('88 Record: 53-29)
No one really understands this team, do they? The press sure doesn't. At the beginning of last season, when the magazines were predicting/previewing the season, none really agreed on how successful Dallas would be. They all agreed that Roy Tarpley was a future star and they were right. Most everything else they all said about the team was rather nebulous and unimportant.
Even throughout the season, the press never really figured out the Mavericks. On one day, the NBA Roundup would start with, "The Mavericks Appear Ready to Take Over." On the next, it would start with, "Mavs Shot Down by _____." Sure, Dallas was somewhat inconsistent through the year, but the media followed the team's ups and downs with its own optimism and pessimism of the team's future. It eventually looked like the press gave up trying to figure them out and just printed obscure and unimportant things about the team. In the USA Today team-by-team notes, when we found out about how Sacramento was handling its defensive problems or what Doug Moe thought of his team's success, what we heard about Dallas was that Uwe Blab had an off-season job in the computer industry or that Detlef Schrempf wanted snow for Christmas.
Once during the regular season, when the Mavericks played the Lakers, Laker color man, Stu Lantz, showed his true knowledge of the Mavs. When talking about Rolando Blackman, Stu said, "There is no question he is probably their best all around player." That's a mighty strong testimony, Stu. When you get married and the reverend gets to the 'do you take _____ to be your lawfully wedded wife' part, I recommend you don't say, "I probably do." If you ever see someone robbing a liquor store and get called into court to identify the guy, don't tell the jury, "There is no question he is probably the man I saw." Didn't someone once tell you in broadcasting school, "sometimes you should be firm and put your foot down, even when you're wrong"? Brent Musberger puts his foot down a lot and also puts his foot in his mouth enough, too. And he's famous.
The media weren't the only ones who didn't understand Dallas. Coach John MacLeod at times did funny stuff with his team as though he didn't know what he was working with. At the start of the season, MacLeod said he wanted the team to run more and to get the ball to James Donaldson more. Neither of those things happened as the team's possessions were down by nearly four per game and Donaldson took 150 fewer shots from the field. MacLeod also said when he took over that Sam Perkins had "shown constant improvement in his three years," even though the numbers didn't support this. It's odd that in Perkins' first year under MacLeod, he had what might be considered his worst year.
One thing that MacLeod seems to emphasize a lot is balance on offense. In 1979, when the NBA began to be taken over by point guards, MacLeod was strongly opposed to them. All of MacLeod's teams in his NBA coaching career, from best to worst, had the feature that many players had 200 to 400 assists, but none of his teams ever had a top flight point guard. That is the balance MacLeod looks for. Derek Harper looked like he was on his way to becoming a great point guard after the '86-87 season. His '87-88 season wasn't as impressive as many had hoped it would be. Whether that was because of MacLeod's system or because Harper himself let down is debatable, but it is now tough to see Harper eventually developing into a superstar point guard.
MacLeod inherited an awesome offensive team that had an improving but still suspect defense. The article he wrote for Hoop magazine's NBA Yearbook Edition was concerned mostly with what he'd do to improve the offense, though, crediting the improvement of the defense to assistant coach Richie Adubato and saying that it must continue to improve. The Phoenix teams under MacLeod always had good team defenses and very average offenses. I really don't know why MacLeod would try to change the offense of the Mavs when it was already much better than any he had ever coached.
The results of MacLeod's first year at Dallas could be called good or bad, depending on how you look at it. The Mavericks advanced quite far in the playoffs, missing the Finals by one game. Though they finished second to Denver during the regular season, they got by them in six games in the playoffs. The regular season wasn't nearly as satisfying as the playoffs, though. The offensive fall-off was quite drastic, losing eight and a half points per game, of which three points were due to a drop in quality and the remaining five and a half lost to a slower pace. An eight and a half point drop is a big deal and you can bet the NBA previews in the fall will all be talking about it. Even after adjusting for the pace, the three point per game drop was substantial and ominous. Only the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets (combined record: 56-190, .137) fell off more. Adjusting for pace, the defense improved by only one and a half points per game. Somehow, there was another half point per game lost in the rounding of stats and the Mavericks lost 1.9 points per game overall last year from the previous year. This deficiency showed in their struggles to beat some of the better teams in the league. Their record in blowouts also dropped from 34-9 to 29-15. When they couldn't get by Denver in the last week of the season, they looked doomed in the playoffs.
But they did all right. They pushed around the World Champs for a while and never gave up when times got tough. They had to have gone out with a strong belief that next year is their year.
If I understood this team, I'd probably say that they have the best chance in the West to win it all next year, especially with Tarpley soon to become the inspiration for a Windex/NBA Glass Cleaner of the Year Award. But I definitely don't understand this team and won't go any farther than to say that they will make the playoffs next year.
