DALLAS — When the Dallas Mavericks were putting together a championship season, they played very good defense. All five players worked on a string, each movement was made in sync.
During the regular season, the 2010-11 Mavs ranked seventh in the league in defensive efficiency (102.3 points per 100 possessions). With Tyson Chandler defending the paint, a heady and still-capable Jason Kidd locking down opponents late in games and a spry Shawn Marion taking on all comers, Dallas took out LaMarcus Aldridge, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
But as that title team has been stripped, the defense (revealed by its defensive efficiency) has eroded: 8th in 2011-12 to 20th last season to 23rd now. As not altogether unexpected, Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon rank as the worst defensive backcourt in the league. The up-and-down Samuel Dalembert is the best option to man the middle. The backups are undersized reserves Brandan Wright, a lanky, 6-foot-10 offensive-minded player who missed the first 23 games with a shoulder injury, and 6-foot-7 ground-bound scrapper DeJuan Blair, who actually seized the starting job for a couple of weeks. Marion, 35, is a step slower, but is still asked to switch onto point guards out of necessity.
This challenged defensive mix threatens to exclude a mostly entertaining offensive product from postseason play.
“It’s almost been pretty consistent throughout the year,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “There might be one or two instances I remember that we didn’t score enough to win down the stretch, but other than that, all the other losses, it’s giving up too many points. We gave up 116 again [Thursday], almost 30-point quarters across the board. It’s tough. It puts a lot of pressure on our offense.”
Dallas’ offense can be very good. Yet in the high-powered West, the Mavs’ 103.9 ppg ranks just sixth-best. Their offensive rating of 105.8 (points scored per 100 possessions) ranks seventh. Combine it with the turnstile defense and Dallas’ net rating of 0.9 (the difference in a team’s offensive and defensive rating) leaves it ninth among the 15 squads.
The only other Western Conference team currently occupying a playoff spot (or even above .500) despite a defensive efficiency in the bottom 15 of the league is the one with the league’s best record: the Portland Trail Blazers (at 104.5, just one spot better than Dallas at 22nd). How can that be? The Blazers boast the No. 1 offense — no team makes more 3-pointers per game — and they’re No. 5 in rebounding percentage. Not only can’t Dallas stop anybody, but it also sits 26th in the latter category.
“It’s team defense that has to happen for us to get over the hump and we know that,” sixth man Vince Carter said. “We have to get stops and rebound. We’ve understood that since Day 1 coming into training camp. We just have to get better at it.”
In Thursday’s 116-107 loss to San Antonio, the Mavs (16-13 and eighth in the West) surrendered more than 110 points for the ninth time. In its last four games, Dallas has scored 108.5 ppg, yet is 1-3 because it allowed 113.0 ppg. The Spurs shot 49.3 percent and other than a late two-minute stand that got Dallas back in the game, San Antonio had its way.
“It’s easy to look at our roster and nitpick our challenges,” Carlisle said. “We’ve got age, we’ve got some size issues, we’ve got this, that and the other. If you want to make a laundry list, it’s not hard to make a list. But my job is to be a problem-solver and not a problem-identifier.”
Carlisle said it’s the media’s job to identify problems. This one can be seen a mile away. The Ellis-Calderon pairing, as praiseworthy as it has been as an efficient and effective tandem with Nowitzki, is a sieve defensively. Opposing point guards tear them apart. That’s not so much a surprise, but it is a critical problem that lacks an identifiable answer — at least until guard Devin Harris can finally provide support once he returns from a season-long toe injury.
Among guards that have played at least 20 games and average at least 28.0 mpg, only New Orleans’ Eric Gordon (107.9) owns a worse defensive rating than Calderon (107.3) and Ellis (107.0). The Lakers’ Steve Blake (106.3) and Jodie Meeks (105.8) are the only other tandem to rank among the bottom 10.
Ellis logs 36.8 mpg. When he’s on the floor, Dallas’ defensive rating swells to 107.0. When he’s off the floor, it drops to 98.2. The numbers are similar for Calderon, who averages 31.1 mpg: 107.3 when he’s on the floor and 100.9 when he’s off.
“We’ve got to get it done with the lineup we’ve got,” said Nowitzki, whose on/off defensive rating is rather impressive. “I feel like we have a better team than we’ve had the last two years. I feel we’re letting some games slip away here and there and that’s going to hurt our playoff chances. But, I still think we have enough to make a push at the playoffs.”
Everybody knows from where that push must come.