The Dallas Mavericks' 2011 Championship run was pure sorcery, a splendid overlap of cresting player performance and cohesion, matchups exploited and pressure situations conquered. In the middle of it all was the steady hand of Dirk Nowitzki.
Although this year has been a remarkable renaissance for Nowitzki, his prime is dwindling and there is an incredible amount of pressure on the Mavericks to do something with the remaining fuel in his tank. It may seem strange for a team at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture to be talking about championships, but head coach Rick Carlisle went there, unprompted, in his press conference after their playoff-clinching win against the Phoenix Suns (h/t Mavericks Outsider Report):
It's big. Our franchise stands for winning championships. You can't win a championship unless you get into the playoffs. I don't know who our match-up is going to be. It'll be tough, whatever it is. We'll be ready.
Nowitzki is as important to the Mavericks success as he's ever been and if there is another magical championship to be run, an enormous amount of responsibility is resting on his shoulders.
According to Basketball-Reference, Nowitzki has posted an individual ORTG of 120 this season, a mark he's hit in just three other seasons and not since 2007. That absurd level of efficiency has been achieved while he's still been leading the Mavericks in Usage Rate, at 26.9 percent. The team's offense is four points better per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and according to mySynergySports (subscription required) he ranks in the top 30 in points per possession on post-ups, pick-and-rolls as a screener, transition possessions and shots coming off screens.
In short, Nowitzki is still the living, breathing, human incarnation of offensive efficiency.
These images are already burned into the collective basketball consciousness, but here's just a brief reminder of what happens when Nowitzki isn't double-teamed.
Of course his offensive impact extends far beyond his own scoring.
Here the Mavericks run a half-hearted pick-and-roll with Shawn Marion and Nowitzki just to force a switch. Nowitzki backs down Matt Barnes and when the inevitably double-team comes, he calmly kicks the ball back out so it can be swung for an open three-pointer.
Nowitzki's offensive impact is so large that it opens things up everywhere, for everyone. Here he doesn't have to do anything besides hang out at the three-point line. Blake Griffin can't leave him and thus Brandan Wright diving to the rim sets off a cascade of rotations which leaves Vince Carter open in the corner.
Nowitzki's jump shot is both striking and sublime, and the implied threat of that jump shot is the fulcrum on which the entire Mavericks' offense is balanced.
Since the beginning of January, the Mavericks' offense has been scoring at a rate of 110.7 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would be top in the league across the entire season by a fairly wide margin. The bench has been playing exquisitely well and they have started to figure out how to put all those different player combinations together to really take advantage of their opponents.
In short, the Mavericks' offense is healthy. Nowitzki has been playing phenomenal basketball but his teammates have become so comfortable working around and off of him, that the requirements on him as an individual scorer are entirely manageable.
But unfortunately, the Mavericks' exquisite and finely tuned offense is not enough to fuel a championship run alone.
Defense has been a problem all season long and Zach Lowe of Grantland detailed some of the issues as far back as January:
Alas: The team can’t guard, and it’s hard to imagine Dallas building an above-average defense with Calderon, Ellis, and Nowitzki logging heavy minutes together. The Mavs are 22nd in points allowed per possession, and they haven’t had a consistent good stretch on that end all season. They need elite defenders at the other two starting spots — a wing and a rim protector. Dallas signed Dalembert to do the latter job, but his minutes have been spotty, his attendance unreliable. Dallas opponents have shot better at the rim with Dalembert on the court, and they are running wild — scoring nearly four more fast-break points per 48 minutes when the big fella is playing, per NBA.com.
Those concerns have not gone away since Lowe wrote about them—the Mavericks still rank 22nd in the league in points allowed per possession and transition defense is one of their major failings.
In that playoff-clinching game against Phoenix, the Suns scored a whopping 28 transition points. You can see from the video below the issues are a healthy mix of not having the athleticism to keep up, not making the effort to get back and simply recovering in a disorganized fashion.
Their problems in the half-court are nearly as pronounced. The Mavericks have allowed their opponents the fifth-highest shooting percentage at the rim this season and they rank 24th in defensive rebound percentage. They get pushed around on the interior and stops are extremely hard to come by in crucial situations.
The secret of the Mavericks' championship in 2011 was that they were a phenomenal defensive team. They finished that season ranked seventh in the league, allowing 102.3 points per 100 possessions. With Tyson Chandler manning the middle and a rotating cast of capable wing defenders, they carried their suffocating defense right into the playoffs.
Their Finals matchup with Miami is remembered as an epic choke by LeBron James, but not nearly enough credit is given to Chandler and Marion for the job they did frustrating LeBron and keeping him out of the lane.
The bottom line is that Nowitzki has more than enough left in the tank to lead a defense of that caliber on another title run.
But these are not those Dallas Mavericks.
The ceiling on this year's team seems more likely to be a competitive first-round series than a sustained run deep into the heart of the playoffs. A seven-game series gives opponents myriad opportunities to counter your strength and exploit your weakness.
Teams as unbalanced as the Mavericks don't have anything to fall back on, to delay that process long enough to advance. Trying to overwhelm everyone with offense should make for an exciting spectacle but it's probably not enough to keep the Mavericks in this to the end.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats