What's more important to an NBA team? Its starters or its closers?
For the Dallas Mavericks, that answer changes on a nightly basis.
Rick Carlisle has used rubber instead of cement to form his substitution rotations this season. Who's getting important minutes on any given night? Well, that depends on the matchup, and Carlisle is going to mend and shape his rotations far more than he will set them in stone.
The Mavericks are playing with a 10-man rotation heading into the postseason, but those sorts of things tend to change once teams get into the playoffs. The bench shortens in April, May and June. We all know that.
So we may be more likely to see an eight-man rotation from Carlisle with a sprinkle of a ninth or tenth every so often. That'll become easier to pull off when guys like Dirk Nowitzki, Jose Calderon and Brandan Wright start to see some more minutes.
We know the Mavs' starting unit. We know the bench. Now, we just need to see exactly how Carlisle is going to use his roster in the playoffs.
The Mavericks have been blessed with a mostly healthy starting lineup. That's not a declaration every team can make.
There's something to be said for consistency in a starting lineup, sending the same five guys out on the court every single night. Dallas can come pretty close to boasting that claim.
The Mavs starters (a lineup of Monta Ellis, Calderon, Shawn Marion, Nowitzki and Samuel Dalembert) have been on the court together for a total of 834 minutes this year. That's the fourth-most playing time for any five-man lineup in the NBA.
Still though, Carlisle is someone who loves to play around with different combinations, and Dallas' distribution shows that more than anything.
Only five Mavericks lineups have played more than 100 minutes this season. And part of that is just because some of Carlisle's best groups, including the starters, haven't been all that dominant.
The Dallas starters don't play defense. Really, that's the problem with the Mavs all around.
The Mavericks rank just 22nd in points allowed per 100 possessions, and the starting unit doesn't exactly help out that number, posting a 106.4 defensive efficiency of its own, slightly worse than the team's overall defensive rating.
Even though Carlisle's an elite tactician, that's the production you're going to get when you trot out the personnel the Mavs do every night.
Nowitzki is a genius shooter, but his defense is deteriorating from levels that already weren't preferable. And the revolving-door combination Dallas employs at guard with Ellis and Calderon isn't exactly the best way to prevent points.
But there is a reason the Mavs continue to win games: They score as well as anyone else in the NBA.
Dallas ranks third in points per 100 possessions, and so much of that has to do with the starters. The Mavericks starting lineup has posted a 108.2 offensive efficiency and moves the ball as well as any other starting unit in the NBA.
Dallas runs the spread pick-and-roll to perfection, and when you have someone like Dirk who can pop like a can of Pringles, he'll make the Jose Calderons of the world look that much better.
Those high pick-and-rolls, they're what make the offense tick, and that holds true for the bench unit, as well.
Suggested Playoff Minutes Distribution:
- Monta Ellis: 37 minutes
- Jose Calderon: 34 minutes
- Shawn Marion: 32 minutes
- Dirk Nowitzki: 35 minutes
- Samuel Dalembert: 23 minutes
We're starting with Brandan Wright. Sorry, everyone else. But we have to begin with one of the most underappreciated bench players in the NBA.
Wright is perfect for Dallas. You hear that, Brandan? You're perfect.
The Mavs create some of the best spacing in the league. Part of that is because of the shooters who line their perimeter, who—along with their fluid ball movement—help open up the floor for the spread pick-and-roll. Wright has become a typical roll man in those sorts of sets.
It's not that Wright is a major scorer, though his 69.1 percent true shooting is remarkably efficient. It's more about the way he fits into the scheme. Really, it's just about decision-making.
Most power forwards and centers aren't adept controlling the rock. That's true both in terms of ball-handling and for executing a play the way it's planned.
As a roll man, Wright has the perfect name. When he fields a pass and has to make a decision, it's generally true that Wright is right.
Few backup bigs can gather a feed and make an immediate kickout to a shooter on the perimeter as well as the Mavs' third big man. He finds shooters on the outside so quickly, and when someone like Calderon, who's a scarily accurate shooter from all spots on the floor, brings over a second defender, Wright's passing becomes even more essential.
A defense can send two defenders at Calderon—or Ellis, for that matter—and as a result, even if it's just for half a second, Wright has the opportunity to lead a miniature, half-court, three-on-two mismatch with his point guard and two opposing players behind him.
He can go to the rim and score. He can fling it out to his teammates for threes. And those sets are a small but integral part of why the Mavs bench doesn't really fall off when the reserves take the floor.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Dallas has shooters aplenty. And there is legitimate talent coming off the pine for Coach Carlisle.
Vince Carter? Somehow, that guy continues to add to his Hall of Fame résumé, trucking along as one of the best bench scorers in the NBA.
Jae Crowder? Name one Buzz Williams wing player who hasn't exceeded his draft-day expectations in the pros and I'll give you your own 24-karat golden eagle. Former Marquette standouts Wesley Matthews, Jimmy Butler, Crowder (and yes, we're going to pretend that Lazar Hayward doesn't exist)—all have carved out solid NBA careers.
DeJuan Blair? He's still pulling down 10.9 rebounds per 36 even though he can't play major minutes.
Even Devin Harris has been better of late and is closing out some games for Dallas. And speaking of who plays in the fourth quarter...
Suggested Playoff Minutes Distribution:
- Devin Harris: 19 minutes
- Vince Carter: 27 minutes
- Brandan Wright: 23 minutes
- Jae Crowder: 7 minutes
- DeJuan Blair: 3 minutes
This is where Carlisle mixes and matches.
The Mavericks' most common fourth-quarter lineup is Ellis, Calderon, Carter, Dirk and Dalembert. But there's a reason Carlisle is as good a coach as anyone not named Popovich. He's happy to make adjustments.
Saturday night against Phoenix, Harris closed the game. So did Wright. It's just Carlisle working the matchups.
Actually, there isn't really a "usual closing group" with this team. It's all situational.
The fourth quarter is a makeshift period for Dallas. It's the time that really reveals Carlisle's footprint.
Now, it's not like the Mavs are flawless down the stretch of games. Actually, this team has a propensity to blow leads late.
But even with all the changes, all the lineup inconsistencies, Dallas has outscored its opponents by 1.4 points per 100 possessions in the final period this season. Carlisle throws out so many different deviations, but there are still mainstays in the fourth.
The Mavericks will always send Nowitzki, Calderon and Ellis out there. The rest is up for grabs.
Harris has cracked the rotation now. Wright will be on the floor every once in a while. Then there are the starters like Dalembert and Marion, who play when Dallas needs some defense. And Carter, meanwhile, is a lethal shooter when he gets hot from beyond the arc.
It's like Jersey Shore. It always comes down to the situation.
Realistically, a playoff series will set a more constant rotation for Dallas. So we'll get a better idea of exactly who the closers will be once the playoff picture works itself out.
For now, though, the Mavericks should at least have confidence in their coach, who's helped design one of the most strategic fourth-quarter attacks in the NBA. And because of the offensive scheme Carlisle has crafted, the Mavs offense gives the team a chance to pull off a first-round upset against whichever squad they end up playing in the postseason.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.