Coach Rick Carlisle responded with a blanket statement when asked about how well the Mavericks’ new starters have immediately meshed with Dirk Nowitzki.
“There’s no player that’s ever played in this league that wouldn’t be a better player if he’s on the floor with Dirk Nowitzki because of how the game changes when he’s out there,” Carlisle said.
Fortunately, that isn’t an issue with their replacements. Nowitzki and shooting guard Monta Ellis have been the Mavs’ most efficient two-man tandem in terms of plus-minus, as Dallas has outscored opponents by 49 points in 162 minutes with that duo on the floor. The team’s next best tandem: Nowitzki and center Samuel Dalembert (plus-25 in 120 minutes).
The Mavs were outscored by an average of 2.2 points per 48 minutes with Mayo and Nowitzki playing together last season. It was even worse when Nowitzki paired with Kaman (minus-5.8 per 48 minutes), which is why Kaman quickly fell out of favor with Carlisle.
It certainly helps that Nowitzki is healthy after dealing with knee problems last season, but the Mavs acquired free agents who are much better fits with him than the fill-ins last year.
In the case of Dalembert, his strengths are suited to fill the roles the Mavs need from their big man next to Nowitzki. He’s a rim protector and rebounder whose role offensively is pretty much limited to setting picks, crashing the boards and occasionally catching (or fumbling) and finishing. Kaman, on the other hand, is a lead-footed defender who operates offensively in some of the same midrange space as Nowitzki.
Ellis is at his best as a pick-and-roll initiator and is thriving with all of the space created by defenses’ concern about Nowitzki. Mayo, who put up big numbers while Nowitzki was recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, simply wasn’t a good enough decision-maker to do well in that role.
“Basketball IQ,” Mark Cuban said. “Some guys play off athleticism. Some have a specific skill. Some guys just know how to play.
“Watching Monta watch a pick, get set, waiting for it, seeing that the angle isn’t right, stepping back out and having the patience to do that, we didn’t see that once the entire year last year. And he does it two or three times a game. That’s just a night and day difference.”
Not coincidentally, so is the plus-minus.