Less than a month ago, the Dallas Mavericks were an afterthought when it came to assessing the prime challengers to the Lakers in the Western Conference.
In their last game before the All-Star break, the Nuggets blasted the Mavericks 127-91 in Denver. It was the fifth loss in seven games for Rick Carlisle's team. Dallas charged to a 25-11 start this season and for a good part of the first half of the campaign, the Mavs stood second in the West, though far behind Los Angeles. Gradually, Dallas fell back to the pack. Its 7-9 stretch wasn't terrible, but in the ultra-competitive environment of the Western Conference, it was enough to push them into fourth place and in danger for falling lower. At the same time, Denver and Utah became the sexy picks to challenge the Lakers.
During the All-Star break, the Mavericks kicked off the hectic week that led up to the Feb. 18 trade deadline by dealing underachieving swingman Josh Howard, solid but undersized Drew Gooden and role players James Singleton and Quinton Ross to the Wizards for two-time All-Star Caron Butler, underrated center Brendan Haywood and defensive specialist DeShawn Stevenson. The move didn't do much in terms of lowering Dallas' league-high weighted age of 31.5 years of age--1.4 years older than Boston, the NBA's second-most gray-haired roster. What it did to was make the Mavericks virtually unbeatable.
In the first game after the trade, Dallas went into an offensive shell in the third quarter against the exuberant young Oklahoma City Thunder, scoring just 11 points in the third quarter and shooting a season-low 32 percent for the game. Oklahoma City won 99-86, dropping the Mavericks to 32-21. That was the Thunder's seventh-straight win and pulled it within a half-game of Dallas for fourth in the West. It looked like a classic case of an old team fading and a young team breaking out.
Oklahoma City hasn't exactly gone into the tank, but Dallas hasn't lost since. The Mavericks were a bit listless on Wednesday when the 7-56 Nets came calling, but still posted relatively comfortable 96-87 win, the team's 13th win in a row. That matches Cleveland for the league's longest winning streak this season. Dallas has closed within 2.5 games of the Lakers for the top spot in the West, though they are still locked in a battle royale with the Jazz and Nuggets. Dallas will be heavy favorites in its next two games, home dates against New York and Chicago. After that, the floundering Celtics will visit the Big D. By the time Dallas makes its trip to New Orleans for a game on March 22, the Mavericks could well be playing to match the franchise record of 17 straight wins.
"The new guys are (13-1). That's pretty good," Jason Kidd said in Chicago on Saturday. "For the new guys, they brought a lot of energy for the guys that were already here. When you look back, defense is the reason we've been winning these games. We've got guys that understand how to play. Butler is an All-Star. Nobody talks about Stevenson, but he's been playing great for us."
Kidd is right about the defensive improvement. As it always happens with long streaks like this, both the offense and the defense improve, but the most marked improvement has come on the defensive end. The 106.6 Defensive Rating the Mavericks have posted in their last 13 games is 3.9 points better than in their first 53 outings. Now the question isn't whether the Mavericks are too old, it's if this is the best Dallas team ever.
"We're definitely deeper than the team that went to the Finals," Dirk Nowitzki said. "The only problem is that the league is also better, the top teams are better."
The age issue was one of the things that stood out to me as I examined the Mavericks in the preseason. The last few years, we've watched the Spurs walk that line between being productively experienced and lacking the energy and athleticism that comes with young legs. I asked Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in an e-mail interview before the season if the team's age was a concern.
"No," Cuban wrote.
Fair enough. But in an interview with the Sacramento Bee, he said prior to the trade with the Wizards, he was considering tearing his team down.
"Strip it down," Cuban said. "Dump as much as you can other than Dirk."
Thankfully for Mavericks fans, that's not the course that Cuban ultimately chose. In fact, you have to wonder if Cuban is even capable of waving the white flag in that manner.
While no one can predict a streak of this breadth, it isn't exactly shocking that the trade helped the Mavericks. What's been truly surprising is just how fast it has come together. Even though Dallas has had little opportunity to practice and has battled injuries during the streak to Haywood, Butler and Erick Dampier, the Mavericks' on-court chemistry has been flawless. Carlisle thinks the reason is pretty simple.
"We're a veteran team and we've got one of the all-time great point guards running the show," Carlisle said. "A lot of this stuff, it starts with Kidd and Nowitzki."
Carlisle's team is arguably the most fundamentally-sound team in the NBA. That's a scouty-type statement that is hard to quantify, but I wanted to focus on this aspect of Dallas' style of play, because I think it really is at the heart of what makes this Mavericks team so good. So to illustrate that, I offer the Norman Dale Index.
