Killer Lineup: Dirk and the D
March, 21, 2012
By Kevin Arnovitz
PG Jason Kidd | SG Vince Carter | SF Shawn Marion | PF Dirk Nowitzki | C Brendan Haywood
Minutes Played: 154
Offensive Rating: 107.4 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 84.6 points per 100 possessions
How it works offensively
It would be insulting to call the Mavericks' offense rudimentary, but when you cue up the tape and watch a stream of possessions with this group of guys, one thing is so readily apparent:
They make basketball easy.
There's rarely a wasted movement or pass, and each time this Dallas unit crosses the time line, it has a singular purpose: It wants to extend your defense -- and it's going to use Dirk Nowitzki to do it.
It all starts with feeding Nowitzki at his favorite spot on the right side of the floor. Ever since Karl Malone retired, we've heard coaches and analysts refer to the "Karl Malone area" just off the mid-left post. Pretty soon, the "Dirk spot" off the right elbow will become commonplace for basketball commentators and geographers.
Most nights, the Mavs have a matchup advantage with Nowitzki, and they'll get him the ball promptly with either a quick entry pass or a pick-and-pop. Against more advanced defenses -- or just to switch things up -- Kidd will run a little misdirection on the left side (maybe with Shawn Marion), while Brendan Haywood frees up Nowitzki by pinning his defender with a down screen.
Once Nowitzki has the ball in his hands, he can feast on a shorter or less-capable defender. He'll bounce off his left foot, kick with his right and drain fadeaways from that spot all night.
Send a double-team at Dirk, and the gamesmanship begins. Nowitzki is 7 feet tall and he's been doing this basketball thing for a while now, so an extra defender doesn't faze him. Send that guy from the top of the floor, and Nowitzki will find Vince Carter or Kidd.
The Vinsanity ended a long time ago, but Carter is still capable of hitting a wide-open shot or attacking a rotating defender. As for Kidd, whose long-range shot is just beginning to reappear after its prolonged absence, he'll either attempt an open jumper or, more often, quickly identify where there's an opportunity.
Marion is the wild card on the floor for this lineup. After many seasons as a freakishly athletic curio with a wonky release on his shot, something interesting has happened -- Marion has become one of the more indispensable two-way players in the game in the half court. When Nowitzki creates defensive chaos for opponents, Marion is often the guy who will read the floor and exploit an opening. Sometimes, it's a backdoor cut along the baseline to the rim, where Kidd, Carter or Nowitzki will find him. Other times, Marion will rub his defender off a teammate at the left elbow, catch the ball on the move and finish.
There are plenty of other reliable options for this unit in the half court. They like to use a pick-and-roll on the left side between Kidd and Haywood, with Carter as a post option against smaller defenders. Haywood gets a few duck-ins because teams are often forced to rotate to Dirk from the baseline, or just choose to take their chances by playing off the center.
This unit still hasn't played 200 minutes together, as Haywood's playing time varies. Ian Mahinmi continues to develop, while Haywood has coped with a series of nagging injuries (he's currently suffering from a mild knee sprain).
How it works defensively
Just so we understand -- the best defensive unit in basketball includes a 38-year-old point guard, an aging Carter (who, even in his prime, never cared all that much about D) and Nowitzki?
Crazy as it sounds, that's right -- there isn't a lineup in the NBA that has played more minutes and given up fewer points per possession than this five-man unit.
So how does this work exactly?
Step 1: Assign Marion to the opponent's most important offensive facilitator -- whether that person is a point guard, slasher, sharpshooter or multitalented power forward. Marion is a lanky and intuitive defender who's hyperaware of where you want to go and how you want to get there. Those long arms shrink passing lanes to the size of a coffee stirrer and he's difficult to post up.
The luxury of matching up Marion one-on-one against the most dynamic player on the floor allows the rest of the Mavericks to stay at home as base defenders. This isn't a fast group, so there's not a lot of gambling and you'll rarely see a lot of aggressive fronting. What this unit does exceptionally well is communicate. Kidd is constantly scanning the floor for potential problem areas and will shout out instructions to Haywood the instant there's penetration.
Carter is an underrated post defender in the half court, and he's more than capable of bodying up against most wings. Size doesn't slump, so while Nowitzki might not earn a lot of votes for the NBA's all-defensive team, he's taller than most of his counterparts at the 4-slot. And though he might never be Kevin Garnett, Nowitzki's pick-and-roll defense is smart and efficient. He doesn't overextend himself jumping out and he's always thinking recovery.
Haywood isn't the planet's most aggressive pick-and-roll defender -- rather than a hard show, the Mavs' coverages seem to have Haywood defending those actions "flat" -- but his big body and long arms buy Kidd, Carter and Marion plenty of time to get back into a play. Haywood is also a quality rim protector who slides along the baseline with relative ease.
This unit will throw the occasional zone at an offense to stifle penetration, but its most defining characteristic is collective smarts. This lineup doesn't make many mistakes. Despite a lack of speed, they rarely foul and manage to amass a ton of turnovers by simply anticipating where the offense wants to go with the ball. When shots go up, fewer than one-fifth of them are collected by the offense for second-chance opportunities.
Come April, we constantly hear how it's the veteran teams -- not the most athletic ones -- that win rings. This unit of oldsters illustrates why.