Thursday, March 6, 2008

Jump Shooting Team

In general, folks should not spend too much time worrying about what Dale Hansen says. But this past week he said something on the radio about the Mavericks that I've heard repeatedly for years and I think it needs to be addressed.

Dale said: "The problem is the Mavericks are (still) a jump shooting team."

And then he went on to say that when the shots are falling they are great and we they are not falling they are doomed. This is an argument that became very popular during the Nelson-Nash-Dirk heyday and has been said repeatedly of the Phoenix Suns the last few years as well.

My question is, what team ISN'T a jump shooting team in the end? How would a team qualify as a non-jump shooting team?

I suppose you could come up with a percentage of points scored "in the paint" that transforms a team from "jump shooting" to "non-jump shooting". But what percentage is that?

Suppose you come up with a number like that and identify a certain (low) percentage of NBA teams that qualify. What happens to these teams when they run into a team that is smart enough to clog the lane and take away the "points in the paint?"

Trust me, if your bread-and-butter scoring play involves scoring in the paint, NBA teams are going to adjust to shut you down. How? One word. Zone.

Then what? For that game, that quarter or even those few minutes in a quarter, a team needs to be able to score from the outside. They need to be able to adjust. They need to bring out their jump shooters, set off-the-ball screens, space the floor and get some open shots wherever they can.

Dale Hansen said that the Mavs reliance on the jump shot is why they lost the Finals two years ago to Miami. Dale is, as he often is, wrong.

If you can stomach the experience, go back and watch the tape from the 2006 playoffs. You will see that the Mavs made it to the finals because they learned to score consistently inside the paint. Devin Harris broke down Parker and Nash and scored consistently in the paint, Stackhouse drove the lane, Howard drove the lane and Dirk dominated at the free throw line and drove to the lane in key situations. And then came Miami.

The Hansen's of the world would like to argue that the Mavs went away from what was working in the finals. That the Mavs slipped back to the jump shooting ways and thus doomed themselves.

But if you watch the game, you will see that Miami took the inside away. They put Alonzo, Shaq and Haslem in the lane and in Dirk's face. Dirk tried to go inside and he got swatted away and knocked down to the ground repeatedly. Miami looked at the Mavs gameplan and realized that they had to take the Mavs bread-and-butter away. They commited their defense to shutting down the inside.

With the middle clogged up, the Mavs had to and should have adjusted. In football, if the defense loads up to stop the run, even the most run heavy offense has to open up the playbook and prove they can pass the ball to open up some room for the run. NBA teams face the same delima when the paint is clogged up with "seven foot shot blockers." In this situation, you must find away to score from the outside.

The Mavs failed because their offense wasn't flexible enough to score from the outside consistently. Their shooters wilted under pressure and failed to open up the lanes. Jason Terry, Devin Harris, Josh Howard and Jerry Stackhouse all failed to become threats from the outside. And the Mavericks were doomed on offense.

What Dale needs to realize is that the Mavericks problem isn't that they are a jumpshooting team. Their problem is that they can't be a jumpshooting team when the need arises. Jason Terry is their only real outside shooter other than Dirk.

On the other hand, the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs have proven time and time again that they can play any style. They have enough clutch shooters to break you down if you try to focus your defense on Duncan. If you try to take out their other playmakers, Duncan will slowly destroy you in the paint.

I think Dale can be pretty funny sometimes and has a knack for breaking down social issues in sports like few other in the media. But his actual X's and O's analysis comes up a bit short. Just like too many of the Mavericks shots these days.

Jeff Van Smarty

One moment of the Lakers-Mavs game this past Sunday afternoon really stood out. Late in the game, Lamar Odom was busy clanking some clutch free throws when coach-turned-announcer Jeff Van Gundy dropped a pearl of wisdom.

He pointed out that he didn't like the match up of Brandon Bass trying to block out Kobe Bryant during free throws. He noted that Bryant is a crafty rebounder and could school the inexperienced Bass.

