teams in the league. They can score with basically anybody in the whole league. This season, the Mavs are ranked eighth in the league in points per game, averaging 104.8 PPG, according to Basketball Reference. When you can score, you always have a chance.
Dallas does most of its offensive damage via basketball’s oldest play in the book, the pick-and-roll. Each player in Dallas’s rotation adds something a little different in the pick-and-roll game, which I will get into a little later. Basically, Dallas runs a different variation high screen-and-roll every time, reading and reacting to what the defense gives them.
The Mavs took a page out of San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich’s handbook with their rotation. The Spurs are famous for having no-name guys step up and fill a role when the team needs it. Dallas isn’t doing exactly what San Antonio does, but it’s very similar. The Mavs have three or more guys capable of filling in at every position, and each guy adds a little something different in their offensive scheme.
At point guard, the Mavs rotate Devin Harris, Jose Calderon, and Monta Ellis, and give them equal opportunities to get into the flow of the game and see who is playing well. On the wing, the Mavs rotate Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, and Jae Crowder in the same way. At center, Brandan Wright, Samuel Dalembert, and DeJuan Blair all split time as well.
None of those rotation players are particularly dominant – or even considered good – at their position, but when you put all their skills together, they add up to be quality players. At the point, Harris is the penetrator/attacker, Calderon is the passer/outside shooter, Ellis is the pull-up shooter/attack-when-going-right player. When you put them all together, they’re a three-tooled player, passer, shooter, attacker. At wing, Carter provides a scoring spark from all over the floor, Marion is the slasher/defender, and Crowder does the dirty work, setting screens, collecting rebounds, and battling on defense. At center, Wright can attack bigger players off the dribble and finish lobs, Dalembert is the defender and rebounder, Blair is the offensive and defensive rebounder and team muscle.
For how well they work together offensively, the Mavs are pretty terrible on defense. One average, Dallas gives up 102.4 PPG, good for 19th in the league, per Basketball Reference. This is a huge problem, especially with the Mavs free-flowing, transition-based offense. If the Mavericks aren’t scoring at a good clip, they really have no chance in any playoff game because their defense isn’t good enough to stop anyone.
Weird (Stupid?) Situational Lineups
On April 1, Steph Curry’s game-winning jumper over Jose Calderon at the buzzer against the Mavs raised a lot of questions about Coach Carlisle’s situational lineups. Carlisle could have easily subbed in Harris or a bigger defender on Curry, but he chose to leave Calderon, one of the worst defenders in the league, on one of the best shooters in the league, Curry, and the Mavs got burned.
Then against Memphis in the last game of the season, Carlisle went with the Blair/Wright combination most of the fourth quarter and left the bigger and better defensive Dalembert on the bench while Memphis pounded the ball inside. Also in the crucial fourth quarter, Dallas had the ball twice when they were down three points in the last 30 seconds, and Carlisle left Calderon, a 45 percent 3-point shooter this season, on the bench, which left Monta Ellis (33% 3PT) and Devin Harris (32% 3PT) on the court.
Luckily, Ellis hit a three to tie it up, so no one raised any questions about it. You just have to wonder why this keeps happening with the Mavs. Those kinds of lineup miscues can’t happen in the playoffs if you expect to win.
Inconsistent Second Option on Offense
Another glaring weakness for Dallas is their lack of a consistent number two option on offense. Almost every other playoff team has two or three guys who can step up and carry the team in a game. For Dallas, unfortunately, no one has really established themselves has the clear number two option on offense.
Monta Ellis is the second best option Dallas has, and it’s not like he’s been bad this season. I’d argue he’s having the best season of his career overall. But, can the Mavs rely on Monta to carry them when Dirk is being doubled every possession? Monta dropped 37 on the Suns in Dallas’s biggest win of the season, and he’ll need to do more of that in the playoffs if Dallas wants to advance.
Playoff Ceiling: Reaching The Western Conference Finals
Like we saw in the Western Conference Playoffs last season, any player could get injured at any time. Dallas isn’t good enough to take down the Spurs when they’re at full strength. For Dallas to make a deep run, they’ll need to stay healthy and they’ll need the Spurs and any other opponents to lose a key player or two.
Is it likely Dallas will make the conference finals? No, of course not, but funny things happen in sports. A twist of an ankle here, an awkward fall there, and Dallas could steal a series or two, but that’s really all they can do. Dallas has exhausted too much energy in the latter part of the season to have much left in the tank for a shot at the finals. The West is wide open, but Dallas has put too many miles on old legs down the stretch. And, quite frankly, I don’t think Dallas is good enough overall to win three straight series. One or two? Maybe, but definitely not three.
What will actually happen:
Dallas will lose in five games in the first round.
Much to the chagrin of the Mavs and their fans, they’ll take on their “big brother” in the San Antonio Spurs in the first round matchup. If only Dallas could have pulled off a little magic against Memphis in the season finale, the team and fans would be in much higher spirits. Matching up with the Spurs in the first round is one notch above missing the playoffs for Mavs fans on their list of “Worst things that could happen this NBA season.”
As I touched upon earlier, Dallas and San Antonio play similar styles of basketball, a free-flowing, space-the-floor offense and a corralling, change-the-look often-type defense. Unfortunately for Dallas, San Antonio does it consistently better than them.
Coach Popovich, like so many times before, is going to throw a number of guys at Dirk and dare the other Mavs players step up to win the series. Dallas, then, will be forced to rely on Ellis, Harris, Calderon, Carter, and Marion to carry the load. Dallas might shoot lights out and steal a game, but relying on role players to carry the team offensively and making a ton of threes never seems to pay off in the playoffs.
By Dirk’s sheer will, I think Dallas will win a game, maybe two, depending on Tony Parker’s health status. Dirk’s too good of a player, and he has too much pride to get swept. Plus, the Mavs are too good to lose eight straight games this season to the Spurs, but they’re not good enough to take the series to seven games.