This is a junk stat incarnate, but that doesn't mean there isn't a story in the numbers that follow. What are the statistical manifestations of fundamental basketball? This is what I asked myself when trying to create the Dale Index. I actually heard Gene Hackman's voice in my head as I was thinking about it. I decided on five criteria: taking care of the ball, blocking out on the defensive boards, making free throws, contesting opponents' shots and moving the ball on offense.
So I used offensive turnover percentage, defensive rebound percentage, opponent effective field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and team touches per minute. I compared all of this figures to league averages, then mashed them together into what I'm calling the Norman Dale Index.
Team TOV% DRB% eFG%v FT% TOUCH DALE
Mavericks .123 .739 .495 .818 .0174 5.231
Hawks .112 .728 .500 .764 .0169 5.212
Lakers .124 .747 .479 .769 .0168 5.168
Bucks .124 .769 .487 .748 .0167 5.146
Spurs .129 .757 .485 .744 .0170 5.104
Jazz .142 .750 .491 .738 .0189 5.091
Blazers .125 .745 .501 .790 .0160 5.088
Hornets .125 .738 .517 .789 .0166 5.085
Nuggets .134 .725 .495 .774 .0171 5.046
Raptors .128 .730 .509 .763 .0169 5.044
Cavaliers .138 .771 .477 .725 .0169 5.041
Rockets .134 .743 .502 .763 .0169 5.030
Heat .127 .750 .485 .750 .0155 5.030
Suns .137 .706 .496 .768 .0177 5.025
Bulls .135 .741 .482 .761 .0163 5.025
Thunder .143 .728 .474 .794 .0162 5.004
Pacers .141 .735 .490 .779 .0166 4.999
Knicks .131 .722 .519 .771 .0168 4.997
Magic .137 .775 .477 .725 .0158 4.986
Celtics .150 .740 .480 .739 .0175 4.970
76ers .135 .730 .513 .773 .0163 4.963
Warriors .137 .693 .519 .772 .0175 4.958
Wizards .135 .726 .500 .761 .0156 4.925
Kings .139 .726 .503 .728 .0165 4.897
Clippers .148 .734 .501 .730 .0171 4.892
Grizzlies .138 .730 .517 .734 .0162 4.871
Pistons .133 .739 .512 .715 .0156 4.871
Bobcats .152 .746 .495 .747 .0160 4.852
T-wolves .146 .740 .519 .740 .0163 4.845
Nets .142 .714 .518 .778 .0154 4.832
NOTE: Statistics through March 5
So if you buy this method as being a reasonable proxy for determining the league's most-fundamentally sound teams, then you can declare Dallas as the team most likely to end up in a film study at a coach's clinic. Overall, I think the list passes the sniff test, though it was troubling to see Larry Brown's Bobcats rank so low.
"We try to take care of the ball. We're unselfish," Kidd said when I asked him about fundamentals. "It doesn't matter what play is drawn up, we know somebody is going to get a good look. We've got (lots) of guys on the floor that can knock down shots. Sometimes, when you look at the fundamentals of the game, that's what helps you win."
Kidd is still at the heart of everything Dallas does. Nowitzki is and will remain Dallas' franchise player, but it's the 36-year-old Kidd that makes this engine hum. Despite a usage rate that hovers around 15 percent, my NBAPET system has Kidd on pace to be credited with 16.4 Wins Produced this season--the 11th-best total in the NBA.
"No question (he's one of the all-time greats)," Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said. "He's got an incredible feel for the game. He's strong, fast and a student of the game. He makes all the big plays. He's fun to play with because he's always looking to pass. He makes the game easy for everybody else."
What does the future hold for the Mavericks? It's hard telling where the current streak is going to take them. For one thing, they haven't been all that dominant during the streak, outscoring their victims by 8.4 points per 100 possessions. That's less than the figure put up by the Cavaliers over the full season. Dallas' largest margin of victory has been 13 points during its streak. The other 12 wins have been by 10 points or less.
Then again, isn't that what you'd expect from the NBA's most fundamentally-sound team--the ability to execute and win close games? The Mavericks are 16-5 in games decided by five points or less this season. So while Dallas may not yet be in the favorite's role in the chase for the NBA title, the other teams in the West are going to have to beat the Mavericks. They aren't going to beat themselves.
Stevenson, one of the newest Mavericks, has been in the league for 10 seasons now, and he's been on some pretty good teams, too. But he doesn't think he's been part of a more sound team.
"Only in my Utah days, when we had John Stockton, Karl Malone and Byron Russell, was it close," Stevenson said. "Even then, I don't think we were as talented as this team. I haven't been on team this good."
You can follow Bradford's Twitter feed for in-game comments and a whole lot of boring life detail at @bbdoolittle.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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