For about two years now, I've been closely watching how the three point shot is used in the NBA. What motivated my interest in the shot was the controversy in both college and pro basketball about how far the three point line should be from the basket. The line in college is 'too close' and the NBA line is 'too far'. Too close for what? Too far for what? Too easy? Too hard? Compared to what? Should the three point field goal percentage be two thirds of the two point field goal percentage? If that is what is desired, the line is going to have to be moved back every few years until teams decide that it's not worth it, when it reaches 35 feet or so. What was the original purpose of the three point shot? To liven up the game? How so? At the moment, the NBA three point shot gets virtually as much excitement from the crowd as a slam dunk. In college, the situation is similar except with schools like UNLV and Loyola Marymount, where about twenty percent of all their shots are three pointers and the excitement is a little different.
It's hard to say exactly what the NBA wanted from the three point shot when it instituted it in '79-80. The NBA game has been changed in so many ways by the shot in nine years that it's hard to say if the NBA got exactly what it wanted from the shot. If all the NBA wanted was increased popularity, it's definitely got it.
In the first year of the three point shot, teams were anxious to make good use of their new weapon. There were 5003 three pointers taken that year, or about 2.8 per team per game. San Diego, led by Brian Taylor (an ex-ABA player), took 542 shots from bomb range and made 177 of them to lead the league in both categories. Atlanta was on the other end of the spectrum making only 13 of 75 three point tries for only 17% and was the only team to attempt less than one three pointer per game.
In the second year of the trey, its use decreased by about 25% with only 3815 three pointers shot and one more team (Dallas) to shoot them. What caused this decline was probably coaches telling their players to pass up the shot until they got more proficient with it. Or maybe the defense started respecting it more and didn't leave it open as much. The better three point shooters of the '79-80 season - Taylor, Larry Bird, Downtown Freddie Brown, Brian Winters, Rick Barry, and others - all just stopped shooting the shot, with the exception of Barry, who retired. For the most part, they didn't shoot it as well percentage-wise as they did in '79-80 either. Overall, the league three point shooting percentage dropped from .280 to .245, showing that everyone felt the 'three point shot sophomore jinx'.
In '81-82, use of the three pointer went back up a little. About 500 more were shot and about 300 more were made, improving the percentage to .262. Arguably one of the best years in history for offense, '81-82 was ironically the only year when the leading three point shooting team, Indiana, was not at least an average offensive team. This was the year that Doug Moe's Denver Nuggets went all out on offense. Not only did they run a lot, they also scored very efficiently, shooting 52% and keeping the turnovers down. Like the other top offensive teams of the season (Philadelphia, the Lakers, San Antonio, Boston), though, Denver didn't really use the three point shot as a part of their offense. In '81-82, the three pointer was mainly used by poor teams - teams that had to come back from deficits a lot. Similarly, how many three point attempts a team had against it was a reliable indicator of how good that team was. Cleveland and San Diego, with a combined record of 32-132 (.195), had a total of 277 three pointers attempted against them. Milwaukee, L.A., and Philadelphia, with a combined record of 170-76 (.691), were 1-2-3 in the league in opponents' three point attempts with 224, 213, and 212, respectively.
The '82-83 season was statistically very weird. I have a bunch of graphs in front of me showing certain statistical trends from season to season and, in most every graph, there is an odd glitch for the '82-83 season. It seemed that the NBA defenses made their last strong stand during this year. Milwaukee, New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Washington all allowed less than a point per possession (see Utah comment). Philadelphia rode the strength of their defense to an easy championship, with Moses Malone playing the best defense of his career. With this better defense, three point shots disappeared again. They were being shot only slightly less frequently than the previous year, but the percentage plunged to an all-time worst of .238. Only four players even qualified to win the three point shooting title. Fourth place went to Allen Leavell, who made 42 of 175 three pointers for 24% - the league average. Interestingly, '82-83 was the last season in which the NBA attendance record wasn't broken, suggesting that fans don't like such good defense.
In '83-84, things basically returned to normal. This season was a lot like '81-82: high shooting percentage, high floor %, high points per possession, and a similar number of three pointers made. The three pointer was still a shot reserved for only a few people like Darrell Griffith and Mike Evans, but there were signs for a broader future. Michael Cooper was learning his unique set-shot approach to the three pointer. Byron Scott and Dale Ellis came into the league and found the shot within their range. Guards and forwards started shooting the trey instead of forcing a pass or dribble when the twenty-four second clock was running down.
The following year, '84-85, was the year of the first three point revolution. For the first time since the Clippers of '79-80, there were teams that had more than one or two good three point shooters. Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, the Lakers, and Washington all had at least three players who made 15 or more three pointers. League records were set for three pointers made, attempted, and three point shooting percentage. Boston, Dallas, and the Lakers showed how the shot could really improve an offense when used wisely. Dallas, especially, had an offense that epitomized the future of '80's offenses. A slower pace, low turnovers, a slightly lower field goal percentage, and a good free throw percentage to go along with lots of three pointers are the current trends in the NBA that were strong characteristics of the '84-85 Mavericks.
The defense made a small comeback in '85-86 and held the three point revolution back slightly, keeping it at almost the same level as in the year before. But it couldn't hold it back long.
