Author: Rob Mahoney

Dallas Mavericks v Washington Wizards

How they can win it all: The Dallas Mavericks


Of all of this year’s contending teams, the Dallas Mavericks are perhaps the most improbable champions. Their trials begin in the first round, as the Mavs are rewarded for winning the West’s No. 3 seed with a tough matchup against the Portland Trailblazers. Should they take care of business against Portland, Dallas would likely have to fight through Los Angeles, followed by either San Antonio or Oklahoma City, only to meet perhaps their fiercest competition yet in the NBA Finals. The road to a title is a tough one for any team, but even more so for Dallas; the Mavs just don’t have the statistical résumé of their contending contemporaries, making them the underdog in pretty much every series beyond the first round (or possibly even in the first round, depending on who you ask).

Still, Dallas didn’t win 57 games by some fluke, and they aren’t merely referred to as contenders just to create cross-Conference symmetry. At various points in the season, the Mavs played at a championship-worthy level on both ends of the court. They just need to tap into what it is that made them great earlier in the year. We know Dallas is capable, even if they didn’t play their best basketball in the final weeks of the regular season; here’s how the Mavs can turn that capability into their first ever NBA title:

1. Align a productive offense with an effective defense

Dallas began the 2010-2011 campaign as a highly effective defensive team with a struggling offense, transitioned into a highly effective defensive team with a fairly efficient offense, became a middling team rendered powerless by injuries, and then settled in as an inconsistent defensive team with an efficient offense. It’s been an interesting ride, to say the least.

Yet all of the ingredients are there for the Mavs. They’ve shown they can lock down on D, and their latest successes have come by way of efficient scoring. They just need to find a way to play solid basketball on both ends at the same time, something the Mavs haven’t really been able to do for a significant stretch all season. Caron Butler’s absence certainly makes things far more difficult than they could have been, but this is the hand Dallas was dealt. It’s up to those healthy enough to play to return to the root of their early season success without compromising the integrity of their offense — a tall order, but hardly impossible.

2. Get the most out of Rodrigue Beaubois

Even though the defensive end has been more problematic for the Mavs of late, a shot in the arm on offense couldn’t hurt. Theoretically, that’s where we could throw in an “Enter Rodrigue Beaubois,” but the second-year guard clearly has no sense of theatrical timing. Beaubois made his long-awaited return from a lingering foot injury soon after Caron Butler had been ruled out for the remainder of the regular season, a fortunate development for a Maverick team in need of Beaubois’ offensive skills. Yet since returning, Beaubois has been largely underwhelming; while slotted at either guard position, Beaubois has wobbled between being overly tentative to trying to force the action. That inability to find a stable middle ground may have cost Beaubois a spot in the rotation for the playoffs, too, as Rick Carlisle opted to remove the erratic — but intriguing — guard from the starting lineup for the Mavs’ final regular season game.

Still, Carlisle will have to reverse course in desperation if the Mavs aren’t able to revive their depressed defense. Beaubois still has the potential to be a series changer if he can center himself, and Dallas will likely need him to bring tangible offensive benefit if they’re to go on a deep playoff run. Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion have become the only stable scorers in the Mavs’ rotation, and if Beaubois could balance the struggles of Jason Terry or Jason Kidd with a productive outing once in awhile, it could go a long way toward relieving Nowitzki and Marion from excessive defensive pressure.

3. Keep Tyson Chandler on the floor

Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi are a fairly strong tandem as far as reserve centers go, but Tyson Chandler is just on another level in terms of his defensive impact. The reason Dallas was able to make such a substantial improvement on defense early in the season was mostly due to Chandler’s timely rotations; though Haywood and Mahinmi make honest attempts to protect the rim, neither is Chandler’s peer in regard to their ability to slide over and contest penetration. The difference between having Chandler in the lineup and either Haywood or Mahinmi is statistically palpable; not only are the Mavs 3.37 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Chandler in the game, but a more thorough look at their performance reveals that Dallas’ worst defensive showings coincide with Chandler’s lowest minute totals.

