Mavericks maintain defensive culture

That the Dallas Mavericks rank in the top five in three critical NBA defensive categories -- opponent field goal percentage, points per game and defensive efficiency -- defies logic.

That the Mavs shared the top spot in opponent field goal percentage with the Los Angeles Lakers entering Thursday night's games goes against all reason.

That this Dallas defense owns the franchise record of 15 consecutive games of holding an opponent under 100 points and takes a second nine-game streak into Friday's game at the Philadelphia 76ers is almost as mind-blowing as Linsanity itself.

Because when Tyson Chandler walked out the door, the Mavs were supposed to walk off the defensive cliff. Yet this remade reigning champion, with the ultraversatile Shawn Marion trumpeting the charge and last season's backseat center Brendan Haywood anchoring the paint, is proving that you don't have to throw out the culture with the culture-changer.

That is, after all, what Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki and others in the organization called the 7-foot-1 Chandler not long after his arrival in a surprising but hardly heralded offseason trade. He quickly shoved Haywood to the side and just as quickly won over the affections of a franchise and a fan base.

As Haywood struggled to perform in his unexpected backup role, a scenario he would later acknowledge unnerved him, Chandler's popularity soared and so did the Mavs. As Haywood was criticized for his perceived pouting and putting up the lowest numbers of his career, Chandler was revered while cementing himself as the fiery, final piece to the Mavs' excruciatingly elusive championship puzzle.

And then he was gone.

"I'm done talking about Tyson," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said. "No disrespect to Tyson, but he doesn't play for the Mavs anymore."

No, he plays for the Mavs' Sunday afternoon opponent, the New York Knicks, his chosen path once Cuban made it clear post-lockout that he was out of the luxury-tax game and working toward cap space under the new collective bargaining agreement. Cuban offered his six free agents one-year deals when most, and especially Chandler, could cash in elsewhere.

And Chandler did, securing a four-year, $56 million deal. At his introductory news conference at Madison Square Garden, Tyson said his top priority was: "To get everybody playing defense." Doing so has proved a more arduous process than a season ago.

Chandler has had a fine season, one that some have argued is All-Star worthy -- Carlisle made the same case on his center's behalf last year. He is averaging 11.8 points and 9.6 rebounds, near identical numbers to his only season with the Mavs.

"Don't know, don't care," Cuban said when asked if Chandler has All-Star credentials. "I'd rather hear more talk about 'Wood for all-defensive team. Do you know who's No. 2 on points per possession defensively?"

Sweat dripped over Cuban's raised eyebrows as he awaited the answer while climbing the stair machine outside the Mavs' locker room into oblivion.

"He's looking great," Cuban said of Haywood. "Just right behind Dwight Howard in that stat. So far, that's what the numbers show."

Even Cuban, an advocate of advanced statistics, has contended that numbers can't entirely be trusted during this compacted schedule because fatigue is not factored in when teams are in the midst of a particularly grinding stretch.

Yet it is impossible to ignore such blaring raw data because it adheres so closely to what the eyes are computing while watching the games.

"Dallas has turned into an incredibly good defensive team," Denver Nuggets coach George Karl confirmed after his team was held 20 points below its season average in a 102-84 loss at Dallas on Wednesday night.

Statistically, Haywood is having one of his finer defensive seasons according to ESPN Stats & Information. He is allowing opponents in post-up situations to shoot 33.3 percent, ranking him tied for fourth in the league. Scoring percentage against him is 33.7 percent, fourth in the league. Chandler, conversely, is allowing 44.8 percent shooting, 15th in the league, and a 38.1 scoring percentage that ranks 13th.

Chandler is allowing .738 points per play to Haywood's .651. Haywood is a plus-48 on the season and part of the Mavs' No. 1 plus-minus unit. Chandler is minus-15 on the season. None of this suggests that Chandler has suddenly diminished as a defensive player. Individual performance is rooted in the overall team concept.

Dallas added players such as Vince Carter and Delonte West, who were quick to pick up the Mavs' system, one that the core group fully bought into last season and again sunk its teeth into following the humbling two home losses to start the season.

"When it became clear that Tyson wasn't coming back we knew that we still had a starting center here so that was a real positive for us," Carlisle said. "Brendan's been a real solid player in this league for a long time. This year he's become more vocal, he's become a real anchor for us defensively. He loves the challenge of playing against the better players and he's faced a whole murderer's row of them lately."

Although Haywood has often evenly split time with his backups, his 7-foot, 263-pound presence has been a steadying defensive force and the backbone behind Dallas becoming one of the league's stingiest defenders of the paint. The Mavs rank sixth in points allowed in the paint this season after ranking 20th last year.

Chandler's Knicks had no such defensive foundation. Two weeks ago, this was a dysfunctional unit driven by Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire on the verge of implosion with an 8-15 record. Then, Jeremy Lin came on the scene and turned the Big Apple upside down.

Come Sunday at high noon, two of the NBA's hotter teams get together. Linsanity will be off the chain. New York favorite Jason Kidd will take a Madison Square Garden stage that he devoured with the New Jersey Nets for so many years. Nowitzki and Stoudemire will revive an old rivalry.

And down in the paint, two former teammates will do battle in one of the less glamorous storylines and one that's almost completely overshadowed.

Nevertheless, it is one bursting with intrigue and with a good measure personal pride on the line.

"I'm not worried about me personally," Haywood said earlier this season. "I'm worried about the team. It's not about how my stamp comes off because if my stamp looks good and we have a losing record no one cares, so it's all about how we jell as a team and that's all that it comes down to is team goals."

With a top-five defense, so far, so good.

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.