Wasn't it the '86-87 season when the 'NBA is Fantastic' commercials started showing three pointers in addition to slam dunks and sensational passes? There certainly were enough three pointers to choose from with 2687 made, breaking the old record by over 900. For the first time, the league three point percentage topped 30% and six teams made at least 33% of their three pointers, which is the 'break-even' point for 50% two point shooting. Only four teams - Detroit, the Clippers, Phoenix, and Washington - didn't really have a good three point option. Dallas again led the way, setting records for three pointers made and attempted as well as being the first and only NBA team to ever have five players make more than 15 three pointers and four players make more than 30.
Three point madness continued last year as most every record that fell in '86-87 fell again in '87-88. New league highs in three pointers made, attempted, and percentage (2979, 9421, and 31.6%), highlighted by team records set by Boston in all three categories (271, 705, and 38.4%), confirmed all thoughts of the trey becoming a real offensive weapon, not just a quick way to come back at the end of the game. Many of the NBA's best offenses, like Boston, the Lakers, Dallas, Denver, and Seattle, used the three pointer quite often, taking an average of 8% of their shots from three point range. A few players, like Michael Adams, Danny Ainge, and Reggie Miller, went totally wild on the shot, taking an average of 36% of their shots from bomb range. And they are talking about shooting it more.
That's where we are now. We see about ten three point attempts per game and about three made. We see runts like Michael Adams making them and we see 6'9" forwards like Larry Bird making them. We see teams make strong fourth quarter comebacks with them and we see teams make early first quarter getaways with them. We see an exciting facet of the game that has become so popular that it's hard to believe it took the NBA thirty years to instate it.
But why has it become so popular? Haven't scoring and field goal percentages gone down to levels as low as they were in '79 when the game wasn't as popular? And haven't we been told that what we like is good offense? Coaches must have seen how scoring and field goal percentages went down with increased three point usage; so why did they keep using it?
It is true that, using traditional methods of measuring offense, the three pointer hasn't improved offense at all. Even adjusted field goal percentages are lower now than they were in 1982, when three point madness hadn't yet struck. But the three point shot has had many side effects that field goal percentage, scoring, and adjusted field goal percentage don't see.
The biggest side effect the three pointer has had has been on turnovers. In '78-79, the last pre-three pointer year, teams averaged 1623 turnovers per 82 games. A year later, that average was down to 1553 per 82 games. In '87-88, that average was all the way down to 1372 per 82 games. Tracking turnovers and three point attempts, there is a very high inverse correlation between the two, meaning that as one goes up, the other is very likely to go down.
Another effect has been on the pace of the game. There has been a steady drop in possessions since the inception of the three pointer. Part of the drop has been the replacement of turnovers, a 'quick' possession ender, with three point attempts, a 'slower' possession ender (because offensive rebounds are possible and because the time spent in the air on a shot is more than the time taken on a turnover). Part of this drop is increased use of the twenty-four second clock by the offense. Teams can lay back for twenty seconds looking for a good safe pass inside and settle for a three pointer if it's not there. A common theme that arose when people gave their suggestions on how to beat the Lakers was to slow the tempo. Rollie Massimino and his Villanova Wildcats have used the strategy very successfully against running teams in college. It seems to be the common counsel for beating faster better teams. Part of the reason such a strategy seems to work is that, when there is five seconds on the twenty-four second clock and the three point option is available, it isn't as necessary to get the ball in close for a good shot, which takes time and can be risky. Teams can now sit at the perimeter and shoot the trey if the middle is choked off and they're running out of time.
(I've heard more than once that misses on three pointers are more likely to be rebounded by the offense than misses on two pointers. If this is true, then three pointers have improved the offense in this way also. There is no information I know of, however, that supports this idea and I actually believe that it might be the opposite of what really happens, in which case, the three pointer actually hurts the offense. What my playing experience supports and what makes sense to me is the former opinion, but there is absolutely no evidence I know of to support it.)
When we take into account the effects of the three pointer on turnovers and pace, it is clear that the shot has in fact improved NBA offenses. Points per possession has climbed fairly steadily in the last nine years and floor % is higher than it was before the shot was adopted. (It is strange to note that two point field goal percentage has gone from 49.9% in '85 to 49.0% last year.) The coaches probably see these improvements, even though they may not know the stats, and that is why they keep using the three pointer.
Some people have speculated that the three point shot will become more and more prevalent in the years ahead. My gut feeling is that that is incorrect and that we'll see only slight increases in the future. Part of that feeling is based on reason (teams will only allow the three pointer until it becomes a greater threat than the traditional two point game), but part of it is also based on my strange inclination to see Dallas as an indicator of the future of the league. Ever since I've been in this business (since '85), it seems that I've always ended up looking at Dallas as a 'model' team in some study. I don't know why this has happened and it is probably stupid reasoning, if it can be called reasoning at all. But, the Mavericks are cutting down on three pointers and improving their defense (and slowing the pace) and part of me somehow can't help but see the league following them.
Basketball Hoopla, © 1988, L. Dean Oliver