Rick Carlisle isn’t keeping Chandler’s minutes low by choice; because of his defensive role and physical style, Chandler tends to pick up fouls rather quickly. It’s essential that he avoids cheap, unnecessary fouls that would limit his playing time in the postseason, because the Mavs just aren’t the same defensive team without him on the court. However, it may also be prudent for Carlisle to be slightly less rigid in his approach toward Chandler’s fouls. In order to maximize his center’s minutes and effectiveness, it may not always be wise to pull him from the game, even when he picks up two personals in the first quarter or three in the first half. After all, doing so only creates an artificial cap on Chandler’s minutes when there needn’t be one.

The double-whammy: Chandler is also a far more useful offensive player than Haywood and Mahinmi, as he’s able to do both the little things (set better screens, catch the ball on the perimeter without being flustered) and the major things (convert offensive rebounds, finish alley-oops, hit the occasional elbow jumper) to facilitate the offense better than his center teammates. With that kind of two-way impact, foul trouble in a game or two could potentially turn a series. Dallas’ margin for error will be small even in the first round, and there’s no way the Mavs can live up to their potential with Chandler on the bench.

How they can win it all: The Miami Heat

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat

Forget the narrative. Forget the plot that turned LeBron James into a villain for changing zip codes, forget the half-baked media criticism without warrant, and forget the lazy reactions to Miami’s relative struggles at various points in the season. This Heat team is positively fantastic, and though they don’t come to the playoffs without flaws, they also have a legitimate chance of marching through the Sixers, the Celtics, and the Bulls all the way to the NBA Finals. The Heat aren’t just that talented, they’re that good. So ditch the narrative baggage for now; it’ll be waiting for you to pick it up on the other side, and it’d be a shame for a good story to get in the way of even better basketball. Here are the reasons why the Heat, after a long season under the microscope, can win the whole damn thing:

1. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade

Let’s get the easy one out of the way first: the playoffs are the time for the NBA’s best players to do their thing, and the Heat are packing more star power than every other team in the league. Given Miami’s probable opponents the rest of the way, it’s likely that the Heat will have the two best players on the floor in every game during their postseason run. That doesn’t guarantee them any wins, but it certainly gives them an incredible advantage in attempting to earn them. Miami may lack consistent scoring on its periphery, but perhaps the Heat’s lack of productive balance will matter even less in the postseason; James and Wade are tremendous players who contribute a ton on both ends of the court, and when we throw in Chris Bosh for good measure, they’re as tough an out as there is in the league.

2. Smothering defense

The defensive tone starts with James and Wade, but the Heat on the whole have been one of the top defensive teams in the NBA this season. However, the internet highlight factory has led to a general misunderstanding of the way Miami Ds up; even though James and Wade are adept at jumping passing lanes to ignite a potent fast break, the Heat just don’t create all that many turnovers. Instead, the Heat regulars force their opponents into difficult looks and contest shots heavily without fouling. The Miami defense is quick and flexible, which empowers them to recover and challenge, even when an opponent claims a position of advantage. The Heat are quick to help in order to completely swarm opponents, and have one of the most oppressive half-court defenses in the league as a result.

Additionally, the Heat are among the best defensive rebounding teams in basketball. Chris Bosh, Erick Dampier, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas all do good work on the defensive glass, but the key for Miami is the board work of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Mike Miller, all of whom are stellar rebounders for their positions. All in all, the Heat grind opponents into the ground by challenging every shot, and then clean the glass to ensure that the only shot opponents get is their initial, heavily contested one. Most championship runs are founded on the ability to execute consistently on defense, and Erik Spoelstra has his team prepared to suffocate their playoff opponents.

3. Efficient offense

As good as the Heat are on defense, they’ve been even more effective on the offensive end; Miami scored more points per possession than all but two other teams this season.

