Courtesy of USA Today Sports

How the Mavs became average again

Seventeen games into the 2016–17 NBA season, for all intents and purposes, the Dallas Mavericks were in prime position for the first pick in the 2017 NBA Draft –– unless Joel Embid proved to be a massive flop, allowing the Sixers to once again snatch that honor.

Fortunately, neither of those two things have happened since the calendar turned to December.

As it stands, 44 games into the season, the Mavs are still only a 1/2 game out of last place in the west but its an entirely different team now than it was at the end of November and its been that entirely different team for awhile now. For the sake of my analysis, we’re looking at the last 27 games versus the first 17 and where those numbers rank them during those time periods.

The Mavs are 12–15, .268 percentage points better than their 3–14 record through the seasons’ first two months, and only four games away from the west’s 8th playoff spot. To put that margin in perspective, only 17 games into the season, the team had already managed to put itself seven games out of that spot in the win column. Do you know how hard it is?

So, the question is, beyond gaining J.J. Barea, Dirk Nowitzki and Deron Williams back mostly full-time from lengthy absences due to injury, what changed?

A couple of things.

Ball Movement

Through the first two months of the season, the Mavericks were 27th in the league in assist percentage –– the percentage of field goals made in which any particular was credited with an assist –– with a rate of 53%. Since the start of December, the Mavs have upped that number to 58.3%, the 15th best mark in the league during that time. The team is making the extra pass more often, guards are driving then kicking it out to the open man more often and, of course, Barea is simply one of the team’s better distributors so you knew he’d naturally increase that number. You can even throw in the fact that Deron Williams is playing more consistently as a factor, as well.

All of that has moved the Mavs’ NBA-worst 18 assists per game to 21.6, only the league’s 12th-worst. See? More average.

Makin’ Shots

The Mavericks sucked at making baskets early on.

If you don’t believe me, they had the league’s lowest field goal percentage, 41.1%, and the second-lowest three-point percentage, 31/7%, through those first 17 games. That sort of shooting will put you in the league’s cellar and give you the third-worst offensive rating at 96.6, which basically means the Mavs had the third-lowest-performing offense in the league.

Since, however, the Mavs have bumped that rate up to 107, which has made them the 13th-most effective offense in the NBA since the start of December. They‘ve shot 45.3% from the field and 38% from deep, which is the fourth-best number during that stretch.

See? Much more average.

What It All Means

Maybe nothing. The Mavericks might just continue to win 40–45% of their games and that’ll likely not result in a playoff spot considering both Portland and Denver will only get better as their rotations develop more chemistry and, for Denver especially, their youth-driven rosters grow.

But, it could also mean the second half the year will be quite competitive, something we’ve seen proven since the start of December. After posting an average points differential of -8.8, second-worst, the Mavs have drastically raised their competitiveness in each of their last 27 games, only losing by an average of -0.1 points. In fact, since Christmas, the Mavs are outscoring the opposition by 1.0 points per game.

All I would say is this: Keep an eye on the Mavericks. They have the necessary veteran presence with several youthful contributors, mainly Dorian Finney-Smith, Dwight Powell and Seth Curry. That trio is playing an average of 22 minutes per game, shooting 50.9% and have an average+3.2 rating when on the court.

Essentially: If the Mavericks regress to the mean, it might actually result in a playoff berth.