Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dwyane Wade And The 2006 Finals

** I wrote this in May 2011, a month before the Mavs beat the Heat in the NBA Finals. The other articles are all in reverse chronological order. Re-reading these has actually been a nice step into the past, it's crazy how fast the conventional wisdom changes. For example, two years ago, Steph Curry was seen as a much more talented player than James Harden. Crazy!

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I was watching a Heat/Celtics game at a Dallas bar recently, and the consensus was that Dwyane Wade is a “cheater” who “stole” the 2006 Finals from the Mavericks. At the very least, the majority of sports fans in the Metroplex are dubious about the circumstances surrounding Dallas’ loss to Miami.

Wade attempted 97 free throws in that six-game series, the most in the history of the NBA. In the Heat’s pivotal Game 5 win, he had 25 free throws, as many as the entire Maverick roster. ESPN’s Bill Simmons summed up the feelings of many Dallas fans: “I just don’t see how there’s any way this can happen in a fairly-called game. It’s theoretically impossible.” Wade’s record-setting performance does need an explanation, but as so often happens in life, it’s a little more complicated than a conspiracy theory.

While the ’06 Mavericks were an excellent team, they were uniquely vulnerable to dribble penetration from a big, athletic guard in ways that most Finals teams throughout history weren’t. Dallas was constructed specifically to beat Tim Duncan's Spurs, their division rival who had sent them home twice earlier in the decade.

At center, they played two barrel-chested seven-footers, Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop, who could defend a low-post scorer like Duncan without help. But neither had the foot-speed to roam across the paint and protect the rim, something that their other big man — Dirk — wasn’t keen on doing either. Around the perimeter, they played two small, fast guards in Devin Harris (6’3 190) and Jason Terry (6’2 180) to combat Tony Parker and Steve Nash.
And in their run to the Finals, they never went up against a team whose offense was built around someone like Wade. They steam-rolled a Memphis team built around Pau Gasol, out-lasted Tim Duncan and the more finesse-oriented guards of the Spurs in an all-time classic series and defeated Steve Nash and his merry band of three-point shooters in the Western Conference Finals.
Wade’s dominance exposed a hole that had always been there. The next year, the Golden State Warriors drove a stake through that hole, as Stephen Jackson, Jason Richardson and Baron Davis put on an offensive show to defeat a 67-win Dallas team in the first round.
Wade, a powerful and explosive 6’4 220 guard, was the one type of player the Mavericks had no answer for. He had a match-up advantage, and the only way Miami was winning a title was if he exploited that advantage to the absolute limit.
The Heat’s offense revolved completely around Wade and Shaq, both of whom had usage ratings well over 30. The only other player in their rotation with a usage rating over 20 was … Antoine Walker. So with Shaq somewhat neutralized by Dallas’ seven-footers, Miami’s offense in the Finals was Wade or nothing.
The Mavs raced out to a 2-0 lead in the Finals, looking like the far superior team. What happened next, depending on how you look at it, was one of the greatest comebacks or the greatest crimes in recent NBA history.
As he attacked the basket, Wade began searching out and initiating contact. When a team’s best player runs full-speed into a defender and acts like he’s just been shot, the refs are almost obligated to call the foul. With his combination of great body control and long arms, it was fairly easy for him to initiate a minor amount of contact on the interior and then throw himself on the ground.
It wasn’t cheating and it wasn’t against the letter of the law, but it certainly violated thespirit of it. Imagine the puzzled looks at a pick-up game if someone attempted Wade’s strategy of attacking slower defenders and throwing himself on the ground instead of trying to make the basket. He probably wouldn’t be invited back to play.
If you stretch the rules of a game to the breaking point, it no longer becomes fun to play it. It certainly isn’t very entertaining to watch a guy shoot 20 free throws a game.
One of the many apocryphal stories about Michael Jordan, which Wade undoubtedly heard as a teenager growing up in Chicago in the 90′s, was that he cheated his teammate's mother in a game of cards while he was visiting them over the holidays.
Wade’s strategy is the end result of a basketball culture that celebrated this type of sociopathic behavior as not only necessary to be a champion, but as a positive character trait — to be like MJ you must be a “killer”, you must be willing to do whatever it takes.
But what’s been lost amidst the controversy about the officiating is what a dominant performance Wade had and just how great a basketball player he actually is.
It’s been a recurring theme throughout his career.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, he wasn’t an AAU star, only blossoming into a great player after a growth spurt late in his high school career. He wasn’t heavily recruited due to academic difficulties and was forced to sit out his first year at Marquette because he couldn’t pass the ACT.
Playing for a small private school in the Midwest, Wade didn’t become nationally known until a transcendent performance in the 2003 Elite Eight, when he had a triple-double to lead the Golden Eagles past Kentucky. The next year, as part of one of the greatest draft classes in the history of the NBA, he had to share the rookie spotlight with Carmelo and LeBron.
And just as he was becoming a national figure after the 2006 Finals, his aging Miami team fell apart around him. While LeBron and Kobe became the faces of the NBA, Wade was stuck in purgatory, with the Heat making the bold choice to bottom out and clear cap space for the summer of 2010.
Statistically, Wade’s been the best shooting guard in the NBA for three seasons now, and it hasn’t even been close. He’s had more points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals than Kobe in each of the last three years, all while shooting at a much higher percentage.
** The exceptions: Kobe grabbed .2 more rebounds in 2009 and scored .4 more points in 2010. **
While Kobe struggled to score against Jason Kidd, Wade put on a performance for the ages against the Celtics — averaging 30 points on 53% shooting, 7 rebounds and 5 assists, all while playing tireless defense on Ray Allen. But because the playoffs have such an out-sized impact on NBA player’s reputations, it’s only now that he has championship-caliber teammates around him that he’s been able to match Kobe in the public imagination.
Which is of course the cruelest twist of all for Wade, as LeBron, a paradigm-shifting player who soaks up all the media attention in the room, will always be the story for the Heat.
No guard in the league has a bigger impact on the game than Wade. Derrick Rose is more valuable to his team, but he’s not on Wade’s level as a player.
Just look at Wade’s 2009 season, when the second best player on his team was a rookie Michael Beasley. Shouldering an even heavier load than Rose, with a usage rating of 36.2 compared to Rose’s 32.2 this year, Wade averaged 30 points on 49% shooting with 7.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds.
** Rose’s 2011 stat-line: 25 points on 44% shooting with 7.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds. **
With a lightning-quick first step, immaculate body control and a preposterous 6’11 wingspan, there’s no way to keep him out of the paint, where he takes 39% of his shots, an absurd number for a 6’4 guard.
A lot has been written about how LeBron’s legacy will be negatively affected by joining forces with Wade in Miami, but it’s far more likely that the converse will occur: how is Wade ever going to win an MVP award when he’s on the same team as the best player in the NBA?
Thanks to “The Decision”, he’ll never have to carry a team like he did in the ’06 Finals. He didn’t do it in a very sportsman-like fashion, but you try winning honorably when a 30-year old Antoine Walker is your third best player.
And as the Heat advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, don’t forget they have two all-time great players on their roster.

Kevin Durant: A Star Is Born

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It clicked for Kevin Durant on Wednesday night.

With 3:31 left in the game, his Thunder were down 91-82 to the Denver Nuggets. Their other main scorers, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, couldn’t buy a basket from the perimeter, combining to go 5-22 from the field. At only 22, his whole career is ahead of him. But those next three-and-a-half minutes will always be a part of his story.

***

The first Matrix is the story of Neo’s journey towards becoming “The One”. When we first see him, he’s a socially awkward computer programmer struggling at his job and drifting through life. He meets Morpheus, the charismatic leader of a band of vigilantes, who tells him that the world around him is an artificially created illusion designed to enslave him. And oh yeah, he also possesses God-like powers to change it and free humanity.

Naturally, this is all a little much for Neo. He can’t defeat Morpheus in hand-to-hand combat, can’t leap buildings in one bound, and can’t convince the rest of the crew, much less himself, that the prophecy is true. 

Our minds are a product of social conditioning, and everything Neo has heard his entire life is contradicting what Morpheus is saying. It’s only at the movie’s climax, after he survives a few point-blank gun shots to the chest, that he knows. The agents, astonished, fire off a few rounds at him.

But in that moment, Neo realizes they’re no longer playing the same game. For all their speed, they still operate by rules that no longer apply to him. And in the hundred-year history of basketball, there’s never been a player quite like Kevin Durant.

The ever-growing influx of international players has changed the game, evolving it in ways which James Naismith could never have imagined. When he died in 1939, the jump shot was still in its infancy, invented only a few years before.

Since then, it has evolved from novelty to science:
A former captain of the German national team and a physicist, [Geschwinder] has developed a series of formulas that may reveal the optimum arc for jump shots, using a combination of player height, arm length and release point. “Take differential and integral calculus. Make some derivations and create a curve,” he recently said. “Everybody can do it.” “The higher the arc, the better, but you can go too high. The optimum is around 60°.” 
Geschwinder needed a blank slate on which to test his theories, and he found one in Dirk Nowitzki, a lanky German teenager who had a poster of Scottie Pippen on his wall. While American coaches would have made the young seven-footer a post player, Geschwinder had an intriguing idea: why not make him a jump-shooter?

If a proper jump-shot is merely a series of mechanical calculations, than anyone can learn the correct mechanics to shoot one. And while smaller players have to develop inventive ways to prevent their shot from blocked, Dirk, at seven feet, can just shoot over his defender’s head.

In essence, Geschwinder created a seven-foot shooting platform. Because he has a fundamentally perfect jump shot which he can release at any time, Dirk is one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA, despite operating so far from the basket. Of the league’s top scorers, only Dwight Howard, at 59%, shoots a higher percentage from the field than Dirk. But while 63% of his shoots are around the rim, only 13% of Dirk’s are.

One evolutionary off-shoot was Yao Ming, an even taller shooting platform at 7’5. But he has struggled to stay healthy, as his body might be beyond the upper limit for which it’s possible to run up and down an NBA floor 82 games a year.

Durant represents a different spin on Geschwinder’s idea. Instead of making the shooting platform larger, what if you made it faster? With a freakish 7’4 wingspan, his release point is about as high as Dirk and Yao’s, but he has the body and skills of a guard at 6’10 215.

***
The Nuggets had no answer for his combination of skills. Their 6’9-6’10 post players, from Kenyon Martin to Al Harrington and Danilo Gallinari, didn’t have the foot-speed to stay with him on the perimeter; their 6’5-6’8 wing players, from Wilson Chandler to JR Smith and Aaron Afflalo, didn’t have the length to contest his shot.

And with a chance to close out a dangerous Denver team at home, Durant took over. He brought the ball up the court himself, stepping into and knocking down a 25-foot three-pointer. When the Nuggets crowded his outside shot, he took the ball towards the rim, going 4-4 on mid-range jumpers and rising over the out-stretched hands of the Denver defenders.

Most impressively, he found James Harden in the corner when they double-teamed him and he emphatically blocked JR Smith’s last-second three-point attempt with less than 10 seconds left.

Now, the Thunder wait for the winner of the Spurs/Grizzlies series after San Antonio had a miraculous escape of their own on Wednesday night. The Spurs would be an easier match-up for Oklahoma City, as they don’t have an elite perimeter defender nor do they have an athletic shot-blocker in the front-court. Defensively, the Thunder can put Kendrick Perkins on Duncan and Thabo Sefolosha, a lanky 6’7 defensive stopper, on Ginobili.

The Grizzlies, meanwhile, would be an intriguing match-up of strength vs. strength: Memphis runs their offense through Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the low post, while Oklahoma City can counter with two of the best interior defenders in the game in Perkins and Serge Ibaka. On the perimeter, Memphis has the wily Shane Battier and an All-NBA defender in Tony Allen to defend Durant and Westbrook.

Looming down the road are the two-time champion Lakers. Ron Artest, a 6’7 260 former Defensive Player of the Year, used his strength to deny Durant the ball and force him off his spots in last year’s playoffs, frustrating him into shooting an uncharacteristic 35.5% from the field. Behind him are three mobile 6’10+ big men who can shrink the floor defensively.

Most intriguing would be a Finals match-up against the Heat and LeBron James, the NBA’s best player and the guy who will become Durant’s long-term rival for All-NBA teams, MVP’s and championships. James, a 6’9 270 tank, is a better passer, rebounder and defender than Durant, and is even bigger and faster than Artest.

Defenses will likely force Durant to be a passer by sending double-teams, especially since two of the Thunder’s starters (Sefolosha and Perkins) aren’t very good shooters. And while Harden will often replace Sefolosha in the fourth and Perkins can be hid near the rim, at some point in the playoffs, Serge Ibaka will have to knock down some mid-range jumpers in crunch time.

***

Long-term, defensive players will adapt to the new breed of super-sized shooters. With the power game de-emphasized, 6’10+ defenders are increasingly stepping out from under the basket. One guy to keep an eye on is John Henson, a preposterously long 6’10 210 forward for UNC who is purported to have a 7’4 wingspan.

Nor are playoff performances guaranteed to improve with age. In 2006, Dirk willed his team to the NBA Finals, dropping 50 points in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals and out-scoring Phoenix 22-20 in the fourth quarter. The next season, LeBron carried the Cavaliers to the Finals, scoring 29 of their last 30 points in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pistons. Neither has reached those heights since.

More tragically, Tracy McGrady, a player Durant is often compared too, was never the same player after his back and knees gave out in his mid-20′s. And at only 26, Brandon Roy is a shadow of himself after a pair of serious knee surgeries.

For now, with a bright future ahead of him and the league’s best young supporting cast around him, basketball fans can echo the sentiment of Tank in The Matrix: “If what they say about you is true man, it’s an exciting time to be alive.”

Dallas, San Antonio And The Narrative

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The seasons of the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs hung in the balance last night.

After blowing a 23-point lead in the second half of Game 4, the Mavericks needed a win in Game 5 to avoid giving Portland a chance to close out the series at the Rose Garden. A Memphis win in Game 4 would give the Grizzlies a 3-1 edge against the Spurs, a deficit only eight teams in NBA history have overcome.

But while both franchises have been phenomenally successful over the last decade, winning more than 50 games for more than ten straight years, the Spurs have won four titles and the Mavericks haven’t won any. As a result, there was a lot less consternation in San Antonio than in Dallas, where Brandon Roy’s fourth-quarter outburst was met with equal parts hysteria and panic.

In a column lamenting the return of “the same old Mavericks”, ESPN’s Tim MacMahon unloaded with both barrels on the team:
But X’s and O’s are far from the only reasons the Mavs earned ridicule at the Rose Garden. Intangibles had just as much to do with this disaster. The Mavs displayed an amazing lack of killer instinct. 
They showed a maddening lack of mental toughness. A veteran team exhibited an alarming lack of poise. They made their army of critics look smart.  Maybe the Mavs recover in this series, which has yet to see a road team win. However, the thought of the Mavs as legitimate contenders is laughable at this point. 
A team that had been trying so hard to distance itself from a painful recent playoff history has to be haunted by those postseason demons now, no matter how many faces and names have changed over the last few years.  
And no matter what the Mavs say. 
In the memory of Dallas basketball fans, the 2006 Finals and the 2007 first round series against Golden State are always looming. But only Dirk and Jason Terry are left from those teams.

A lot of the “same old Mavericks” are coaching in New Jersey (Avery Johnson), playing in Utah (Devin Harris), Miami (Erick Dampier) and Washington (Josh Howard), and out of the NBA entirely (Jerry Stackhouse, Devean George). Why would their playoff failures affect Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson, Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd?

For many in Dallas, Game 5 would be a test to see whether these Mavericks were “different.” Echoing MacMahon, Mark Followill, Dallas’ TV announcer, declared:
2nite the X & O crap goes out the window, this game is a test of resolve, will, guts, heart, cajones, determination, u name it. 
But if that’s true about Game 5 of Dallas/Portland, why isn’t that true about Game 4 of Memphis/San Antonio or any other basketball game for that matter? Are basketball games determined by “resolve, will and heart” or “X and O’s”?

The Mavericks won Game 5 by 11 points, thanks primarily to the efforts of Tyson Chandler. Chandler grabbed 20 rebounds, including 13 on the offensive end, the most in an NBA playoff game in over 15 years.

By going in a zone defense earlier in the game, Dallas exploited the weak outside shooting of three of Portland’s starters — Andre Miller, Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby. To counter this and get more jump-shooting on the floor, the Trail Blazers went small, with a front-line of LaMarcus Aldridge, Wallace and Nic Batum.

But the Blazers had to keep Aldridge on Dirk defensively, which meant they had two 6’8 forwards — Wallace and Batum — trying to box out a 7’1 235 center with a 7’3 wingspan and a 33′ vertical.

 On the other end of the floor, with the Mavericks cross-switching defensively (Dirk on Wallace/Batum, Chandler on Aldridge), neither Portland forward could make Dallas pay for defending them with a seven-footer lacking great strength or mobility. Wallace shot 5-13 from the floor, Batum 5-12.

That’s the beauty of an NBA playoff series, a chess match over seven games where each move is met with a counter, until one side is out of answers. Far from a contest where X-and-O’s could be thrown out, Game 5 was decided primarily by tactics and strategy.

And while the Mavericks were overcoming many of their doubters in Dallas, the struggles of San Antonio in Memphis should make us question why the Mavericks had so many doubters in the first place. Just like Dallas in 2007, San Antonio led the Western Conference from wire-to-wire this season, finishing with 61 wins and a +5.7 point differential.

Before the Mavericks lost 4-2 to Golden State that year, no #1 seed had ever lost to a #8 seed in a seven-game series. Coupled with their loss to the Heat in the previous year’s NBA Finals, it cemented Dallas as a “team full of chokers.” In this telling of the story, the Warriors were merely bystanders, perfectly positioned to exploit Dallas’ inability to come through in the clutch. Yet that series was as much Golden State’s win as it was Dallas’ loss.

The Warriors were the ultimate match-up nightmare for the Mavericks, beating them in all three regular season games that year. With two seven-foot behemoths in the middle in Dampier and DeSagana Diop, Dallas’ defense was geared to stop low-post scorers like Tim Duncan.

The Warriors didn’t play a traditional center, eliminating most of the value of the Mavericks’ defensive anchors. Dirk, who was still primarily a jump-shooter, made his living bringing traditionally less mobile power forwards out on the perimeter where they were less comfortable defensively. The Warriors didn’t have any traditional power forwards.

And because the Mavericks’ best two guards were the 6’3 190 Devin Harris and the 6’2 180 Jason Terry, they were vulnerable defensively to big, athletic guards who could use their physicality to attack them off the dribble, a description which fit the Warriors’ three best scorers — Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and Jason Richardson.

Similarly, the Grizzlies roster causes a few match-up problems for San Antonio. Duncan, who just turned 35, is the Spurs only traditional low-post defender, a problem against Memphis, who have two huge, skilled forwards who operate in the paint in Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Offensively, the Spurs live off the penetration of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, which the Grizzlies can counter with the perimeter duo of Shane Battier and Tony Allen.

The Spurs, contrary to their reputation, have become an offensive-minded team. If Tim Duncan and Manu can’t dominate Marc Gasol and Tony Allen, and force double teams to give their shooters open looks, San Antonio can’t win.

If they lose to Memphis, does that make the 2010/2011 Spurs “choke artists”? Or if the Spurs are merely a victim of a particularly bad match-up, what does that make the 2006/2007 Mavericks? But according to the Spurs’ Antonio McDyess, San Antonio’s problems against Memphis run much deeper than mere match-ups: “We’re playing like a bunch of wussies.”

That’s an understandable mind-set for the Spurs players to have: they can change their mentality, but they can’t change their physicality. But does Matt Bonner’s fortitude really make a difference when he’s defending Zach Randolph and Darrell Arthur?

This psychological based analysis of basketball comes from a place deep within American culture. We like to believe in the power of the individual, that hard work and skill determine our success in life.

So when we look at the Spurs and the Mavericks playoff performance, we want to believe that the players are in control of their own destiny: that if only the Mavericks players were tougher, they would have already won a championship. That the Spurs success is a result of the no-nonsense ethic of team-work they built, not because they had a seven-foot Hall of Famer in the middle of the lane.

In psychology, the term “locus of control” refers to a person’s belief in their ability to control their destiny. It can be focused either internally (a belief that your actions determine the course of your life) or externally (a belief that the actions of others, from strangers to a higher power, determines your fate).

Sports are a relief from the real world, where so much of what controls our lives — the vagaries of global weather patterns and macro-economic shifts — is completely out of control. So the idea that match-ups, that who you play has more impact on your success than how you play, determine the fate of your favorite NBA team is antithetical to many. Because if Memphis poses match-up problems the Spurs can’t counter, why even play the game?

For Albert Camus, this was the central question modern philosophy must resolve: what’s the point of living in a random and unjust world with no higher power? His answer: it’s the struggle in the face of insurmountable odds, even when we know that struggle is futile, that makes our lives worth living.

In his treatise “The Myth of Sisyphus”, he imagines the life of Sisyphus, a figure in ancient Greek mythology doomed to endlessly push a boulder to the top of the mountain only to see it roll all the way back down.

He concludes that one must imagine Sisyphus, like the Spurs and the Mavericks, happy.

What Makes March Madness Great

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Millions of fans around the country tuned in Monday to watch Butler-UConn play what ESPN’s Jay Bilas called: “the worst championship game of my life-time.” There’s no other way to describe the lowest-scoring NCAA title game in over 60 years, a game in which the winning team shot 34.5%.

No defense should be able to hold a Final Four team to 18% shooting from the field, a number so putrid it’s hard to even get your head around.

The rise of teams like Butler is an end-result of the talent exodus from NCAA basketball. Less than a third of the players in the 2007 and 2008 McDonald’s All-American Games, the guys who should be the back-bone of the junior and senior classes, are still playing D1 ball.

Yet despite the NBA’s near monopoly on the game’s best young talent, Butler/UConn still managed a 13.3 TV rating, out-drawing the 10.6 average of last year’s Lakers/Celtics NBA Finals.

And while there are a lot of complex sociological reasons for the popularity differences between the NBA and college hoops, I think the most important is purely narrative: the stakes just feel higher in college ball.

NBA players are widely mocked for crying after a tough loss, while college players are celebrated for showing so much emotion. Going into this year’s NBA playoffs, three teams — the Lakers, the Celtics and the Spurs — have already won rings. Their legacies are secure. The other veteran title-contender, the Mavericks, have had nearly a dozen shots at a championship; it’s hard to feel too bad for them. LeBron is 26, Dwight Howard 25, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant 22. There’s going to be plenty of next years for all of them.

***

While most coverage of the Butler/Pittsburgh game centered around the now-familiar narrative of “Big East power” vs “little mid-major that could”, the teams were actually near mirror images of each other. Both relied on tough man-to-man defensive principles to out-execute bigger and more athletic teams, and both put the ball in hands of an undersized shooting guard — Brad Wanamaker for Pittsburgh and Shelvin Mack for Butler — to close out games.

Butler had a six-point edge at half-time, the biggest either team would get the rest of the way. The lead switched back and forth several times, and as the clock began winding down to the final minutes, everyone in the building, and everyone watching on TV, sensed that it would be one of those games. Neither team was going to give the game away. Someone was going to have to take it.

The drama really begins with 7 seconds left, when Butler, down 68-69, brings the ball into the front-court and calls time-out. Mack throws it in to Shawn Vanzant, Butler’s third guard in the starting line-up, a senior who has been overshadowed by the late-game heroics of Mack, Nored, Hayward and Howard over the last two years. But he’s also the Bulldogs fastest guard, the guy most capable of getting the ball to the front of the rim in a short amount of time.

Drawing the defensive assignment for Pittsburgh is Gilbert Brown, their designated perimeter stopper with an NBA-caliber body at 6’6 215. Brown gives Vanzant a crease to the basket and he takes it, hurtling toward the rim with Brown in quick pursuit. Under the rim, Gary McGhee, Pittsburgh’s brawny 6’11 265 mountain of a center, waits. With the clock rapidly ticking down he has no idea how much time has left. He sees Vanzant and moves to cut off his opening, not wanting to give him a clean look at the basket.

But there’s still 3 seconds left and Vanzant slips the ball to Butler’s center, Andrew Smith, who flashes into the middle of the lane as his man leaves. As he gets the ball, the defensive rotation comes, but it’s only the 6’2 Ashton Gibbs, and he watches helplessly as Smith positions his body between the two and gently lays the ball in the basket.

The game should be over; a time-out can’t advance the ball past mid-court in college, and the Panthers have only 2.2 seconds to set up a desperate heave at the basket. Yet Pittsburgh is a veteran team, they know what can happen in just a few seconds. As underclassmen two years ago, they watched helplessly as Scotty Reynolds received a pitch-perfect inbounds play and got the ball up the court in less than four seconds to send Villanova to the Final Four.

Gibbs takes a breath to collect himself before inbounding the ball; there’s only going to be one chance at this. He lofts the ball in front of Gilbert Brown as Brown races up-court, knowing that the clock won’t start until one of the Panthers touches it. Butler wouldn’t be Butler if they were going to allow the ball to move up the court unmolested, and Shelvin Mack, the team’s best player, is right in the middle of things.

But in the midst of a career night, he tries to do a little too much. Almost as soon as he starts his motion, he realizes he won’t be able to prevent Brown from getting the ball. He tries to stop his momentum, holding his arms out wide in a defensive stance as if to emphasize that he’s not fouling Brown, but he careens into him anyway, with Brown accentuating the contact and throwing the ball at the rim.

And just like that, Pittsburgh’s season, their best chance to make the Final Four and join college basketball’s elite, has been given a second chance. While the referees try to figure out exactly how many tenths of a second to leave on the clock, there’s a break in the action as the players mull about. Mack is standing in the middle of the free-throw line preventing Brown from setting up, as if by mere will he can undo the last two seconds.

Brown, a 78% free-throw shooter, calmly nails the first shot. The game is tied. There are no time-outs for Butler; no more chances for Brad Stevens to pull a rabbit out of his hat on an inbounds play. With one more free-throw, one of the greatest two-year runs in Tournament history will come to an ignominious end.

But the ball grazes the rim and bounces left and Matt Howard, whose grabbed so many big rebounds in his career, gets one more. Pittsburgh wouldn’t be Pittsburgh if they let people grab uncontested boards, and Nasir Robinson, an undersized 6’5 forward, grabs Howard by the arm as the ball comes down.

Howard, recognizing the gift he’s just been given, immediately throws the ball at the rim, 90 feet the other direction, with Robinson still grabbing his arm.

The Pittsburgh bench knows instantly. Brown tears off his headband and stares incredulously. Across the court, Wanamaker catches the ball as it lands softly near mid-court, and in one moment of frustration pounds the ground with it.

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It's over.

***

Every year, CBS closes out the NCAA Tournament with a montage set to “One Shining Moment”, and for the players, the lyrics can hit a little too close to home.
And all the years, no one knows / Just how hard you worked, but now it shows / That in “One Shining Moment” it’s all on the line / “One Shining Moment” frozen in time / But time is short and the road is long / in the blinking of an eye; that moment’s gone. 
Pittsburgh never wore the role of “Goliath” comfortably. The heart of their team — the senior trio of Wanamaker, McGhee and Brown — weren’t McDonald’s All-Americans. They were 3 and 4 star recruits, the #66, #94 and #150 ranked players in their high school class respectively.