The key to Miami’s offense is the allocation of shots to the most efficient players and the most efficient zones on the floor. James, Wade, and Bosh take a lion’s share of the Heat’s shot attempts, and thus score a lion’s share of the points. That only makes sense considering that all three players can create quality shots, shoot around 50 percent from the field in the process, and are capable of drawing a ton of fouls to boost their productivity. Miami posted the third highest free throw rate in the league this season almost entirely because of their three stars, and those frequent trips to the line provide a reliable source of efficient scoring.

Beyond James, Wade, and Bosh, Miami’s role players rely heavily on the most efficient shots in basketball. Erick Dampier and Joel Anthony attempt layups, dunks, and put-backs almost exclusively. Mike Miller, James Jones, and Mike Bibby shoot mostly open three-pointers. The only players really forcing the issue are those capable of balancing their efforts with high efficiency, and the Heat have been incredibly productive as a result. Miami’s offense may not be as fluid as some would like, but the offensive production speaks for itself and will continue to do so throughout the postseason.

The Atlanta Hawks will soon be a playoff lock

Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Atlanta Hawks
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With a win tonight, the Atlanta Hawks have a chance to lock up a spot in the playoffs. As we know, merely making an appearance in the postseason cures all ills; no malady can withstand the tide of good feelings that comes from playing in bonus basketball games, and the Hawks will be reborn again as Phoenixes once Game 82 is in the books. Right?

Cue Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Normally [securing a playoff spot] would be a footnote considering that a postseason berth has been a formality for a while. But with the way things are going for the Hawks, making it official would give them something to feel good about. “For the psyche, it would be great,” coach Larry Drew said Friday, “having gone through what we have gone through this month.”

It actually has been longer than that: Starting with a 117-83 loss to Philadelphia on Feb. 8, the Hawks have lost 14 of 21 games. They are 4-8 this month despite playing 10 home games. That loss to Philadelphia is one of three at home by at least 30 points this season. If the Hawks (40-32) earn 42 victories they would become the only winning team in NBA history to suffer that many lopsided home losses, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

…After an initial improvement in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession) following the trade for guard Kirk Hinrich last month, the Hawks are struggling to slow opponents. Four of their past five opponents have scored more than 100 points, including middling offensive teams Chicago and Philadelphia. The Hawks’ offense has regressed, too. Last season the Hawks were No. 3 in the NBA in offensive efficiency. After ranking in the top third of the 30-team league for most of this season, they’ve slipped to 20th.

As bad as the numbers look, the Hawks’ intangibles have been worse. Drew said the team is “fragile” and gives in to adversity. Forward Josh Smith said the Hawks don’t back up each other. Horford said they need to be mentally tougher. Guard Joe Johnson has seemed most despondent, lamenting after the past two losses that all the players’ talk hasn’t resulted in action.

Playing the playoffs is, in itself, an accomplishment. But for a team as troubled as this year’s Hawks, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. Securing a postseason berth not only fails to solve those items in Cunningham’s laundry list in his final paragraph, but it also won’t repair Atlanta’s broken rotations, magically put the ball in Al Horford’s hands, or prevent the Hawks from settling into poor isolation possessions. This is a playoff team and nothing more, and considering the same could be said of the Hawks of the last three seasons, it seems safe to say that the franchise has settled into a comfortable mediocrity.

The Hawks need work. From Larry Drew’s rotation to Josh Smith’s body language, this team is in need of change in a big way, and that’s not going to come overnight or even over a few weeks. It will require superficial adjustments, sure, but also substantive ones; a subtle re-allocation of shots or minutes won’t solve the Hawks’ problems or make them contenders. It’s going to take creative financing and actual player movement for Atlanta to make any kind of legitimate step forward, and unfortunately for Drew, it might possibly require a new head coach. It’s not Drew’s fault that his perimeter defenders can’t stay in front of their defensive assignments, but it’s on him that some of Atlanta’s more effective players stay glued to the bench while regulars do things I can only hope he didn’t ask them to do. There’s no system of accountability in Atlanta, and that’s a damning problem.