Right on queue, Odom missed the second free throw, Bryant darted around Bass and grabbed the key rebound. Seriously! How did JVG call that? Is Bass really that bad at boxing out on the free throw line? Is Kobe that good at getting offensive rebounds? Is JVG just that lucky?

There was a little luck involved, but Van Gundy deserves a tip of the hat to his insight. I'm sure he got a lot more things wrong during the broadcast, but he got this really important play dead on. And I'm sure plenty of Mavs fans were left shaking their heads wondering why Avery didn't see this match up problem too.

In the middle of a week where Avery's coaching skill and judgment are already in question, this was yet another blow to his credibility.

I wonder, as the rebound was being gathered by Kobe, if Van Gundy's agent was placing a call with Mark Cuban's office and faxing over a copy of his resume?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Seat Warmers Now Available

These days, there is something new at the AAC. Seat Warmers.

Well, actually, seat warmers are not provided for the average fans or even the folks with big hair and courtside seats. This luxury accessory is on just one seat in the whole arena. Who occupies that seat?

Avery Johnson.

Somehow, over the last few years Avery has deftly avoided much direct criticism of his coaching style and ability. Yes, there have been a few rumblings upon occasion, but he has avoided any real heat. And for good reason. The Mavericks have, almost unquestionably, been better daily under the leadership of Avery than they were with Don Nelson.

But with ghosts of the last two playoff collapses hovering over the city and the (re)arrival of Jason Kidd, fans have started applying the heat to Avery.
Is Avery's job really in jeopardy? Of course, nothing of that nature has been said by anyone within the organization. But if you corner any Mavs fan or sports "expert" in the city this week you will find at least a little doubt about Avery.

This week's doubt is largely due to the ending of the Spurs-Mavs gain from a few days ago. Those last 34 seconds have been well chronicled and dissected. To make matters worse, Avery's response to the criticism has probably increased the anxiety of local hoops-heads rather than serving to calm the situation.

Obviously, he can weather the storm of this one incident. But Avery's new "On The Hot Seat" status is not likely to go away anytime soon.

Three seasons of playoff failure have been rationalized thus far by the organization. Most of the post-collapse analysis focused on the problems with the players and the things that could be done to get the right players in place to avoid another collapse.
But the general feeling of local fans going into the 2007-2008 season was that the Mavericks team approached its last chance together. You could almost hear Mark talking to himself on the stairmaster saying "I'll give them one more year. But one more collapse and I'm cleaning house. One more year."

For a Mavs fan, this season has been painful to watch. After witnessing last season's regular season success it is painful to see virtually the same team under achieve on a nightly basis. They haven't been terrible, but they haven't played at the same level. And optimism has been hard to find in the fanbase.
But the late season trade that essentially swapped Devin Harris for Jason Kidd changed the equation. They didn't exactly blow up the team, but they did remove one of the biggest excuses for past failures. More specifically, they finally addressed the gaping hole that had haunted the team since Steve Nash exited in free agency.

Which means that even if Avery successfully washes last week's San Antonio folly under the bridge, when this season ends short of the ultimate goal (which is the most likely outcome given the competition) the heat will almost certainly be turned directly on Avery Johnson.

Sure, they could further shake up the team. They could swap this season's batch of veteran role players with another selection of aging former stars. They could exchange one or two parts with another under achieving team. But if this team can't get it done with Kidd and Dirk leading the way, the pressure from fans, media and most likely the owner is going to be to change something significant.

Dirk is not going anywhere. There are few trade options that include Dirk that would make sense for the Mavericks even if they wanted to get rid of him (and they don't). Terry, Stackhouse, Dampier and even Josh Howard could be floated as trade bait. And if the right trade came along, one or more of those players could be moved to significantly improve the team. But the odds are against a trade involving those players that helps the Mavericks in the short term.

Jason Kidd isn't going anywhere either. This organization has made that mistake before and it is not likely to repeat it. That leaves the head coach on the hot seat.