The star of their recruiting class was DeJuan Blair, a powerful but undersized power forward who became an All-American by his sophomore year. And while their friend soon slipped into a starting role for the San Antonio Spurs, they were putting in countless hours in the gym and the weight room. Wanamaker and McGhee added 10 pounds of muscle, Brown 25.

But the NBA, which had been so quick to grab Blair, was not as kind to his teammates. Wanamaker, at only 6’4, didn’t have the size to be a shooting guard or the athleticism to be a point guard. Brown and McGhee had NBA bodies, but not NBA skill-sets.

They were in the top 1% of their chosen field, but it wasn’t good enough. All three have gotten second-round talk now that their college careers are over, but their ability to stick in the NBA will depend as much on luck, getting the right opportunity in the right system, as anything else.

Everything they had done since they hitting puberty, since they had grown big enough that NBA dreams weren’t unrealistic, was pointing towards their last college season. They had worn the cloaks of “star basketball player” for most of their young lives; an identity that would be gone forever the second they took off those Pittsburgh jerseys.

The one moment from this Tournament that sticks in my mind isn’t a shot or a steal or even a basketball play at all. It’s Wanamaker softly pounding the ball on the court, knowing there’s just nothing more he can do. 

There’s not going to be a next year for this Pittsburgh team.

The late teens and early twenties are a transition period, the time between leaving the family that raised you and starting a family of your own. At that point in your life, your friends become your family, which is why the friendships formed in those years often end up lasting a life-time. On the next level, the business of the game prevents the same type of bond from growing between teammates; many have families of their own to look out for, and in an instant, anyone can be traded or released.
“It’s hard because I’ve been with these five seniors for three years,” said Nored, a junior. “And you know, we spend a lot of time together on and off the court.” He gets choked up. “They’re done here,” he said, sniffling. “They are five of my brothers … those guys, what they’ve done for this program — I don’t think words can do it justice.” — Time Magazine. 
It’s those bonds that make college basketball so enduringly popular. Without story-lines and narratives to follow, a game of basketball is just ten guys in tank-tops and shorts running around a hard-wood floor trying to throw a ball through a raised cylinder.

While the pro game features bigger and faster players, players who can generate and convert much better-looking shots at the cylinder, the uniquely short and capricious nature of the college game makes us care about those players running around that hard-wood.

And if people care, they will watch, no matter how many shots those players miss.

Scouting 103: Replacement-Level Players

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The “replacement-level player” is one of the more interesting concepts to come out of baseball’s statistical revolution. No one gets stats in a vacuum; you’re not going to hit 40 HR’s unless you’re getting 400 or more plate appearances. So to measure how much a player means to their team, you can’t just look at their offensive and defensive contributions, you have to look at how they did relative to a league-average player. 

The tricky part is defining what exactly a league-average player is. The talent pool for shortstops is much smaller than the one for first-basemen; it requires a lot more athletic ability to snag line drives on the left side of the diamond than it does to stand on a bag and catch balls thrown at you. Most major leaguers could play first-base in a pinch, very few could be short-stops. Therefore, the level of hitting required to be a league-average 1B is much higher than the level of hitting required to be a league-average SS.

This is what made A-Rod so unbelievable in the early 00′s. He was hitting .318 with 52 HR’s and 142 RBI’s as a SS!

All nine batting positions can be arranged in what is called the “defensive spectrum”: the more demanding a position is defensively, the further it is to the right — DH, 1B, LF, RF, 3B, CF, 2B, SS, C. Conversely, there are lot more replacement-level corner infielders than there are replacement-level catchers. The same idea can be applied to basketball’s positions. All five — PG, SG, SF, PF and C — require roughly the same amount of athletic ability, but there are a lot fewer seven-footers who are NBA-caliber athletes than there are six-footers.

Where basketball differs from baseball is in the distribution of the offense — the distribution of at-bats is constant; the distribution of shots is not. Every NBA team has one or two players they run offense through, which means the other three players spend most of their time on offense watching the ball. And in order to space the court around their best players and prevent the opponent from sending constant double-teams, these players have to make their defenders respect them by hitting open jumpers.

A replacement-level player on the perimeter has to be able to shoot 3′s, while a replacement-level power forward has to be able to knock down a 15-foot jumper. Only centers, who play primarily within 10 feet of the basket, don’t need a jump-shot, though of course it would be nice if they did.

Despite the negative implications of the term, replacement-level players have some value. Because of the salary cap and other limits on player acquisition, many teams are forced to start below replacement-level players: the Miami Heat have been playing below-average players at point guard and center all season.

The Heat’s biggest problem isn’t the “egos” of the Decision Three; it’s the fact they don’t have anyone who can defend point guards and shoot 3′s and they don’t have anyone who can defend centers adequately. When they get replacement-level players at those positions in the off-season, they’re going to start looking like the 70+ win juggernaut everyone was talking about over the summer.

There’s no hiding a below-average player in a basketball game either. If they can’t hit open jumpers, defenses will sag and play 4-on-5; if they can’t adequately defend their position, they have to be hid on the other team’s worst player and hope that he can’t take advantage of them. One of the most common mistakes GM’s make in assembling teams is not understanding the idea of the “replacement-level player”.

 On one hand, you only need two high-usage players, all a third big-time scorer does is take the ball out of the hands of the other two. The Heat would be a lot better this season if they had given smaller contracts to Brendan Haywood, Ray Felton and Mike Beasley instead of Chris Bosh, even though Bosh is worth more than all three in a vacuum.

 But you don’t want to over-pay a replacement-level player either, spacing the floor and playing adequate defense for your position is valuable, but as you move down the height spectrum from center to point guard, it becomes increasingly less so.

It’s also important when looking at college prospects: unless a player has incredible shot-creating ability like the 5’9 Nate Robinson, they have to meet the minimum standards of height, athleticism and skill for an NBA replacement-level player. And the further to the right their position is on the height spectrum — PG, SG, SF, PF, C — the more valuable they are.

Point Guard:

A replacement level point should be at least 6’1 180 with the foot-speed to stay in front of guys like Tony Parker and Jameer Nelson. Only a small handful of players can do a good job defensively on guys like Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook; it’s an impossible standard for the average point guard to fill.

Offensively, they’ve got to be able to consistently knock down 3′s. Andre Miller is the only starting point guard in the NBA who is a below-average shooter from long-distance, and he’s an All-Star level shot-creator and distributor who plays with the ball in hands a lot.

Most overpaid replacement-level PG: Mike Conley, Memphis: $45 million over 5 years. 

While the former top-5 pick has talent, he’s still no better than 20th among the league’s point guards. The Grizzlies have three high-usage players in the front-court (Gay, Randolph and Gasol) so all their point guards should do is dribble the ball up-court and enter it into the post. And the difference between #20 and #40 is a lot smaller than between #1 and #20.

Average contract for a replacement-level PG: Jordan Farmar, New Jersey: $12 million for 3 years. 

