Every team loves rooting around for under-appreciated, undervalued, post-Moneyball players; the Mavericks have simply taken it to an extreme. Under Rick Carlisle, Dallas has thrown out conventional fit in order to focus strictly on value, the way you might in baseball, but which has failed again and again in the NBA.
No matter how disjointed their roster ends up, the thinking goes, the Mavs know they have one of the league's best coaches around to shape it into a fully functioning unit. It isn't just finding a way to keep Dirk being Dirk while he's pushing 36, or pulling Shawn Marion and Vince Carter out of cryo-freeze, or finding Monta in renaissance. It's the ability to throw basically anyone onto the roster, so long as he's talented in some way—important given Dallas's limited roster flexibility—and trust it will work out. And so Carlisle has been left with three imperfect big men and a bad joke of a free agent to flank Dirk Nowitzki, and somehow, they've all emerged as key reasons the 8th-seeded Mavs are tied at 3-3 with the superhuman Spurs, and entering Game 7.
The Patchwork Frontcourt
Samuel Dalembert, DeJuan Blair, and Brandan Wright have split time manning the frontcourt opposite Nowitzki this season, and the one only thing they have in common is that they have absolutely nothing in common. Dalembert provides some value as a rim protector (he's allowed 52 percent shooting near the rim, according to SportVU, in both the playoffs and regular season, though he's a spacey overall defender at times) but is a catastrophic offensive player. The undersized Blair has always been a monster on the offensive glass, but at 6-foot-7 has obvious limitations on defense. Ditto for rail-thin Wright, whose frame makes him both an elite finisher at the rim and a liability against more physical opponents. This is a useful collection of skills, and a disastrous set of liabilities, but Carlisle has found a way to incorporate all of them into a productive unit.
Each game begins with Dalembert holding down the fort at the center position. The veteran big man isn't some Andrew Bogut, Dwight Howard-esque defensive force, but the team doesn't need him to be. For the most part, Dalembert just has to avoid being a liability. And so far, he's done that. Through the first six games of the series, Dallas is -15 in the 127 minutes Dalembert is on the floor, according to NBA.com. Though that stat is nothing to write home about, it's more respectable when you factor in that most of the time Dalembert's been on the floor this series he's battled Duncan in the post and switched onto Tony Parker. The problem with Dalembert is that his lack of a single useful offensive skill drags the Mavs' offensive rating down a full 7.5 points, from 111.6 when he's on the bench to 104.1 when he's on the floor.
Most of the time he's just biding time before Wright the Destroyer checks into the game. For those of you who haven't seen Wright play until now, you're just becoming aware about what an offensive force he can be. The long-limbed reserve isn't overly effective outside of the basket area (though he is capable of converting an open jumper nowadays), but his dominance right there was enough to give him the highest points per possession of anyone in the NBA (min. 10 games) at 1.274, as far ahead of LeBron James as LeBron is ahead of George Hill.
Wright's ability to rule the vertical space near the rim demands the full attention of a defense. Dallas has put Wright in lineups filled with shooters, spread the floor on offense and run pick-and-rolls—with either him or Nowitzki as the screener—until the lights burned out. His threat to finish above the rim for a dunk sucks in the entire defense, opening up the floor for the Mavs shooters. Pairing him with Nowitzki during the regular season turned Dallas into an offensive juggernaut—the team had an offensive rating of 116.4 (which would easily be the best in the league) when those two shared the floor. He's given the Spurs fits all series doing stuff like this:
Wright has been mostly a non-factor since then—though he did play well again in a Game 3 win—but it hasn't been so much him as it was the emergence of DeJuan Blair. Since Wright's return from injury in mid-December, Blair has become something of an emergency big man. Should Dalembert get in foul trouble, or Wright find himself at risk of being dismantled in the post, or the team need a change of pace, Blair gets the call. And so far he's been out to stick it to his former employer. Never the most engaged defender, Blair has found new levels of energy and focus in this series to go along with his quick hands (he has 10 steals in just five games) which were evident when he tipped the ball away from Manu Ginobili and took it coast-to-coast for a layup in Game 2. You aren't going to see this type of effort and production from Blair on defense over 100 games of regular season and playoffs, but while it lasts, Carlisle is riding it out, hoping it's enough to steal another game. And as long as Blair acquits himself on the defensive end of the floor, his rebounding and unique pick-and-roll finishing—there might not a big man with a better floater on the move—help boost the Mavs offense.
