Four seasons ago, the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs were the best teams in the NBA. The Mavericks racked up 67 wins in the regular season, while the Spurs won the NBA championship.
But the next year, the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in a midseason trade, shifting the balance of power in the West. Both Texas teams suddenly seemed a lot older, and began a gradual slide towards the pack.
And while their fortunes have largely been the same since the Lakers' emergence, including splitting a pair of first-round series, San Antonio is still seen as the more dangerous team. The Spurs have always made their living on half-court defense while the Mavericks are still an offensive-first, jump-shooting team.
But while that was the case for most of the last decade, their roles have been reversed this season. It's Dallas who depends on a suffocating half-court defense to make up for a mediocre offense, as San Antonio fields a dominating offensive team with an average defense.
This role reversal is why Dallas is the favorite to win the Southwest Division, and why the Mavericks are a bigger threat than their rivals in Central Texas to make noise in the playoffs.
This early in the season, team stats can't tell us that much. But for what it's worth, Dallas is ranked third in defensive rating and 17th offensively, while San Antonio is 10th in offensive rating and 14th defensively.
The days of Shawn Bradley and Erick Dampier ineffectually manning the pivot are long gone in North Texas. The Mavericks employ two of the top defensive centers in the game in Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood.
Both are athletic seven footers who have averaged a little over 1.5 blocks a game for their career. Haywood, at 7’0" 263 with a 7’6" wingspan, and Chandler, at 7’1" 235 with a 7’2" wingspan, have the strength to defend the low-block and the athleticism to protect the rim.
The Mavericks can funnel players into elite shot-blockers for the entire game, a rarity in a center-thin NBA. That’s what happens when you invest $20 million in the center position.
Meanwhile Tim Duncan, long the linchpin of the San Antonio defense, is clearly slowing down with age. His offensive usage rating, the percentage of the offense that runs through him, is at an all-time low at 23.0. He no longer has much lift in his legs, and as a result, the lane is no longer an intimidating place for the Spurs’ opponents.
Just witness the aerial show the 6’3" Eric Gordon put on San Antonio earlier in the week.
There’s no better symbol for the Spurs transition from a defensive- to an offensive-minded team than Matt Bonner. A 6’10" statue without the physical capacity to defend NBA-level athletes, Bonner earned significant minutes over the last few years for one reason—his ability to space the floor and hit three-pointers.
The Spurs still have three elite offensive players in Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, so they’ve increasingly focused on bringing in one-dimensional shooters like Roger Mason and Bonner to spread the floor around them.
From top to bottom, San Antonio no longer has the athleticism to be an elite defensive team. They haven’t been able to adequately replace Robert Horry or Bruce Bowen, and as a result, they have no one who can guard elite perimeter-oriented big men and big swingmen.
The most athletic players on their roster are their backup point guards—George Hill and Gary Neal—and neither is taller than 6’2". When the Clippers started running offense through Eric Gordon, they had no one who could match up with him physically. He responded with one of the best games of his career, shooting 10-17 and handing out 11 assists.
San Antonio still remains an elite offensive team, capable of finding diamonds in the rough like late first-round pick James Anderson and the European free-agent Neal, both of whom can provide dead-eye outside shooting.
Meanwhile the Mavericks have two excellent defensive-minded players in their rotation to complement their duo of centers. Shawn Marion, much like the Spurs' Richard Jefferson, is no longer the athlete he was in his prime, but his incredible wingspan allows him to remain a capable defender. Rookie Dominique Jones already has an NBA physique and a 6’9 wingspan, making him a decent defensive option on the perimeter.
And for the first time in recent memory, the problem in Dallas is offense not defense. While Dirk is an efficient a scorer as ever, the team’s other offensive options no longer complement his game.
As a big man who spaces the floor and shoots jumpers, he should be playing with athletic slashers who can get to the rim. But Dallas’ collection of veteran All-Stars—Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Caron Butler—are all primarily jump-shooters at this point in their careers.
They have become a team full of isolation scorers with little offensive flow or versatility. The end result was their ugly defeat to San Antonio in last year's playoffs, as the Mavericks took turns taking contested fade-away jumpers.
A key difference between the two rivals is the ace Dallas has in its sleeve. Rodrigue Beaubois, the young French blur currently out with a foot injury, showed an incredible ability to get into the lane in his rookie season. He averaged over 2 points a game in the lane and shot a ridiculous 65.6 percent near the basket, despite only playing 12.5 minutes a game.
The Spurs foreign import, seven-footer Tiago Splitter, is a primarily below the rim player who averaged less than block a game in Europe last season. While he improves their overall length, he won't be able to singlehandedly address the team's defensive holes.
As Mavericks fans have found out over the last decade, good defense always beats good offense. And for the first time in the history of this rivalry, it's Dallas who has the upper hand on the most important side of the court.