The Hawks may make the playoffs today, but as Cunningham noted, it should only be a formality. Atlanta’s entire campaign is something of a formality these days, and the same will be said of every subsequent one until this roster undergoes significant changes.

Tyson Chandler sees home loss to San Antonio as a turning point for the Dallas defense

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Last Friday, the San Antonio Spurs went into Dallas and rocked the Mavericks on their home court. The final margin was just six points after a late-game flurry from the Mavs, but the Spurs were in control throughout. San Antonio put together an impressive offensive showcase, as the Spurs’ “Big Three” combined for 80 points on just 61 shot attempts. Every Maverick run was met with an equal or superior response, and though Dallas was able to execute a few strategies that were effective on a micro level, the game was ultimately a defensive failure.

Maverick center Tyson Chandler still sees the value in such a letdown, though. In an appearance on The Ben and Skin Show on 103.3 FM ESPN Radio in Dallas, Chandler reflected on the Mavs’ poor defensive performance of late, and how their reached something of a nadir in the game against San Antonio:

“…we were going into a stretch where we had been playing some bad basketball defensively and it went right into the San Antonio game. Sometimes it takes a wakeup call like that so you can say okay we can’t win that way and we have to get back to the things that we saw in training camp and that’s the way that we’re going to win. Even though they hurt sometimes when you take a loss it’s actually better for the team.”

Transcription via Sports Radio Interviews.

Chandler could be right. I’m sure the loss to Spurs was a wake-up call in a sense; if nothing else, it was a crystallization of the Mavs’ regression on defense that was impossible to ignore. It also definitely served as some kind of alert for Chandler on a personal level, as the Maverick center fouled out after just 22 minutes, finishing the game with only three points and five rebounds. That’s not quite good enough for a big game against one of the top teams in the league (and a rival, to boot).

Yet Dallas followed up their bounce-back win over Golden State with another poor defensive effort against Minnesota. Anthony Randolph, who has spent most of this season riding the bench for the Knicks and then the Wolves, dropped a career high 31 points on Chandler’s Mavs on Thursday night while shooting 14-of-20 from the field. That’s not exactly indicative of a defense that’s fully woken up from its in-season nap.

Perhaps that outing was an aberration for the new, post-Spurs-loss Mavs, but we have every reason to be skeptical. Dallas has been trending downward defensively since January, and though Chandler once had his team performing at an elite level on that end, they have yet to really recapture that early season magic.

Rudy Gay has successful surgery on his left shoulder

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The Memphis Grizzlies have announced that Rudy Gay, who was injured during a game against the Sixers last month, has undergone surgery to reset his partially dislocated shoulder, per the Associated Press. Gay’s plan to have surgery was announced earlier this week, but the actual procedure was performed today, and has brought a complete termination to Gay’s season.

It’s a damn shame, really. Gay had made some nice adjustments to his game, and showed real maturation in his approach and performance. The Grizzlies are having a renaissance year of sorts as well, and are likely to make the playoffs for the first time in five years. Gay is a big reason why, but thanks to his injury and today’s surgery, he won’t actually be able to suit up to compete for a chance — however remote — at a first-round upset.

Gay and these Grizzlies aren’t going away, though. It’s hard to predict what the Western Conference will look like next season, but Memphis is a team of young, productive players and has a stable core. Some pieces may be moved in the off-season or early next year (O.J. Mayo’s exodus seems almost inevitable at this point), but the foundation of Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley will remain and just as importantly, remain productive.

How exactly the Grizzlies plan to propel themselves upward into contention is another question entirely, but if Gay can repeat his performance from this season or even improve upon it, he’ll likely have a chance to make his playoff debut next year.