The Dallas Mavericks are 21-16, stand fourth in the Midwest Division and sixth in the Western Conference. They have won six of their last 10 games, but they needed a 127-121 overtime win over New York on Monday to snap a two-game losing streak after falling to Indiana and Detroit.
The Mavericks are coming off a 60-22 season -- their best in franchise history -- and gave the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs all they could handle before losing in six hard-fought battles in the Western Conference finals last spring. But the Mavs made roster moves in the offseason that they hoped would upgrade their offense and rebounding. They sent catalyst Nick Van Exel and others to Golden State for Antawn Jamison and Danny Fortson, later traded Raef LaFrentz and Jiri Welsch to Boston for Antoine Walker and Tony Delk and signed free-agent point guard Travis Best. It hasn't worked out the way they had hoped.
Compared to last season, when the Mavs got off to a 14-0 start, they've never gotten a consistent flow to their game. They were 10-4 after their first 14 games this season, and their record has never gotten better than six games over .500. The Mavs score 102.3 points per game (second-best in the league) and are rebounding better (third-best in total rebounds); but their defense has become considerably more vulnerable. Last season, they allowed 95.2 points a game and a .438 field-goal percentage to opponents. So far in the 2003-04 season, the Mavs allow 99.9 points a game -- most in the NBA -- and .453 in field-goal percentage defense (27th in the league). They've also struggled to win on the road (5-13) compared to last season when they were 27-14 in away games.
Walker (16.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists) and Jamison (15.6 points, 6.5 rebounds) have been effective on offense; but Fortson plays sparingly (11.6 minutes a game), averages 3.6 points and 4.9 rebounds and hasn't been able to handle opposing big men defensively. Shawn Bradley, who gave the Mavs some good minutes defending the paint last season, has been injured and has contributed very little.
Consequently, coach Don Nelson mostly uses a three-forward lineup of Dirk Nowitzki, Walker and Jamison, along with Steve Nash and Michael Finley in the backcourt. There's no one among that group to defend opposing big men in the basket area, and the Mavs are forced to play zone defenses that are getting riddled.
The best teams in the West have big men who dominate the paint. San Antonio has Tim Duncan. Sacramento has Vlade Divac and Brad Miller and will soon have Chris Webber back. The Lakers have Shaquille O'Neal and Karl Malone. Minnesota has Kevin Garnett. Some of the lesser teams -- Denver (Nene), Phoenix (Amare Stoudemire), Portland (Zach Randolph) and Memphis (Pau Gasol) -- also cause problems inside for the Mavs.
The Big Three of Nowitzki, Nash and Finley are playing well, but not quite up to last year's standards. All are averaging fewer points and shooting lower percentages from the field. All season, Nowitzki has nursed sore ankles, which have limited his mobility. Delk has been inconsistent, Best has not been able to fit in and rookies Josh Howard and Marquis Daniels, although playing better than expected, lack game experience. Eduardo Najera, a front-court battler who has given the Mavs a lift off the bench in the past, can't get minutes with the additions of Walker and Jamison.
The result is that the Mavs, who ran teams off the floor last season with an uptempo attack and spectacular shooting, score less efficiently and have big trouble stopping opponents. Last season, LaFrentz and Bradley gave the team shot-blocking and post defense that enabled the Mavs to play game segments of solid man-to-man defense. The ability to do that made their zone defense more effective, and Nellie adroitly shifted in and out of defensive schemes. This year, the Mavs are limited to playing mostly zone alignments, and opposing teams are ready to attack.
If the Mavs hope to return to last season's form, they must improve their defense in transition and in the paint. Since that is unlikely with their existing personnel, I expect the Mavericks to deal for a quality big man before the trade deadline in February. They recently acquired journeyman 7-footer Mamadou N'diaye, who has the size and shot-blocking potential to help seal off the basket area but has yet to show NBA ability in three years with Toronto. Portland's Rasheed Wallace would be a positive addition.
If no trade is forthcoming, the Mavs must use better double-team schemes in defending opposing big men and they must tighten their rotations to open shooters. They won't go far in the playoffs if they continue to lead the league in points allowed and are close to the bottom in field-goal percentage defense.
Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.