In a frantic race for a playoff spot, there are certain Mavericks who need to step up down the stretch.
One year ago, this Dallas Mavericks squad looked relatively hopeless. Though they were competing for a playoff spot, the team was in limbo. It was an organization in transition, and the Mavs looked more like a bunch of individual players than a cohesive team.
Fast-forward a year, and the franchise seems revived. The pieces fit better, the team plays with more life, and best of all, the Mavericks have the record of a bona fide playoff team.
But in this hypercompetitive Western Conference, Dallas cannot be complacent. The team needs to take their game up a notch to assure themselves of a playoff spot. And they specifically need to look to five players for a boost down the stretch.
They may be guys who need to improve, or guys who the Mavs can't afford to lose. Bottom line: They are the players to watch as Dallas chases a spot in the playoffs.
All statistics, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
Coming into the season, nobody would have thought this, but Devin Harris makes the Mavericks a noticeably better team.
With rookie Shane Larkin still adjusting to the NBA game, Harris is the Mavs' best backup guard. He's a versatile offensive player because he can play the point, as well as the 2, and he is an underrated passer. Harris is averaging a career best 8.3 assists per 36 minutes, good for ninth in the NBA.
In fact, his per-36 minute averages look a lot like vintage Harris. His 16.2 points and only 2.3 turnovers per 36 minutes don't seem like numbers a 10-year NBA player in decline should be putting up.
It's safe to say nobody saw this kind of impact from a guy making just above the veterans' minimum.
Dallas is also 3.2 points better per 100 possessions with Harris on the floor per 82games.com, which is the third best differential on the team.
Now, the issue with Harris obviously is not that his production is slipping. He is exceeding expectations. Harris's problem has been staying on the court.
Harris only has played in 16 of 58 games this season. In other words, he's played less than 30 percent of this year. Between his toe injury and other maladies, Harris's 2013-14 campaign mostly consisted of him watching games in a suit from behind the bench.
The Mavericks need Harris to be the first guard off the bench, and they need his offense to carry the second unit. When he plays, Dallas is able to take some of the load off Dirk Nowitzki, which is hugely important if the Mavs want to keep their playoff position.
Samuel Dalembert may not be the defensive presence he used to be, but he is the Mavs' best rim protector. That's something this team desperately needs.
The eyeball test shows that Dalembert is getting older, but he certainly hasn't lost his defensive touch. He's an 11-year veteran big who protects the paint and rebounds well, something the Mavs haven't had since 2011 with Tyson Chandler.
Dalembert also has some stats to defend his grades from the eye test.
Dallas not only allows the fewest points per game when Dalembert is on the floor, but he's close to the top of the league in block percentage. His rating of 4.4 percent is better than guys like Dwight Howard and Demarcus Cousins.
Maybe the most telling stat of all is just how good the Mavericks are when Dalembert plays significant minutes. Dallas is 19-6 when Dalembert plays 23 minutes or more and 19-16 when he plays 22 minutes or less.
To put it bluntly, Dallas needs Dalembert to play more. Yes, he's 32 and has not exactly had a clean bill of health for the past few years, but Dallas's 24th-ranked defense needs anything Dalembert can give them down the stretch.
Someone could look at this slide and say I'm confused. What more can Dirk Nowitzki do for this team? He's already leading Dallas in points, player efficiency rating (PER) and points per shot. There isn't much more a 35-year-old, 15-year NBA veteran can do for a team.
That person would have a point. Somehow Nowitzki has had an offensive renaissance this year, dramatically outperforming his 2012-13 campaign and flirting with shooting 50/40/90. I mean, the guy is eighth in the league in scoring per 36 minutes. He's having an amazing year.
But, man, he is a sieve defensively.
The Mavericks allow 108 points per game with Nowitzki on the floor, his rebounding rate of 10.8 percent is barely above Andrea Bargnani's, and his 6 rebounds per game are the worst since his rookie year.
Forget his statistics for a second, and just watch him out there. Dirk was never the fleetest of foot, but saying his defense is bad is an act of mercy. He can't squeeze rebounds like he used to, and forget about him staying in front of someone. That's a thing of the past.
Now, let's be clear. Nobody is asking Dirk to become a defensive presence by any means. That has never been his calling card, and it would be unfair to ask of him, given his age and offensive contributions.
However, for the Mavs to reach the playoffs, their defense needs to improve. And if Dirk can play as a passable defender, that would do wonders for the Mavs and their playoff push.
Shawn Marion may not be the youngest guy on the roster, but he sure defends like one. Night in and night out, Marion slows down the likes of Kevin Durant and LeBron James, even at age 35 and with 14 NBA seasons under his belt.
He is also second on the team in steals, and he leads Dallas in defensive win shares. At his age, Marion's defense somehow looks as good as it ever has.
Marion also contributes in another key area. He leads the Mavericks in rebounds per game, and for a team that's 28th in the league in that category, having a wing who can board like Marion is a huge plus.
So, what exactly is the problem?
Well, Marion is old. It's a shock, I know, but it's a concern moving forward. Think about how many hard miles are on those legs and how much abuse his body has taken over the years. Nobody would bat an eye if Marion started to physically break down, especially while he's still playing more than 30 minutes per game.
If that does happen and Marion finally starts looking his age, then Dallas is in serious trouble. Jae Crowder and Wayne Ellington Jr. would get more minutes at the 3, but neither of those guys are anywhere close to Marion defensively.
Just thinking of Crowder having to cover Durant in a fourth quarter is cringe inducing, to say the least.
This team really doesn't have a guy who can do the things Marion does, and without him, it's scary to think what would happen to this season. In order to secure a playoff spot, Marion needs to keep up his stellar defense and make sure his body holds up for the final quarter of the season.
Brandan Wright seems to be putting it together lately. In February alone, Wright is averaging roughly 10 points, five boards and a block in 17 minutes per game.
Wright, however, has a reputation for being inconsistent. One night he looks solid, and in the next game he puts in a less than memorable performance. That kind of up-and-down nature seems to be ingrained in his basketball DNA—until recently.
A bench player putting up Wright's February stats would not be accused of inconsistency, especially when he's shooting an absurd 62.1 percent from the floor. This is a large part of why Wright's currently ranked 11th in the NBA by PER.
The key for Wright moving forward is maintaining his current level of play. Between his hustle plays, efficiency and defensive presence, he's been a breath of fresh air off the bench.
Obviously, Samuel Dalembert can't play every minute, and DeJuan Blair is good for limited action, but he hasn't proven to be effective with extended court time. Wright is really Dallas's only option, and as of now, that's not a problem.
If Wright can keep up his stellar performance, Dallas has their ace in the hole. He can disrupt the opposing offense, and best of all, maybe he will be smart for the Mav's offense. In today's NBA, that's all most teams want from a big man, so it's safe to say Wright's contributions very well could push the Mavs back to the playoffs.