Would the Mavericks dare enter the 2008-2009 season with essentially the same cast of characters? At the moment, it seems unlikely. The momentum to replace Avery Johnson as the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks has begun.

Will it really come to that?
In comparison... who would have thought that Doc Rivers would survive last season as the Celtics coach?

Avery has certainly done a lot to deserve more time. But he has also made his fair share of mistakes and has been out-coached in numerous key situations.

Mark Cuban has historically been loyal to his employees, almost to a fault. But at what point does he have to choose between loyalty to Dirk and loyalty to his coach? What if the best thing for the best player is a new coach?

I don't know what Cuban will do. But I do know that the the window of opportunity is narrow and unforgiving.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


We begin this column with Moses.

Moses Malone to be specific.  My first NBA memories are of the 80-81 Houston Rockets amazing run to the NBA finals and the force that was Moses Malone.  My basketball memory then shifts to college hoops and the arrival of Akeem Olajuwon with the Houston Cougars.

And yes, there are some bitter memories of the NCAA championship failures.  Bitter, bitter memories.  But lets not dwell down there in the bile.  

I was young, so my basketball focus was not yet honed.  It took another big playoff run to draw my attention again.  The 1985-1986 NBA playoffs once again featured the Houston Rockets, this time lead by Olajuwon and Sampson to the NBA finals.  Once again, they were knocked off by the Boston Celtics and Larry Bird.  And yes, to this day the image of Larry "Legend" brings up a little more of that bile for me.

Nothing against the man.  Heck of a basketball player.  He just played for the wrong team.  And from what I know about him he would respect that opinion.

Despite the beat down handed out by Bird and the following years of Rockets failures, the 1986 playoffs signaled the true beginning of my addiction to basketball.  Admittedly, my fandom simmered for quite a few years but in the early 90's I found myself in college thus a little more free to expand my obsession.

In other words, out of the iron grip of my parents... I got cable.  And suddenly I could watch basketball all of the time.  And not long after that the Rockets made their return to the NBA finals and this time Larryboy (just kidding about the link, try this instead) wasn't there to stop them.  Critics will point out that some dude named Jordan wasn't there either.  But to that I say... don't blame the Rockets for Jordan's own problems.  He should have been there and the critics should give him a little more grief about that.  But that is another story.

Regardless, the Rockets championships in the 90's were huge for me. Hey, folks from Houston have a LOT of bitter sports memories across the board.  Give us a little latitude please.

The late 90's found me living in Dallas and starting to attend Mavericks games because I could finally attend NBA games whenever I wanted.  It is a perk of having a J-O-B.

I wasn't a Mavericks fan then.  I was an NBA fan.  I had the NBA League Pass and watched all kinds of NBA games.  I got hooked on fantasy basketball and that just made it worse (the addiction that is).

Then a funny thing happened.  The Mavericks started to be fun to watch. Don Nelson had drastically rebuilt the team and they weren't exactly good, but they were pretty fun and every once in a while they did themselves proud.  I didn't realize it yet.  But I was turning into a Mavs fan and eventually into a Mavericks season ticket holder.

Then Mark Cuban came on the scene, Dirk and Nash became stars and suddenly other people wanted to go to Mavs games too.

I'm not going to detail my history with the Mavs from 2000 on because, quite frankly, after the last two playoff runs it is just too painful at the moment.  But, the point is that I found myself, quite unexpectedly, a Mavericks fan.

I'm still a Rockets fan.  But it used to be easy to figure out who to root for when the two teams clashed.  Then one game, I realized I was rooting for the Mavs to beat the Rockets.  I'm not quite sure I've come to terms with that yet (and that was several years ago).

So here I am.  Mavs fan and Rockets fan.  All in one.

And in case you are wondering, I classify myself as a respecter of the San Antonio Spurs.  But, like Larryboy, they suffer the incurable problem of being competitors to my teams.  So, I'm no fan of the Spurs.  And I'm sure they can live with that too.

And that is how we got here.  Moses to Akeem to Dirk.

Seems like a good foundation for a basketball column to me.