Perception often trumps reality.
The Dallas Mavericks are currently in possession of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. Led by a high-scoring offense and a crop of quality shooters, the Mavericks are 26-20 with a 1.5-game advantage over the next in line.
The question is, are Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis functioning as a backcourt?
On the surface, there are signs that point towards the Calderon-Ellis backcourt flourishing. There are others that suggest it's failing.
Whether it's high-quality ball movement or a less-than-adequate level of statistical production, determining how well or poorly Dallas' backcourt is playing is difficult to determine. Fortunately, the answer can be found.
Defense isn't a reason for the Mavericks' success in 2013-14. Instead, it's been the outstanding play of an offensive unit that's averaging 103.9 points per game and distributing 23.4 assists.
Furthermore, Dallas is third in team field-goal percentage at 47.2 and sixth in total three-point field-goal percentage at 37.8. Dallas is also eighth with 8.5 three-point field goals made per game and third in free-throw percentage.
Calderon and Ellis have played a major factor in each of those areas.
Ellis is Dallas' second-leading scorer behind Dirk Nowitzki with an average of 19.7 points per game on 46.2 percent shooting from the floor. He is also dishing out a team-high 5.9 assists per game and creating 14.1 points via his dimes, per NBA.com.
Calderon has been strong, as well, with an average of 11.9 points on 45.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc. He's averaging 2.5 three-point field goals made per contest and creating 11.0 points via assists, per NBA.com.
In total, Calderon and Ellis account for 56.7 points per game, which equates to 54.6 percent of Dallas' total scoring.
Most importantly, Calderon and Ellis have been positively influential upon the Mavericks' offense when working together. NBA.com reports that the Mavericks average 63.8 points per game on a slash line of .477/.376/.808 when both Ellis and Calderon are on the floor.
If nothing else, that's an efficient brand of offense that shouldn't be viewed as anything other than critical to team success.
Due to the high-efficiency nature of the Calderon-Ellis pairing, it's easy to assume that the tandem is having a positive impact. That may be the case for the offense, but the defense is actually struggling.
According to NBA.com, Calderon and Ellis have a negative plus-minus when on the floor together (-0.6).
Admittedly, the Mavericks' defensive struggles are rooted deeper than Calderon's and Ellis' struggles. Dallas is 21st in opponent points in the paint per game at 43.2, per NBA.com, and that's a result of the absence of a true rim protector.
Due to Calderon's and Ellis' respective reputations as lackluster defenders, however, a finger can be pointed to the backcourt for allowing consistent penetration. That's a reason why Dallas is 26th, per NBA.com, in opponent fast-break points allowed per game.
Oddly enough, Dallas' perimeter defense hasn't been as bad as it seems.
The Mavericks are 12th in opponent three-point field-goal percentage and fourth in turnovers forced per game. The former isn't an elite number, but it's strong enough to suggest that the Mavericks' perimeter defense is strong enough to survive an offensive battle.
The true question is, is Ellis neutralizing Calderon's strengths?
During his steady nine-year career, Calderon has posted averages of 10.2 points and 7.0 assists on a slash line of .482/.407/.878. Coming into the 2013-14 season, Calderon had averaged at least 7.0 assists in all but one season since 2007-08, and at least 8.0 in four campaigns.
Working alongside Ellis, Calderon's ability to create for others has been virtually eliminated.
From 2007-08 to 2010-11, his most productive facilitating seasons, John Hollinger of ESPN (subscription required) reports that Calderon posted a usage rate above 18.0. In 2011-12, Calderon averaged 8.8 assists per game on a usage rate of 17.4, per Hollinger.
In 2013-14, Calderon's usage rate is all the way down to 15.9. By comparison, Hollinger (subscription required) reports that Ellis has a usage rate of 25.7.
Ellis is clearly making the most of his opportunities, but that's transformed Calderon from a dynamic playmaker into a one-dimensional player.
It's no coincidence that the Spanish star is averaging 4.7 assists per game, which is his lowest mark since his rookie season. Due to this stunning drop-off, it's only rational to draw the conclusion that Ellis is neutralizing one of Calderon's greatest strengths.
The question is, has this imbalance limited Dallas' upside? Or are they defying the odds and flourishing?
Calderon may not be posting the most glorious statistical season of his career, but he's the ideal point guard complement to Ellis. While that may not be the greatest reasoning, Ellis is a star-caliber shooting guard and thrives with a specific brand of backcourt mate.
For that reason, the Mavericks can feel confident moving forward with this tandem.
There's no question that Dallas could use a defensive upgrade in the backcourt, but their offensive compatibility is too great to give up. More importantly, the dream-like combination of three-point marksmanship and defensive prowess at point guard isn't as common as it seems.
If it were, Dallas wouldn't be in this situation.
According to NBA.com, Ellis leads the league in total points off of drives with 359, and points per game off of drives with 7.8. The next-best players are Kevin Durant with 266 and Tony Parker at 6.6.
This plays into Calderon's game. He's shooting a team-best 45.9 percent on catch-and-shoot three-point field goals, per NBA.com. With Ellis' tendency to drive, as well as his previously established ability to facilitate, Calderon fits in well from a scoring perspective.
For a team that's offensive-minded and defensively weak as a unit, it's not worth sacrificing such a well-oiled machine for a defensive upgrade that may not make a significant enough impact to lead to championship success. For that reason, Calderon and Ellis should stay together.
Calderon and Ellis are proving that they can flourish as a backcourt.