DALLAS – Rick Carlisle probably can’t make it through dinner with his wife and daughter without discussing the Dallas Mavericks' need to improve defensively this season.
Without prompting, Carlisle brought up defense only seconds into his press conference at media day. It was the sole focus of the Mavs’ opening practice of training camp. He readily admits that it’s an obsession for him.
“I just look at the roster, and I just know that has to be our emphasis,” Carlisle said. “We’re going to work hard on our offense, but our major emphasis has got to be the defensive end.”
There’s no point in dancing around the issue. The Mavs, who tied for 18th in the NBA in defensive efficiency last season (107.1 points allowed per 100 possessions), must allow significantly fewer points to have a prayer of being a playoff factor.
The challenge for Carlisle’s Mavs: accomplish that mission with a starting lineup that is flawed at that end of the floor.
Dirk Nowitzki has never been shy about acknowledging that his athletic limitations make individual defense difficult for him. That’s also the case for point guard Jose Calderon. Monta Ellis usually ranks among the league leaders in steals, but he’s been a high-risk, high-reward defender whose size (6-foot-3, 185 pounds) puts him at a significant disadvantage against most shooting guards.
“We’ve all got to pick up the slack for them,” said Shawn Marion, the one player on the roster who has earned a reputation for being a defensive stopper. “It’s a team effort. We’ve got to collectively help each other.”
That’s what made signing Samuel Dalembert, the last real interior defensive presence available in free agency, so important this summer. He understands that he’s being paid primarily to rebound and help mask the defensive flaws of other Mavs.
“That’s the piece the team needs,” said Dalembert, who has career averages of 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game as a part-time player. “I watched them last year. They have no problem scoring, but defensive-wise, they want to be back where they were three years ago. That’s our focus. That’s our goal.
“You’re not going to try to make a guy who has not been a defensive player a defensive player overnight, but what you can do is you can make them feel comfortable. Give me your best and if you get beat, I’ve got your back. That’s the key.”
The Mavs are counting on Dalembert to be the anchor of the defense, but it’s unrealistic to expect him to clean up messes on a consistent basis. That’s why “collectively” is a buzzword in Mavs camp.
"On paper, we don’t have a group of guys that look like individual defensive stoppers," Carlisle said. "I mean, Shawn Marion is still one of the best guys in the game. Vince [Carter] has good analytic numbers on defense. Dirk is better than you think he is on defense. But we don’t have any first- or second-team all-defensive guys on our team, so we have to do it collectively."
Carlisle repeatedly cites what he considers the Mavs’ most troubling defensive stat from last season: They allowed the second-most made free throws in the NBA. It’s proof that they were a poor perimeter defensive team that couldn’t stop teams from attacking off the dribble without fouling.
That’s one facet of defense that Carlisle will hammer during camp and continue harping on all season. Another is one-on-one defense. Transition defense – and not giving up good looks on 3s early in the shot clock – is another.
It’s about understanding the concepts of the Mavs’ defensive scheme, which was good enough to win a title in 2011, and accepting the sacrifices necessary to make the whole more than the sum of the parts.
“It starts with an attitude and an understanding of how important it is,” Carlisle said. “I’ve got to make sure guys know how important it is. That’s the starting point.”