Even after Dallas avoided what could’ve been a knockout punch this summer (hint: Deron Williams) and instead netted some decent talent, I did not expect them to make noise in the West this year. Dirk Nowitzki was going to be out for an early chunk of the season. They had lost a handful of veteran leaders. And they were coming off yet another summer where they failed to land any big names. Mark Cuban‘s philosophy felt like it was in a tailspin, a forever cycle of Plan Bs that weren’t quite good enough. Instead, they’re 4-1 and have perhaps the most exciting offense in the league (outside of Miami, who really shouldn’t even count they are so good). Those that know me might ordinarily say this is just another excuse to write about O.J. Mayo. But for once, it’s truly warranted: the Mavericks must be considered one of the league’s biggest surprises through the season’s first eight days.
Last season, Dallas wasn’t even an average scoring team, and they were even worse when the Big German didn’t suit up. Naturally, we all figured it was doomsday in the Big D when it was reported Nowitzki would miss six weeks. New pickups like Darren Collison, Chris Kaman, Elton Brand and Mayo were all considered solid players – at best – but no one (I certainly didn’t) felt they could lead a playoff team in an impossibly deep Western Conference. Yet Rick Carlisle found a way to release the shackles.
How are they doing it? Back when Dirk first got hurt, we called it – our own Andrew Greif wrote this at the time: “Carlisle’s uptempo style of play, at its best, can minimize size or skill deficiencies by playing fast — and without Dirk, the Mavs can play even faster. Like an undersized team playing no-huddle football, playing efficiently with speed can buoy Dallas in the interim by shaving off opponents’ advantages.” It’s funny because that’s EXACTLY what’s happened. The Mavs still struggle on the glass, sporting a rebound rate that’s tied for No. 21 in the NBA. Monday against Portland, they were murdered on the offensive glass, getting out-rebounded 23-2. This is more than a trend, too. They were also in the bottom half of the league last year in overall rebound rate. But they’ve made up for their lack of size and defensive problems by pushing the ball more often than they ever have over the past four years.
Collison and Mayo, in particular, look like new players. Both were reduced to bench roles with their former teams, and both were stuck in environments that didn’t suit their talents. Collison plays much better in space, and while he isn’t very physical, his blinding speed allows him to make up for some of his disadvantages. He didn’t have that in Indiana because of their rugged personnel. He has that now, and while this isn’t a fact, just off the eye test I’d say he’s pushing the pace more often than any other lead guard in the league. Collison is also shooting eye-opening percentages all over the court (56/57/81), and sports the fourth-lowest turnover rate among all point guards this season (5.7).
Then there’s Mayo, who has the most specific set of skills of anyone outside of Bryan Mills. He has good vision, but consistently tries to fit passes in where they shouldn’t be. He cannot go by people off the dribble, nor is he someone who can run an offense. He’s small, has just a 6-6 wingspan and can’t finish around the rim because he’s not an explosive athlete. You might say he’s limited. But then again, Mayo’s so good at what he does well that he makes up for it. His deadliness as a shooter was masked at times in Memphis because they turned him into a secondary option, the guy to go stand in a corner and wait for a bailout pass. He’s not a set shooter. With Dallas, he’s much more involved, which helps since he’s more of a rhythm shooter and needs to be used accordingly.