Why the Mavs are better without Steve Nash.

The stadium scene.
June 7 2006 5:12 PM

Least Valuable MVP

Why the Mavericks are better without Steve Nash.

Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki. Click image to expand.
Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki

In the summer of 2004, Steve Nash signed a widely ridiculed five-year, $65 million contract with the Phoenix Suns. His former team, the Dallas Mavericks, would have liked to re-sign him but couldn't see making a long-term, expensive commitment to a 30-year-old point guard with back problems and a reputation for playing terrible defense.

Two years later, nobody's mocking the Suns. Nash and Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni have built an unorthodox and highly effective offense centered on the fast break and the 3-point shot. The Suns had the league's best regular-season record in 2005. This year, despite the loss of Amare Stoudemire, they made it all the way to the Western Conference finals. Along the way, Nash has won consecutive MVP awards; he's the only point guard besides Magic Johnson to win two.

Advertisement

So, do the Mavericks regret their decision to let one of the game's top players go? Not at all. The Mavericks, who knocked out the Suns last week on their way to the NBA Finals, are doing just fine without Nash. In fact, the two-time MVP was the one holding them back.

Most critics attribute the Mavs' resurgence to a newfound focus on defense. This has supposedly been inspired by the departures of the offensive-minded Nash and the offensive-minded coach Don Nelson (in 2005), along with the arrival of defense-obsessed coach Avery Johnson. Superficially, that seems right. In 2004, Nash's last year, Dallas averaged 105.2 points a game while surrendering 100.8; this season they score 99.1 and give up 93.1.

Look closer, however, and this defensive improvement is an illusion. The 2004 Mavs played very fast-paced basketball. That up-tempo Dallas squad averaged 93.2 possessions per game, second most in the league. This year, the Mavericks use 87.8 possessions per game, which ranks 27th of 30 NBA teams. Slowing down the game means you'll both score and surrender fewer points. The best measure of defensive effectiveness, however, is efficiency—how many points you allow per 100 possessions. In Nash's last season, Dallas scored 112.6 points per 100 possessions while giving up 106.9. This year's squad did only slightly better, giving up a middling 104.7 points per 100 while remaining an offensive powerhouse by scoring 112.1 points per 100 possessions. (These stats are available at the invaluable Basketball-Reference.com.)

If Dallas isn't winning because it plays better defense, then what's the team's secret? The Mavericks are winning because they've unshackled Dirk Nowitzki. The conventional wisdom says that great players in general, and Nash in particular, make their teammates better. But in the case of the Mavericks, Nash made Nowitzki—the team's best player and his best friend—distinctly worse.

Playing with Nash turned Nowitzki into a half-star, half-carnival freak. Nash's penetrate-and-dish moves allowed the 7-foot tall, David Hasselhoff-loving German to take advantage of his uncanny accuracy from the 3-point line. It turns out, though, that having him spot up for 3-pointers isn't the best use of Nowitzki's abilities. Nash's great asset is his unselfishness and ability to find the open man. What makes Nowitzki special is that he doesn't need to be open in order to score. Nobody can guard him.

There's no use sticking a tall guy on Dirk—opposing big men can't move their feet fast enough to keep up. Teams abandoned that strategy years ago in favor of deploying shorter perimeter stoppers against him. This throws defensive schemes into chaos by creating mismatches elsewhere on the floor. Not to mention that, as of this year, the little guys can't slow down Dirk, either. Nowitzki can shoot over the heads of much-shorter defenders or, even better, post them up around the free-throw line. Low-post scorers such as Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal are often hampered by their poor free-throw shooting. Nowitzki's free-throw prowess—he shoots 90 percent from the line—means he's all but impossible to stop. Despite the new Mavs' much slower pace, Dirk's scoring average has gone up five points since Nash left. Playing closer to the basket has also made him a better rebounder. A strong case can be made that Nowitzki, not the MVP Nash, has now emerged as the best player in the NBA.

Nowitzki has gotten better by parting ways with the league's most unselfish player. And Dallas as a whole is proving that you can generate an effective offense by "playing the wrong way." The Mavericks run lots of isolation plays and don't usually bother passing to the open man. Nash's Suns ended 19.7 percent of their possessions with assists, the highest rate in the league. Nowitzki's Mavericks assisted teammates just 14.8 percent of the time. Only the horrifyingly bad Knicks had a lower rate. Meanwhile, the superselfish Mavs had the league's second-most efficient offense in the regular season. In the playoffs, they're third behind Phoenix and San Antonio, two teams they've eliminated. This has allowed them to get all the way to the Finals by being merely not-bad on defense.

Coach of the Year Avery Johnson deserves credit for the Mavericks' resurgence. He's just getting credit for the wrong thing. Johnson had the gumption to modify the Dallas offense to suit his star's abilities rather than his habits. It's extremely unlikely that the motivation would have existed to alter the Dallas offense, though, if the team hadn't lost its quarterback.

TODAY IN SLATE

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger's New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM The Global Millionaires Club Is Booming and Losing Its Exclusivity
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger's New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 10:43 AM Social Networking Didn’t Start at Harvard It really began at a girls’ reform school.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.