Perhaps it was a fitting coincidence that I ended up behind Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler in a Starbucks line during Final Four weekend in Indianapolis: Seattlites (even transplants) need their coffee and Starbucks is familiar.
Or maybe we should have been protesting in memory of the Seattle Sonics.
In any event, after exchanging pleasantries, Agler asked if I was going to the free agent camp going on that day and invited me to ride along with he and the Storm coaching staff.
Long story short, we talked about a range of things during the car ride there and back to downtown Indianapolis: from the Washington Huskies' coaching vacancy (filled that afternoon by Xavier coach Kevin McGuf) to what Agler liked about Bridgette Mitchell, who he decided to sign almost immediately after seeing her in a previous day's free agent camp. But one of the more interesting conversations I had was with assistant coach Jenny Boucek about spending time with the Dallas Mavericks coaching staff this off-season.
Boucek said that she tries to spend every off-season learning something from NBA coaches and also mentioned Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy as someone with whom she had exchanged ideas with. However, the reason she focused on the Mavs might be obvious to basketball fans who pay attention to both the NBA and WNBA: both teams feature a versatile forward as the focal point of their offense as well as an efficient distributor to run the offense at point guard.
Although there are some obvious limitations to comparing teams across leagues beyond the surface-level comparisons of their stars, there are three similarities that make studying how the Mavs set up Dirk Nowitzki for scoring opportunities instructive for how the Storm might set up Lauren Jackson. And in assuming a two game lead in the first round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Mavs have shown the primary reason why Boucek studying them might be helpful for the WNBA champs.
1. The Mavs rely more heavily on motion and sharing the ball than most NBA teams
Boucek pointed out that one of the chief differences between men's and women's basketball is that women's teams rely more heavily on moving without the ball and passing than the isolation plays that are more prevalent in the NBA. So, if there's any NBA team worth a WNBA team emulating, it might be the Mavs whose offense relies on movement as much as any in the men's game.
While a large part of the Mavericks' offense is setting up Nowitzki, they are also one of the most fluid offenses statistically - their 1.16 synergy rating (described here previously as a proxy for how well a team shares the ball to set up scoring opportunities) was the highest in the NBA during the regular season while the Storm led the WNBA at 1.14. Interestingly enough, neither team led the league in the component parts of synergy - assisted field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage - during their respective regular seasons. But being at the top of both is significant, especially in thinking about how they might share plays.
2. The Mavs have a pretty good point guard to execute their offense
No small part of why the Mavs share the ball so well is the play of point guard Jason Kidd, who might be aging but is still an elite distributor if not clearly the top point guard as Storm point guard Sue Bird might can be considered.
Comparing point guards across leagues is rather difficult because NBA point guards tend to have much higher scoring tendencies relative to their peers, so even beginning to compare what Kidd does to what Bird does would probably be considered pointless. However, we can say that both are among the most efficient distributors in their respective leagues in terms of their pure point ratings (PPR), which serve as a proxy for how well a player balances their rate of creating assists with turnovers; Kidd's PPR of 9.71 was fifth in the NBA this regular season whereas Bird's PPR of 6.63 was second in the WNBA.
The biggest difference between these two point guards is that Kidd has the lowest scoring tendencies of any NBA starting point guard (he was in the 8th percentile in scoring tendencies, coincidentally just below former WNBA player Mfon Udoka's brother) and wasn't particularly efficient as a scorer with a true shooting percentage of 50%. In contrast, it probably goes without saying for most WNBA fans that Bird is a much bigger scorer than Kidd. However, Kidd's performance thus far in the first round of the playoffs only creates a stronger similarity between the Mavs and Storm that makes a comparison of the two even more interesting.
Kidd's 24-point performance on 6-for-10 3-point shooting in the Mavs' Game 1 victory against the Blazers was the most he'd scored in a year, as described by Ben Golliver of CBS Sports. After most analysts thus assumed it unlikely that he would repeat that outburst, he came back with 18 points on 3-for-6 shooting from the 3-point line. Even more impressive is that he's maintained his efficiency as a passer as well with 12 assists and only one turnover over those two games.
Clearly having a point guard that can both distribute and score efficiently makes a team far more dangerous within an offense predicated on movement - it helps stretch the defense and create more space for scoring opportunities. With Kidd shooting a scorching 56.3% from the 3-point line the Mavs become an extraordinarily difficult team to defend because he's a player that can't be helped off of. And with Peja Stojakovic getting hot as well in Game 2, suddenly the Mavs offense really opened up allowing players like J.J. Barea to drive and ultimately destroying "Portland's defensive confidence" as Golliver wrote.