Blair's suspension for Game 5 ended up being a major blow. Dalembert sprained his ankle early in the game and looked limited the rest of the night. Wright ended up being forced to play 24 minutes (where he was actually +6 despite a few defensive breakdowns). The more minutes Wright battles Duncan in the post is an advantage for the Spurs. Before the series began, the loss of Blair would have almost seemed inconsequential. But he's been the Mavericks best non-German big man so far this series, going +24 in his 66 minutes according to NBA.com.
The Devin Harris revival
Despite drafting Shane Larkin and signing Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, and Gal Mekel this offseason, the Mavericks extended a veterans minimum contract to Devin Harris (after voiding a larger deal due to concerns over an injured toe). Harris missed the beginning of the season because of the injury, and returned looking like a dude trying to rediscover his game. Through the first six games of this series, however, Harris has resembled the player that made him an All-Star in 2009.
Because of the attention that must be paid to Nowitzki in pick-and-rolls, San Antonio has given the Dallas guards the opportunity to control the game. Ellis has struggled this series, going 49-of-116 from the field for an effective field goal percentage that's ghastly 46.6. Even worse is that Ellis is just 8-of-30 (26.7 percent) on shots from 16-24 feet, or in other words, the areas of the floor the Spurs are leaving open. Combine that with some awful defending in pick-and-rolls, and it's easy to see why Dallas is -28 with Ellis on the floor so far this series.
Harris has stepped his game up to pick up the slack, going 15-of-25 in the first two games of the series before cooling off a bit in Games 3-5—though he did have 12 combined assists in those games. In a crucial Game 6, Harris found his stroke again, finishing with 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting from the field. By using his speed to quickly turn the corner out pick-and-rolls, Harris has found the space to knock down open jumpers or create a good look for a teammate. Naturally, it's been a welcome source of offense for Dallas, but it also has boosted their defense.
As long as Harris is on the floor scoring points, the Calderon-Ellis tandem—which the Spurs tore apart in the regular season—aren't put in a position where they can be exposed. So far, those two have fared surprisingly well this series, battling the Spurs to a draw, but a large part of that has been because Calderon was wisely hidden on Danny Green while Ellis checked Kawhi Leonard when the two teams played their starters at the beginning of the series. Green doesn't have the offensive repertoire to attack Calderon and the Mavs have wisely sent double teams whenever the Spurs have posted Leonard. And though being forced to use double teams to combat a mismatch is never a good thing, Dallas hasn't been burned too badly because Leonard's post battles against Ellis have mostly occurred when Duncan and Tiago Splitter, two players unable to really stretch the floor, have been on the court together.
It produced good results early on, but Gregg Popovich has countered. He dusted off Matt Bonner to help with spacing, and has gotten Ginobili into the game quicker for Green and even experimented with using Patty Mills and Tony Parker in the same backcourt at times this series. Should that continue, Dallas will have a hard time finding a way to keep both Ellis and Calderon away from bad matchups. If Harris can continue to play well on offense, both knocking down jumpers and creating for others, it will give Carlisle the option to use him in place of either Calderon or Ellis, removing a defensive liability without sacrificing the superior offense.
If Dallas ends up pulling off the upset, Harris will likely be key reason why. So will Dalembert, Blair, and Wright. But above all, it will be the Mavs' ability to take their misfit roster and turn it into an advantage.