There are a lot of replacement-level point guards in the NBDL and Europe, just look at the production of call-ups like Zabian Dowdell (Suns) and Sundiata Gaines (Nets) this season. Back-up point guard is the easiest position in basketball to fill; there’s no need to give someone like Chris Duhon a 4-year $15 million contract or draft someone like Acie Law in the lottery.

Shooting Guard:

A replacement-level shooting guard should be at least 6’5 200, with the quickness to stay in front of guys like Jason Richardson on the perimeter and the length to challenge jump-shooters like Kevin Martin.

Most overpaid replacement-level SG: Richard Hamilton, Detroit: $34 million for 3 years. 

The first-thing players lose as they get older is their foot-speed. Hamilton, a former All-Star, is now best used as a decoy on the perimeter. He can still knock down open jumpers, but he’s not creating his own shot unless you re-arrange your entire offense to run him through a maze of picks.

Average contract for a replacement-level SG: CJ Miles, Utah: $15 million for 4 years.

Small Forward:

The two wing positions — shooting guard and small forward — are fairly interchangeable in the modern NBA. But defending 3′s, who can be as tall as the 6’10 Hedo Turkoglu, is much more of a challenge. Therefore a replacement-level small forward should be at least 6’7 220 while retaining the same amount of foot-speed as replacement-level guards.

Most overpaid replacement-level SF: Caron Butler, Dallas: $46 million for 5 years.

When Butler went down with a season-ending knee injury at the beginning of January, many people thought the Mavericks season was over. But while he would need to be replaced in the rotation, I didn’t think it would be all that difficult:
Most NBA swing-men can do the things he does well — spotting up off Dirk, Terry and Kidd and moving the ball crisply around the perimeter. And his unique skill — the ability to create inefficient jumpers — isn’t of much value on a team with the most efficient shot-creator in the league.  
Defensively, he is an average sized small-forward with an average wingspan and average to below-average footspeed; he gets by on veteran savvy and shuttling faster wings into the Mavs bevy of shot-blockers. He’s not really hurting the team on that side of the ball, but his contributions aren’t exactly irreplaceable.
Sure enough, Dallas signed Peja Stojakovic and Corey Brewer off the waiver wire, and they haven’t lost a beat: going 20-3 in their last 23 games.

Average contract for a replacement-level SF: Ryan Gomes, $12 million for 3 years. 

Power Forward:


Because the two post positions are so interchangeable, with teams like the Lakers, Blazers and Mavericks starting two seven-footers in their front-court, a good power forward is as hard to find, and nearly as valuable, as a good center.

One of your bigs has to be able to bring his defender out of the paint by knocking down 15-20 foot jumpers; otherwise, there’s not enough room around the rim for your best players to operate.

Therefore, a replacement-level power forward should be about 6’9 230, with the strength not to be abused in the low post by guys like Carlos Boozer and the foot-speed to chase guys like Lamar Odom around the perimeter. Most college players above 6’8 are either “3.5′s” (too slow to guard 3′s and too weak to guard 4′s) or “4.5′s” (too short to be 5′s and not skilled enough to be 4′s).

Most overpaid replacement-level PF: Drew Gooden, Milwaukee: $32 million for 5 years. 

Average contract for a replacement-level PF: Antonio McDyess, $10 million for 2 years.

Center: 

It doesn’t seem like too much to ask: be at least 6’11 240 with the ability to hit a five-foot hook shot. Yet good NBA teams like the Knicks and the Hawks are forced to start guys like Jared Jeffries and Jason Collins at center respectively. Like a replacement-level catcher in baseball, a replacement-level center in basketball is extremely valuable, if for no other reason than if you’re not careful you might find yourself without anyone who can play the most important defensive position on the court.

Championships are won and lost in the paint, which is why teams like the Knicks and the Heat, despite starting multiple All-NBA players on the perimeter, have no shot to win a title this season. They are “donut teams” — a lot of shiny but ultimately empty calories on the outside with a big hole in the middle.
 

Average contract for a replacement-level C: Jeff Foster Indiana, $13 million for 2 years. 

There are no overpaid replacement-level centers in my opinion. If you have a seven-footer who can defend the paint without being a complete liability on offense, than you keep him. Which is why I found Boston’s move to deal Kendrick Perkins at the deadline so baffling. 

The Thunder Model

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With Carmelo and Deron Williams now playing in the NY metropolitan area, a new narrative about the NBA has steadily gained steam: How can small markets survive in an NBA where star players control their own destiny? Putting aside whether that should even matter to the average basketball fan, this tiresome concern trolling has one glaring flaw: the Oklahoma City Thunder.

With the signing of Kendrick Perkins to a four-year extension, the Thunder have locked down an excellent young player — Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Perkins — at each position. And with the Lakers, Mavericks and Spurs advancing in age, there aren’t many long-term obstacles to the Thunder in the West.

Durant, who grew up near Washington DC, and Perkins, who grew up in Houston and played the first part of his career in Boston, had no problem staying in the 44th biggest media market in the US. While the easy answer is that Durant has more character than LeBron and Carmelo, the reality is he would have made the same decision if their situations were reversed.

Mismanagement, not market-size, cost Denver and Cleveland their franchise players. While Sam Presti (the Thunder’s GM) and Danny Ferry (the Cavaliers’ former president of basketball operations) were both disciples of Gregg Poppovich and RC Buford in San Antonio, only Presti took their lessons to heart. He tweaked the Spurs blueprint a bit in Oklahoma City, but the core principles remain the same, and they should give hope to fans in small markets throughout the NBA.

#1: Commit fully to rebuilding.

When Presti was hired by the Seattle Supersonics in 2007, the team had won 31 games and missed the playoffs the last two seasons. Their best two players, Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen, were 27 and 31 respectively.

They were stuck on the “mediocrity treadmill” — too good to get a high draft pick and too bad to make any noise in the playoffs. At that point, Seattle had nothing too lose.

So Presti made the unpopular decision to start a fire-sale, one that would drastically change the balance of power in the NBA. He sent Allen, a future HOF, to Boston for Jeff Green, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West. He signed-and-traded Lewis, a former All-Star, to Orlando for a second-round pick and a $9 million trade exception.


From a talent perspective, he got fleeced. But that wasn’t the point. Lewis and Allen wouldn’t be around when the Sonics were good again; all their presence would do is hurt Seattle’s ability to get ping-pong balls in the draft.

#2: Get a franchise player in the draft.

Some years the #2 pick in the draft is Kevin Durant … and some years the #2 pick is Hasheem Thabeet. For all of Presti’s brilliance, if Portland takes Durant first, none of it really would have mattered. But that’s life in the NBA, where superstars are essential to winning anything. But getting an All-NBA player is only the beginning, not the end, of the journey towards a championship.
 
3) Draft guys who “fit” around your franchise player.


