Saturday, December 8, 2007

What's Wrong with the Mavericks

What’s Wrong with the Mavericks

Last season the Dallas Mavericks set the NBA ablaze finishing with a 67-15 mark, one of the best regular season records of all time. Then they crashed and burned in the playoffs losing in the first round to a Golden State team that eked into the postseason on the final day of the regular season thanks to a loss by the other team vying for the final playoff spot. There are ugly losses, really ugly losses then there are historically bad losses and that defeat fell into the third category. In addition, the Mav’s playoff meltdown occurred after they choked away an NBA Finals in 2006.

So when they started out 12-8, in ’07-’08, it was reasonable to wonder if something was amiss. That’s a pace for a 49-33 season, something that would lead to dancing in the streets of Manhattan, but far less than what’s expected in Dallas.

There might be something wrong, but nothing shows up on my radar. The Mavericks defense is a bit softer this season so far, but good defenses often take a while to gel. At this point of the ’05-’06 season Detroit, a perennially rugged defensive club also ranked badly in Defensive Efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions), so the Mav’s 20th ranking among 30 teams doesn’t concern me much. On offense, the Mavs can still score on anybody, ranking fifth in Offensive Efficiency.

The Mavs have made some nice changes to their roster bringing in swingman Eddie Jones and pivotman Brandon Bass. Their roster looks very, very sound. So why are they on pace to finish almost 20 wins behind last year’s team?

The answer is twofold. Last year’s team had a much better record than their play indicated. The ’07 Mavericks had a point differential that was consistent with 61 wins not 67 and those things tend to “correct” themselves over time. And this year’s team has a win differential of a 52 win team, not a 49 win one so far. Thus we’re talking about a nine win difference.

That’s easier to explain; the division is much, much tougher. Last season New Orleans was mediocre (a 39-43 record) and Memphis was outright horrible (22-60). This season New Orleans is playing like a powerhouse (13-7) and Memphis is much tougher than their 6-13 record indicates. Their point differential is consistent with a team that’s 9-10. Or to put a finer point on it, Memphis, the last place team in the Southwest Division is playing well enough to be a second or third place team in four of the other five NBA Divisions.

Let’s say that the Mavs are a 58 win club, a 58 win club goes through some stretches where they play like a 49 or 50 win club and some where they look like a 65 win club. It’s the natural statistical distribution of things during a long season.

There’s another unquantifiable thing going on with the Mavs. Last season they approached every game as if it offered redemption for their Finals foldo. This season, they’ve all but said that the regular season is a warm up for the playoffs. If the Nets said that, I’d worry about overconfidence, but the Mavericks have won 57 games or more in five of the last six seasons. They are an elite team that has improved in key ways after almost every season. They look formidable this season too, but formidable isn’t as earth shaking as it used to be.

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