By Kevin Arnovitz
Why do athletes and fans put such a premium on starting? A player might log only 10 minutes, but there's something about being included in player introductions and having your name listed above the break in the box score rather than being clustered with the reserves and DNP-CDs below the line.
One of those guys playing limited minutes but getting the call for the opening jump this season is Quinton Ross, the Dallas Mavericks' defensive ace on the wing.
Defensive stopper is one of those NBA appellations more easily described than identified. Lots of guys stake claim to the title, but few actually achieve it.
After a few years of developing his defensive chops with the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies, Ross is trying to establish his foothold into that exclusive club, and he's been given an opportunity to do so on a stacked Mavericks team in his hometown of Dallas.
Ross has started each of Dallas' first three games. Though he's averaging a mere 3.3 points in 14 minutes per game, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle has decided to make him a linchpin in a Mavs' stingy defense that, one week into the 2009-10 season, is giving up only 93.5 points per 100 possessions (good for 4th in the league).
How does a guy with a career scoring average of 4.4 points per game and who has never made more than $900,000 per season crack the lineup of a 50-win team?
"He's a really good system player," Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said. "He knows his game, knows his strengths and plays to them."
Among those strengths is Ross' quick lateral movement and his ability to pester some of the NBA's more prolific wing players.
"He's a guy who has studied defense and knows a lot of the tendencies of the better players he guards," Carlisle said.
Ross' emergence as a defensive specialist is ironic when you examine his collegiate numbers. At Southern Methodist University, Ross averaged more than 20 points per game his senior year. After being cut by the Clippers during training camp in 2003, then playing in Belgium, Ross managed to nab a roster spot on the 2004-05 Clippers -- but it wasn't his offensive game that earned him 19 starts in his first NBA season.
"I was just trying to get on the floor my rookie year," Ross said. "And [Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy] said go out there and play some D and when you're open knock down some shots."
Ross' proficiency in knocking down those shots has always been the iffiest part of his game. During the Clippers successful 2005-06 campaign, Ross and Corey Maggette were locked in a Small Forward Controversy. Ross was essential to the Clippers' Top 10 defense, but opponents often sagged off him on the offensive end, effectively playing 5-on-4 against the Clippers. Maggette was the anti-Ross, an efficient, if myopic, scoring machine, but one whose spotty defense cost the Clippers on the other end.
Ultimately, Dunleavy chose to start Ross in crucial spots, particularly against the Western Conference's perimeter studs. Over time, the coach had designs to develop Ross' game into (here's that loaded term) the Clippers' Bruce Bowen.
"You can't have enough guys like Q who work their tail off defensively," Dunleavy said. "He can guard multiple positions and lock up the big perimeter guys. Even if they score, they'll have to work their tail off doing it, which is what you want."
Ross's greatest achievement was the job he did on Carmelo Anthony during the Clippers' 2006 playoff run. In the Clippers' 4-1 first round series win over Denver, Anthony didn't shoot better than 35 percent in any of the five games.
Ross stayed with the Clips for four seasons before moving on to Memphis.
"We miss him," Dunleavy said. "We offered him a guaranteed contract, but his guy wanted more and we just couldn't go any higher," Dunleavy said.
For a team like Dallas, money is rarely an object. Given that Mark Cuban and the Mavericks brass fill their roster 1-through-15 with the best talent in the league, why did they dial Ross' number?
"He's made his reputation in the league as a great defender and it's well-earned," Cuban said. "He's long, athletic, and he's smart. What he doesn't get enough credit for is how active he is."
Take a look at the defensive metrics from last season, and it's easy to see why the data-driven Mavs gravitated to Ross. After Andre Iguodala, Ross ranked second in the league in 2008-09 among guards (if you include Iggy in that category) in defensive plus/minus.
It's an achievement that didn't happen by accident.
"Part of your defensive plus/minus are deflections and your ability to play with different lineups. Quinton brings that."
Ross offers Dallas positional versatility. In addition to being able to blanket top perimeter scorers, Ross is also an expert on-ball defender. Preparation has a lot to do with that.
"You've got to study film," Ross said emphatically. "You pick up guys' tendencies, where they like to catch the ball on the court, whether they like to pull up and shoot."
Ross was reluctant to claim credit for Kobe Bryant's lackluster 6-for-19 performance in Dallas' thrashing of the Lakers at Staples Center Friday night, a game in which Ross played only 13 minutes.
"We had all five guys locked in on him," Ross said.
In a league that's become increasingly accommodating to speedy perimeter players, Ross has a measured perspective of his capabilities. "The thing people have to realize is that you're not going to stop anybody in this league," Ross said. "What you can do is make them work, wear them down as the game goes on."
For Dallas, a team that finished in the bottom half of the NBA in defensive efficiency last season, Ross' brand of grind-it-out defense should come in handy. If he can drain shots from 17 feet and beyond, don't be surprised if that 14 minutes per game figure ticks upward.