The other benefit of stripping your roster bare is how many chances it gives you in the lottery. The Thunder won 20 games in Durant’s rookie season, “earning” the #4 pick in the 2008 Draft. In contrast, the Nuggets made the playoffs Carmelo’s rookie season and never had another lottery pick during his tenure, while the Cavaliers had only more during the LeBron era — Luke Jackson.

The second you select a franchise player, the clock is ticking on building a team around him. You have his rights for four years no matter what, so your best option might be to strip down your team immediately. Unless you have an under-25 All-Star, everyone on your roster should be on the market. Worst case, you get three lottery picks to find another All-Star.

Russell Westbrook averaged only 13 points / 4 rebounds / 4 assists playing off of Darren Collison at UCLA, but the Thunder saw the 6’3 190 guard as the perfect slasher to exploit Durant’s ability to open up the lane with his jumper. They realized that Durant’s ability to create an efficient shot at will made a “true” point guard somewhat superfluous.

With the #24 pick, they took a flier on Serge Ibaka, a raw and athletic 6’10 forward playing on a second-league Spanish team.

The Thunder made incremental progress the next season, winning 23 games and replacing PJ Carlesimo with Scott Brooks in mid-season. But with a young core of Durant, Westbrook and Green, everyone recognized they were a team on the rise. The #3 selection in the 2009 Draft would probably be their last lottery pick.

They picked James Harden, an athletic 6’5 220 shooting guard out of Arizona State. He wasn’t the most talented player available, but he was the best “fit” around the Thunder’s core. Tyreke Evans and Ricky Rubio, the #4 and #5 selections, were sub-par shooters who need the ball in their hands to be effective; their games wouldn’t complement Durant and Westbrook. Stephen Curry is a more natural scorer than Harden, but a back-court of him and Westbrook would be severely undersized defensively. And while the Thunder desperately needed a defensive-minded big man, none of the available options — Jordan Hill, Tyler Hansbrough or Earl Clark — would have helped them.

4) Use the cap space window shrewdly

Under the current soft-cap system, teams have a small window to add talent around their franchise player. Once he gets a max-deal after his fourth season, the salary cap space is gone, and the window is closed. Presti recognized that top talent wouldn’t flock to a rebuilding team in a small market, so he avoided the free agency sweepstakes. In contrast, Ferry gave Larry Hughes a cap-crippling 5-year $70 million contract. Instead, Presti began “renting” his cap space to teams looking to avoid paying the luxury tax.

He turned the trade exception he got from the Rashard Lewis deal into Kurt Thomas, with the Suns giving him two first-round picks (which became Serge Ibaka and Cole Aldrich) in exchange for absorbing Thomas’ salary. The next season, he flipped Thomas to the San Antonio Spurs, who were looking for an extra post defender to match-up with the Lakers in the playoffs. In return, he got a first-round pick which he used to take a chance on Byron Mullens, a raw seven-footer out of Ohio State.

In 2009, the Utah Jazz were shopping Matt Harpring, who had suffered a career-ending injury, and his insured $6.5 million salary in order to get under the luxury tax. Presti once again rented his cap space to Utah, grabbing a promising young point guard — VCU’s Eric Maynor — in return.


#5: Identify the missing piece

For all the Thunder’s young talent, they weren’t going anywhere with a front-line of Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green, jump-shooting big men who couldn’t rebound or block shots. Presti gambled on size in the draft — getting Kansas center Cole Aldrich last season — but he refused to trade for an aging big man like Marcus Camby, who wouldn’t be a long-term solution for the Thunder.

So when Boston began making the 26-year old Kendrick Perkins, a 6’10 280 brick wall of a center, available, Presti was ready. He offered them two young pieces — Green, a talented power forward that the Thunder weren’t willing to pay long-term, and a future #1 from the LA Clippers — and a deal was struck.
The Clippers sent that pick to Oklahoma for Eric Bledsoe, who was originally drafted by Miami and sent to the Thunder (along with Daequan Cook) in order to clear cap space for “The Decision”.

When he started in Seattle in 2007, Presti had an aging capped out team going nowhere. Five years later, the Thunder have a perfectly complementary starting five of Westbrook / Sefolosha / Durant / Ibaka / Perkins with solid players coming off the bench in Maynor, Harden, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed.

Collison’s contract was one more brilliant piece of cap management: a five-year $25 million deal which gave him $13 million up-front. So they paid Collison his money before Durant’s extension kicked-in and shredded their cap room, and now are paying him less than $3 million each of the next four seasons.

Most importantly for a small-market team like the Thunder, their long-term fiscal outlook is good despite committing over $160 million to Westbrook and Durant (assuming max deals under the new CBA will be fairly similar). Perkins just signed to a reasonable four-year $35 million extension, while Harden and Ibaka’s (relatively) limited roles in Oklahoma City should depress their market value. The future in Oklahoma couldn’t be brighter, despite the size of their market.

And short-term, the Thunder are going to be a very tough out in the playoffs. The way the Western playoff bracket is shaking out, Oklahoma looks locked into the #4 seed and a match-up with San Antonio in the second round. They’ve got the size to contain Duncan down-low in Perkins and Mohammed, while San Antonio’s aging back-court doesn’t have the athleticism to handle Durant and Westbrook on the perimeter.

Their Western Conference Finals opponent would be either Dallas or LA. The Thunder now have the size to at least contain LA’s big men; that series would come down to Durant’s ability to score on Ron Artest, Harden’s ability to defend Kobe Bryant and Westbrook’s ability to score on Kobe when LA switches Derek Fisher off of him. Against Dallas, Durant and Westbrook would have an athletic advantage on the perimeter, but their chances to advance to the NBA Finals would depend on Ibaka’s ability to defend Dirk Nowitzki.

So at first glance, I’d say the Thunder have a great chance at making the WCF and a puncher’s chance of reaching the NBA Finals. And if a championship comes to Oklahoma, Durant, Westbrook and Perkins will get the majority of the credit, but the man behind the curtains — Presti — shouldn’t be overlooked.

Building a championship-level team in a small-market isn’t easy, but it can be done.

2011 Mavs Title Odds: 16 to 1

** This ended up playing a huge role in my life. Believe it or not, running an independent blog about basketball isn't all that lucrative. This was eating money for me. Also, check ball! I don't always get these types of things right, but damn I defy you to find anyone else who was saying this in February of 2011.

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The Dallas Mavericks are getting 16:1 odds to win the NBA title. They might not win a championship, but that number will be getting significantly lower as we get closer to April.

Moving towards the trade deadline, the Mavericks were a few pieces away from being serious threats to win an NBA championship: they needed someone who could create his own shot off the dribble from the perimeter, and they needed a quick guard to match up with the new breed of lighting fast points.

Adding Peja Stojakovic and upping Shawn Marion’s minutes at the small forward position has more than filled the “vacancy” created by Caron Butler’s injury.

Rodrigue Beaubois, a second year 6’2 180 guard out of Guadalupe, returned from a season-long foot injury against the Kings last night. He can fill both roles; he’s exactly the piece Dallas needed.

