Thoroughly dismissed out West, the Dallas Mavericks’ hot start is forcing people to take another look and rethink their expectations for the season.
Entering the season with an underwhelming roster, a wealth of injury concerns and a superstar seemingly on the decline, many predicted, myself included, a lottery finish for the team.
However, after three weeks, not only does Dallas sit with an 8-4 record and a five-game win streak, but the Mavericks find themselves with the third-best record in the West behind powerhouses Golden State and San Antonio. With an impressive 5-2 record on the road, the Mavericks are making considerable noise in the Western Conference.
The force behind the Mavericks’ good start lies in the frontcourt. Zaza Pachulia, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell have held the team together while the backcourt and wings have stumbled out of the gate, both health and shooting-wise.
When Dallas traded for Pachulia, it was well known he was a last-minute add to save face after the DeAndre Jordan fiasco. After swinging and missing on Jordan, the plan was to re-sign Tyson Chandler or bring in Robin Lopez or trade for Roy Hibbert or any one of a million other possibilities. As we all know, that timing of Jordan’s reversal left the Mavericks out of luck and time to make any move other than bringing in Pachulia.
A part-time starter throughout his 12-year career with Orlando, Atlanta and Milwaukee, Pachulia stepped into the starting lineup with the weight of the Mavericks’ rebounding woes on his shoulders. Last season the Mavericks ranked 23rd with 42.3 rebounds per game. To make matters worse, they saw their leading rebounder, Chandler, walk out the door and take his 11.5 boards per game with him.
To everyone’s surprise, Pachulia has been a force on the glass this year. Not only is the center leading the team with an average of 9.8 rebounds per game, but his 18.8 percent rebounding rate also demolishes his career rate of 15.8 percent.
With a top 10 rebounder manning the center spot in Pachulia, Dallas has neutralized its biggest perceived weakness and now rank eighth in total rebounds (45.2), second in defensive rebounds (36.8) per game and eighth in defensive rebounding rate (77.9).
While Pachulia was never afraid to crash the boards throughout his career, averaging 9.7 rebounds per 36 minutes, his defensive performance in the paint was entirely unexpected.
While posting a career-best 98 Defensive Rating is nice, the real shock is that for the first time in his career, the 31-year-old center ranks in the top 20 of points saved per game, per NylonCalculus.com. His presence down low has forced opponents to hang around the perimeter and fire from deep. Mavericks opponents take the second-most three-pointers per game, but make them at the 27th-best rate, thanks to the tenacity of the Dallas defenders.
While Pachulia has been an unlikely anchor on the defensive end, the Mavericks’ offense predictably looked to Nowitzki to stay afloat. The real surprise is at what level the 37-year-old is performing.
Nowitzki was written off as an offensive threat this season, as he was expected to take a backseat to Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews and Chandler Parsons. All the 18-year veteran has done so far is prove the naysayers wrong by showing that while his body may fail, his shot hasn’t gone away.
Thanks in part to his career-high 52.1 percent from the floor, his 18.5 points per game lead the Mavericks. More impressively is that he’s doing it in the lowest minutes since his rookie year, 28.6 per game. A top 15 player regarding Offensive Rating (119.4), PER (23.4) and Offensive Win Shares (1.1), Nowitzki has shown he will not go gently into that good night. He wants to walk away a winner.
Nowitzki and Pachulia have been standing tall and giving Dallas its respective leaders on both sides of the ball. The pair has also only played less than 200 minutes, or 16.3 minutes per game, together on the court this season. With coach Rick Carlisle looking to preserve the pair’s legs, second-year forward Dwight Powell has gotten the run to make an impact on the Mavericks so far.
Posting 10.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in 22.2 minutes per game off the bench, Powell has provided a spark that’s kept the Dallas second unit as the third-most productive bench with a 3.9 Net Rating. His exceptional play has given the Mavericks an exciting three-headed monster in the frontcourt.
While the stats will show that the Mavericks are a completely average team, the inspired play of the unlikely trio of Pachulia, Nowitzki and Powell have the Mavericks putting up numbers in the only category that matters: the win column.