A season that had been going exactly to plan for the Dallas Mavericks has been hampered the last two weeks by injuries. While Dirk Nowitzki's sprained knee has been painful in the short term, leading to the Mavericks' first three-game losing streak of the season, Nowitzki will be back in the lineup before long. The same cannot be said of starting small forward Caron Butler, who is out for the season after rupturing his right patella tendon on Saturday in Milwaukee.
Trying to determine the impact of Butler's injury from a statistical perspective is somewhat tricky. Individually, he has been unspectacular this season. Though Butler is Dallas' third-leading scorer, his middling True Shooting Percentage (52.3 percent) and below-average rebounding mean that he's rated as nothing better than replacement level.
On the other hand, Butler has been part of a highly successful Mavericks starting lineup. As a result, Dallas has been 7.4 points better per 100 possessions with Butler on the floor, per BasketballValue.com. The pertinent question is how much of that can be attributed to Butler and how much has to do with the players around him--especially Nowitzki, whose +26.1 net plus-minus is best in the league.
When Nowitzki returns, Shawn Marion (currently starting at power forward) will presumably take Butler's place in the starting lineup. That should work out just fine for the Mavericks. While Marion has a terrible net plus minus (-16.6 points per 100 possessions), that is largely attributable to being on the floor when Nowitzki is not. To compare Butler and Marion on a level playing field, let's take a look at the performance of the team's most common lineups that involve both players--the starting lineup and a more common closing fivesome with Jason Terry in place of DeShawn Stevenson at shooting guard:
Lineup Butler Marion
Kidd-Stevenson-Nowitzki-Chandler +24.2 +33.5
Kidd-Terry-Nowitzki-Chandler +16.4 +18.5
Lo and behold, in both cases Dallas is slightly better off with Marion and not Butler. The minutes samples are small enough that these numbers are hardly conclusive, but add in Marion's superior individual numbers and the Mavericks are unlikely to suffer in terms of replacing Butler with Marion.
What could be an issue, however, is who replaces Marion's minutes. Dallas does not have a third true small forward on the roster. DeShawn Stevenson has started at the position the last two games, and while he will presumably move back to his typical two-guard spot when Nowitzki gets healthy, expect Stevenson to see plenty of action as a three the rest of the way. Rick Carlisle can also put rookie Dominique Jones at the position or use Jason Kidd as part of a three-guard lineup, which will help make room in the rotation for Rodrigue Beaubois when he gets healthy.
In pure talent terms, the Mavericks should be fine. Still, there is reason to worry that the fill-ins at small forward will be problematic. None is bigger than 6'5", which takes some of the teeth out of the zone defense Dallas has used with its second unit. The Mavericks benefited from having the length of Marion on the wings to contest shots and cover space; putting him in that position now will require Carlisle to be creative in juggling his rotations. Even in man-to-man, the lack of size at small forward creates matchup issues Dallas previously did not have.
Even before Butler went down, there was speculation that the Mavericks might try to force their way into the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes. That scuttle will surely only increase now. Anthony would fit in well in Dallas, and giving up the necessary young pieces would be a minor cost for an aging Dallas team whose window of contention is limited.
Odds are that the Mavericks don't have enough to get such a deal done, but they can still use the trade market to help fill the void left by Butler's injury. Because of Marion's presence, all Dallas really needs is a backup small forward who can handle 15-20 minutes a night--maybe more to allow Marion to slide down to the four at times. Those kind of players are readily available, especially if the Mavericks are willing to take on a longer-term contract in exchange for one of their expiring deals (including Butler's).
The recent losses, combined with Butler's injury, have made it unlikely that Dallas can make a run at the San Antonio Spurs for the top spot in the Western Conference. Right now, the Mavericks should be focused on locking up the No. 2 seed and ensuring home-court advantage for the second round of the playoffs. They currently lead the L.A. Lakers and the Utah Jazz by 2.5 games for that spot, and the difficult upcoming Lakers schedule gives Dallas an excellent shot at finishing second. Patching up the small-forward position behind Marion will go a long way toward making that reality.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.