Offensively, everything still revolves around Dirk Nowitzki. In his 13th NBA season, he’s finally figured it out: I am taller than almost everyone who guards me. I have a fundamentally perfect jump-shot which I release over my head. I can pretty much get an uncontested jumper whenever I feel like it, and I hardly ever miss uncontested jumpers!

Of the top 20 scorers in the NBA, only four players shoot over 50% from the field — Dirk, Blake Griffin, Amare and Dwight Howard. The other three players, the three most explosive dunkers in the NBA, do most of their damage near the rim: 69% of Howard’s shots are within 5-feet of the basket, with Griffin at 47% and Amare at 35%. Dirk is only at 12%!

It’s absolutely preposterous that a player who shoots jump-shots 88% of their time has a field-goal percentage of 52%. It’s something the game of basketball has never really seen before.

The Mavs surround Dirk, one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA, with a bevy of extremely skilled veterans. Jason Kidd (35% from beyond the arc), Jason Terry (34%), Peja Stojakovic (a career 40% 3-point shooter), DeShawn Stevenson (41%), JJ Barea (33%) and Beaubois (41% from beyond the arc last year) can all spread the floor. And Shawn Marion, at the age of 32, has transformed himself into an extremely efficient half-court scorer, with a dizzying array of one-handed floaters reminiscent of Antawn Jamison, averaging 11.5 points a game on 50% shooting.

Here’s a good way to think about how potent the Mavericks are offensively: they play two athletic seven-footers at center, and surround them with a combined 27 All-Star appearances and a former Sixth Man of the Year on the perimeter. When Beaubois and Dirk are on the floor, Terry, Kidd and Stojakovic can spot up along the three-point line and wait for open looks. Jason Kidd was 6-7 from three against the Kings; expect more such shooting nights to occurs in the future.

What’s most impressive about the Mavericks offensively is how crisply the ball moves around the perimeter and how little wasted motion there is — they are a team of hungry and smart veterans who know exactly what they are doing. This is Kidd’s 17th year in the NBA, Dirk and Peja’s 13th, Terry and Marion’s 12th, Stevenson’s 11th and Chandler’s 10th. You don’t last ten years in the NBA, the highest level of basketball in the world, unless you really understand how to play the game.

But Dallas has always been an offensive juggernaut, what’s different about this team is their defense. It all starts up-front, with Tyson Chandler (7’1 235) and Brendan Haywood (7’0 263) patrolling the middle. Chandler, who has the ability to guard back-to-the-basket bigs like Dwight Howard and face-up forwards like Amare, has been a revelation. He should be the second-team center, behind only Howard, on the All-Defensive team this season.

The Mavericks would have won championships in 2003 (when they lost to the Spurs in the WCF), 2006 (the Finals team) and 2007 (the 67-15 team that lost to the Warriors in the first round) with Chandler on their roster.

They are an extremely versatile defensive team. Haywood can guard centers, Chandler can guard 4/5 big men, Marion can guard 3/4 swing forwards, Stevenson and Kidd can guard 2/3 scorers and Beaubois can guard point guards.

Their 39-16 record and +3.3 point differential is a little deceiving; Dirk missed nine games with a Cheddar Bob-looking knee injury earlier in the season. The Mavs went 2-7 without him. Against the elite of the NBA — the Lakers, Spurs, Celtics, Heat and Magic — Dallas is 7-3. And all three of those losses have come without Dirk.

They’ve already swept Boston and Miami, and have three games left against San Antonio and LA. The Spurs, with a commanding seven-game lead on Dallas, pretty much have the #1 seed locked up. So Dallas would face LA in the second round in a series that might determine the championship.

There’s only one team Dallas doesn’t really want to see in the first-round: the Denver Nuggets. Dallas’ biggest weakness is defending super-athletic perimeter players who can get to the rim; Denver has four — Melo, Ty Lawson, Aaron Afflalo and JR Smith. There’s no team that would breathe a bigger sigh of relief if Melo heads East than the Mavericks.

The Lakers are the biggest obstacle in Dallas’ path. Lamar Odom, a long-armed and quick-footed 6’10 230 forward, is the best defensive match-up for Dirk in the NBA. He might be the only player in the league who can consistently contest Dirk’s shot — in two games at Staples Center last year, Dirk shot 5-14 and 7-18 and he went 5-15 in the Mavericks’ victory over LA this season.

This is where Beaubois becomes crucial: he’s the only other Maverick besides Dirk who can consistently create his own shot. And he’s exactly the type of lightning fast point guard LA has traditionally struggled with; against the Thunder (Russell Westbrook) and the Celtics (Rajon Rondo) in last year’s playoffs, the Lakers had to cross-switch Derek Fisher with Kobe on defense.

But Kobe, like the rest of the Lakers, isn’t operating at 100%. How could he? LA, in making the last three NBA Finals, has been in 67 playoff games the last three years. They’ve effectively crammed four seasons into three years, which doesn’t even count international play for Kobe, Odom and Pau. There’s a reason only one team — Bird’s Celtics — has been to four consecutive NBA Finals in the last forty years.

And if the Mavericks can get by LA, their road to a title gets a lot easier. Since Tim Duncan can’t guard Dirk on the perimeter, the Mavericks have always presented match-up problems for the Spurs — Dallas is the only team besides the Lakers to beat a prime Tim Duncan in the playoffs. The Mavericks can put Chandler on Tim Duncan, while the Spurs have not had an answer for perimeter-oriented big men like Dirk since Robert Horry’s retirement. DeJuan Blair is 6’7, Antonio McDyess is 36 and Matt Bonner is … Matt Bonner.

Four teams look capable of making the NBA Finals out East — Chicago, Boston, Miami and Orlando.

With Chandler and Haywood, the Mavericks won’t need to double Dwight Howard, which has been Orlando’s undoing in their recent playoff losses. Boston depends on out-executing their opponents on offense and out-muscling them defensively; they won’t be able to do either against Dallas. And at this point in their careers, Kevin Garnett no longer has the foot-speed to keep up with Dirk. Miami has two holes defensively — they can’t guard low-post scorers (Dirk) or lightning-fast point guards (Beaubois). And Dallas has the size and athleticism up front to prevent LeBron and Wade from taking over the paint.

The Mavericks’ toughest match-up would actually be the Chicago Bulls, the dark-horse team in the East. Dallas lost two nail-biters to Chicago this season; the Bulls have two long-armed 6’10+ defenders in Noah and Taj Gibson to throw at Dirk, and Dallas, like the rest of the NBA, has no answer for Derrick Rose defensively. But Dallas could count on Tyson Chandler to shut down Carlos Boozer, as Boozer, at 6’9, has traditionally struggled against long, athletic defenders in the playoffs. This would put a tremendous offensive burden on Rose, since Chicago doesn’t have any other shot-creators on their roster.

With an aging roster vulnerable to injury and a possible gauntlet of Denver/LA/San Antonio/Chicago to overcome, the Mavericks shouldn’t be the favorites to win the title. But at 16-1? I like those odds.