After wearing down a defense, it's much easier to pull off something similar to what happened at the end of Game 1, with Kidd executing a beautiful backdoor play.
But as much as a well-designed play like that depends on the point guard's ability to execute it to near perfection, it also illustrates how difficult it is to guard Nowitzki when he's on the move.
3. Nowitzki is very difficult to guard when put in motion
What Boucek cited as the main reason for studying up on the Mavs was an interest in how they put Nowitzki in motion to set him up for scoring opportunities, which has obvious implications for what the Storm might do for Jackson.
First, it's worth noting that Jackson and Nowitzki are not direct analogues despite the frequent comparisons by NBA fans who watch the WNBA - relative to their peers, Jackson is far more interior-oriented than Nowitzki and almost unquestionably the better defender whereas Nowitzki is more of a pure scorer yet also a more efficient distributor. Nevertheless, what matters most is the biggest similarity: both of these players are matchup nightmares to defend.
As mobile players with center height and the skill to score from multiple places on the court, there simply aren't many defenders in the league that can stop them. And as Sebastian Pruiti of NBA Playbook and Basketball Prospectus has described, that means that the Mavs really only need very simple sets to get Nowitzki open for scoring opportunities. And in averaging 30.5 points against the Blazers in these first two playoffs, the effectiveness of those sets has been abundantly clear.
It's not just that Nowitzki is killing the Blazers from the free throw line (28-for-30 shooting) or scoring so much, but how he's doing it that's so impressive: often receiving the ball isolated with a defender in space, whether it be on the block, on the wing, or in the high post. With that much space to work, the only thing most defenders can do is hope he misses the shot. Moreover, on some occasions - particularly in the high post - Nowitzki ends up with a considerably smaller defender on him in position to score. Moreover, on some occasions - particularly in the high post - Nowitzki ends up with a considerably smaller defender on him in position to score.
But most noticeable is that by "space" I mean occasionally an entire half of the court, as Pruiti illustrated well with the following play.
Although Nowitzki takes a trademark tough fadeaway shot in that sequence, there aren't a lot of players in the NBA who have any chance of guarding him in that situation. And there is nobody in the WNBA who can guard Jackson in a similar scenario.
But while Nowitzki takes a lot of difficult shots, the types of scoring opportunities he gets are what could be most helpful for Jackson and the Storm. So what might be considered a more subtle difference between the two players becomes more interesting - Jackson shot nearly as many 3-pointers in 32 games last season (156) as Nowitzki shot in 73 games during the regular season (168), which certainly contributes to Nowitzki making nearly 10% more threes than Jackson. That's nearly three more per game.
So what if the Storm could find more ways to get Jackson open for higher percentage mid-range shots instead of so many 3-pointers?
Obviously, Jackson had a dominant MVP season last summer in leading the Storm to the 2010 WNBA title so this is certainly not to suggest that her game requires "fixing". But the power of the sets the Mavs run for Nowitzki is their simplicity and although the Storm might not utilize all of these sets that Pruiti lays out, any one of those post-up or spot-up sets could be just as powerful with a Bird-Jackson combination as they are for the Mavs.
And perhaps the play that's most representative of the Storm's potential with these sets is this one.
Notice the help defender starting to come over for a double team but hesitating to stay with his man (which is simply the result of his man drifting over to wing) - the threat of Nowitzki kicking out to a 3-point shooter if a double were to come creates more space and makes him more difficult to guard. The same would obviously apply to Jackson.
Key differences that make the Storm potentially better with the Mavs offense
One of the biggest differences between the Storm and the Mavs (and really the Storm and any team in the NBA or WNBA) is that they can put lineups on the floor where all five players are 30%+ 3-point shooters without sacrificing rebounding or defense.
The Storm complemented Jackson in the frontcourt last year with Camille Little and Le'coe Willingham, who are more versatile players than, say, Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood in multiple ways: although Chandler and Haywood are better offensive rebounders relative to their peers than Little and Willingham are to theirs, the Storm's frontcourt - including Swin Cash - is much more efficient from the 3-point line.
So imagine these "simple yet beautiful" sets used in ways that leverage that 3-point shooting threat with additional action. Well, it would no longer be simple, but it would be even more potent. The Mavs' plays are clearly designed to make it difficult to double at all. But having other post players that can shoot as well could mean clearing out any possibility of someone to legitimately defend the paint on Jackson drives. That means tons of opportunity to not only create space for Jackson, but also force the defense into nearly impossible situations.
To be clear, the Storm are at their best when they're moving the ball as is - it's not as though they're a static team by any means. But emulating what the Mavs do to create more space for scoring opportunities for Nowitzki while also putting pressure on the defense to follow all of that motion could make the Storm an even more potent team.