Since the beginning of his tenure with the Dallas Mavericks, it seems that Rick Carlisle has never had it easy. While his rivals in San Antonio base their success off continuity, Carlisle typically spends his summers getting familiar with a brand new supporting cast brought in to surround Dirk Nowitzki.
This year is no different. Monta Ellis and Tyson Chandler were allowed to leave. DeAndre Jordan then left Dallas at the free agency altar. This year, of all the years the Mavs had to reset after swinging and missing in their summer star hunt, was supposed to be the one where Dirk and Dallas suffered a long, sad fall from grace. Yet as we cruise past the halfway point in the season, the Mavericks are 25-19, a mark good for fifth place in the West.
By now, Carlisle’s roster wizardry is becoming the stuff of legend. But how exactly does Dallas’ resourceful head coach continue to keep the Mavericks competitive year in and year out despite the annual overhauls? Well this year, one set run for one of his new additions perfectly encapsulates Carlisle’s underrated brilliance.
Before coming to the Mavs this summer, Deron Williams spent three-and-a-half seasons in Brooklyn piling up buckets off a basketball action that’s been around since the days of John Wooden: the UCLA cut. The UCLA cut is a pretty plain action involving a big man screening for a perimeter player at the elbow. But what it lacked in flash, it had in substance, at least when Williams ran it in Brooklyn. It seemed like two or three times a game, the Nets would run this play and free Williams to torment an opposing defense:
The amazing part of this play is the how difficult it is to defend despite it’s simplicity. Just look at how non-threatening it looks at the start, right after Williams makes the entry pass to the wing.
Underneath that banal setup, however, lurks a complicated web of options. If the player defending Williams jumps toward the ball and tries to shepherd him toward the paint, Williams will act like he’s passively cutting through before popping back out for a 3 with the help of a quasi-flare screen from his big man at the elbow.
Should a defender still want to play between Williams and the ball but is leery of being burned by the screen, then this happens.
So after watching these you are probably thinking that the defender should be the one taking the route through the paint while Williams cuts ballside. But take a different path and guess what? You tend to get the same result.
And if you play the screen somewhat indecisively, as Matthew Dellavedova did in the original video, Williams scouting around the screen for free throws and layups is a common outcome.
Giving extra help from the big man defending the screener also seems like a possible solution, but doing that creates a negative ripple effect as well. When Williams received this screen from Brook Lopez in Brooklyn, his big man sagging down to help on the cut meant Lopez was free to fire an uncontested jumper from a spot on the floor he’s very efficient at.
In Dallas, Zaza Pachulia doesn’t offer the same threat as a jumper shooter -- teams would live with Pachulia shooting bushels of 15-footers every game -- but that doesn’t mean it makes sagging on Williams cut a good option. Every inch the big defending Pachulia (or whoever is screening at the elbow) sinks down to help on the cut puts him further out of position to defend a pick-and-roll between the player with the ball on the wing and the big acting as a road block for Williams at the elbow. Giving pretty much any NBA player a chance to dribble off a screen without a big man in a proper position to corral him is typically death to any defense.
So after diving into the difficulty of defending this set, it’s easy to wonder what makes Carlisle such a genius for putting it into the Dallas playbook. I mean, it doesn’t exactly take a MENSA member to borrow (steal, whatever) a play from Williams’ old team that probably gave Carlisle fits when the Mavs had to defend against it. And while that’s certainly true, such a simplistic view of it also overlooks how it’s works in concert with Carlisle’s entire approach with the latest of his ever-changing rosters this season.
Before his tumultuous tenure in Brooklyn, Williams was one of the best pick-and-roll players on the planet. Injuries have since sapped his effectiveness and Williams is no longer the same dynamic pick-and-roll guard he once was. Because of that, Carlisle has put in more halfcourt actions that rely more on Williams coming off screens without the ball then using ones with it. So far this season, Williams has averaged just a shade under 11 plays per game that involve him either attempting to score or pass out of pick-and-rolls, down from the 14.1 he averaged last season, as charted by the Synergy database. The UCLA set used for Williams is essentially a vehicle used to carry out this overarching goal.
In general, Carlisle has tried to get away from running a high volume of pick-and-rolls with not just Williams, but his entire roster. Last year, Dallas finished first in plays per game in which the ballhandler scored out of pick-and-rolls. This season, they have dropped all the way to 15th, per Synergy data.
It’s a wise move from Carlisle because despite the defense-altering presence of Nowitzki, not many current Dallas players are top-flight creators out of that action. On top of that, Pachulia, acquired to be the team’s starting center after the DeAndre Jordan fiasco, is hardly one of the league’s more dynamic roll men. So lacking both a threatening screener along with a ballhandler he can just throw into any old pick-and-roll and find efficient offense, Carlisle shifted his half-court offense. Instead of trying to be a pick-and-roll based offense (all NBA offenses are still very pick-and-roll dominant, obviously, so it’s all relative) with a less effective Williams, a non-threatening Pachulia and a cast of perimeter players that don’t exactly inspire comparisons to Chris Paul, Carlisle pivoted toward more plays and concepts that involve screening and cutting off the ball.
The UCLA set that Carlisle imported for Williams acts as the telltale sign of this clever shift. And while the Mavs aren’t exactly setting the world on fire from an offensive standpoint -- the team ranks just 19th in offensive efficiency according to our RealGM database -- Dallas would probably be a lot worse off had Carlisle stubbornly stuck to an approach he’s used with previous rosters. And because of the adaptability of their head coach, the Mavericks are once again in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.