Oofta. It’s been a rough week.
Five games in seven days. All on the road. All on the East Coast. Four losses, including poor showings against conference rivals and lottery teams alike. Bad mojo. A Wesley sized hole in my heart. Tragic Instagram photos that make Steel Magnolias look like the Disney channel original. A league that seems to be gearing up (did you see what the Spurs did to the Hawks?!) around us and two more injuries to top it all off. Ugh
During times like these, people try to find and provide perspective. It’s one of the reasons Dave’s writing and opinion is so valued across the city. When you want to hear from someone measured, even, and thoughtful, attributes that become more valuable in times of stress, go to Dave.
But he is by no means the only perspective dealer in town. Recently, Terry Stotts has picked up the mantle, pointing out that 2010-2011 Dallas Mavericks lost a starter and struggled for a few games before going through the gauntlet of the playoffs and hoisting that infamous gold trophy named after some Irish dude.
The comparisons between Caron Butler and Wesley Matthews are pretty striking. They both play on the wing. Both were the third leading scorers on the team averaging around 15 points per game. They even grew up in the cheesy state of Wisconsin, less than a two hour drive apart. They both suffered season ending injuries that put their teams' title hopes in jeopardy. But dig a little deeper and this comparison starts to become more fool's gold than buried treasure.
Butler, in many ways, got his points through volume. If you’ve ever seen him play, you know he loves to face up and take long jumpers. That ball-stoppery helped him reach the all-star game two years in a row and he continued to be a central cog in Dallas’ offense. His usage percentage of 25.1% was second highest in the starting lineup (behind Dirk Nowitski). For reference, that number is about equal to what Tony Parker is doing this season. He was still reasonably efficient so this wasn’t a bad thing but Butler’s role was much more Damian Lillard than Matthews. Butler was a secondary scorer who left the toughest defensive assignments to Jason Kidd and Deshawn Stephenson.
Start looking at the defense a little closer and the comparisons break down completely. All of the metrics that measure a player’s overall contributions (win shares, value of replacement player, etc.) paint Wesley as a far superior player. Real Plus Minus (RPM), in my opinion the most rigorous of this type of statistic, is particularly harsh. This stat takes traditional plus minus but then accounts for the quality of the players’ teammates and opposing players. During the 2010-2011 season, Caron Butler had a -1.5 RPM, the seventh highest on the team, according to Jeremias Engelmann. The Mavericks were carried by Dirk, Tyson Chandler, and Jason Kidd who all had incredible years. Each guy finished in the top 25 in RPM that year. In terms of overall importance, both Butler and Stephenson were role players complementing the Dallas Triangle.
We often think of Wesley playing a similar complementary role but I’m not sure that’s an apt description this year. He has unquestionably been the Blazers’ third best player on the team and the numbers reflect that. This year, Wesley’s RPM is 2.64 behind only Lillard and Aldridge on the team. The way the offense works, he plays off of other players but that shouldn’t deceive fans into thinking he’s not one of the key players in the starting unit.
As you might imagine, it’s a lot easier to replace a complementary player than a key one. Butler’s replacement, Shawn Marion, was absolutely capable of fulfilling that role. They are very different players, but in terms of overall impact and ability, comparable was a fair characterization at the time (his RPM was -1.8 that year).
In a strange way, Arron Afflalo is more similar in style but the quality gap is wider. Wesley’s got a much quicker release on his outside shot. He bullies players on the block forcing irregular substitution patterns from the opponent. He’s much more physical on defense and more disruptive on the weakside. His timing in our offense is impeccable. Afflalo can do all of these same things to a point but their impact is smaller, as evidenced by his alarmingly low RPM numbers (-2.18 this year and -3.19 last year).
Now, I need to be careful not to over use a single stat but those numbers are striking. It’s one thing to replace a starter with a player who has a different style but similar effect on the game. It’s another to try and substitute a player with a similar style that has a lesser overall impact.
That might be an over reaction given how little time Afflalo has been with the team. His game will improve somewhat as he gets more comfortable, especially his timing within the offense. The other beacon of hope is Batum returning to normal (everybody pray to lumbar gods). Last year, Batum was probably the third best player on the team. In a way, he could replace Wesley allowing Afflalo to fit into a more complementary role.
That’s the end game for the Blazers here because the biggest thing I learned trying to figure out how the Mavericks adjusted to Butler’s injury was that they didn't do much. Obviously, they traded for Peja Stojakavic and promoted Marion to the starting lineup but that’s basically it. Nobody significantly changed their role or their style of play. Before the injury, they had a nine man rotation with Marion backing up both forward spots. That’s essentially what they looked like in the playoffs with a bunch of experimenting in between.
As soon as Butler went down the Mavericks saw a cascade of smaller injuries. The result was a lack of consistency to their starting unit or rotation. Before Caron hurt his knee, Dallas had used six different starting lineups over the first 32 games. Over the final 50 games they had 16. Most of these featured Rodrigue Beubois, a guy I had completely forgotten about until I started researching this article. He sprained his ankle the second to last game of the season. As a result, the lineup that would lead the Mavericks to the title started the final game of the season. It was the first time that happened since November 15th. All told that group had played a total of 50 minutes together the entire season. To say the Mavericks caught lightning in bottle hardly does it justice.
The interesting thing is that the starting unit struggled throughout the playoffs (relatively speaking). They had a net rating of -6.2 points over 186 minutes. It was the team's other lineups that really won it for them. Dallas’ second most used post-season lineup - Kidd, Terry, Marion, Dirk, Chandler - absolutely ripped through the playoffs. In 163 minutes, they pulled off a net rating of +38.1. Thirty-eight! In the playoffs! That’s insane. That’s so insane, I feel insane for not being able to think of a more powerful word than insane. The Mavericks knew that lineup was good (+20.4 in 187 minutes during the regular season) but still, to get that kind of production in the playoffs was just short of a miracle.
The real miracle was the third most used playoff lineup - Barea, Terry, Peja, Dirk, Haywood - scoring 135.1 points per 100 possessions over a not too tiny sample size of 106 minutes. It didn’t matter that they couldn’t defend a lick, they still had a net rating of +22.3. This was completely unprecedented as that group was -0.1 in only 41 minutes during the season.
How did they do it? Basically everyone caught fire at the right time and Dirk ratcheted it up to a Herculean level takeover. Kidd, Terry, and Dirk all shot three to eight percentage points higher from behind the arc and Barea went nuts. He didn’t shoot well from outside but he increased his true shooting percentage and usage percentage at the same time - a rare feat.
If the hope is the Blazers can recreate the same magic Dallas found in 2011, it’s going to have to happen in a different way. The Blazers don’t have a bench unit they can count on to come through like the Mavericks did. The closest one would be what might be called the All-Offense lineup of Blake, Lillard, Batum, Aldridge, and Leonard. That group is a +20.5 in 32 minutes of playing time. If anything, that seems more comparable to the Barea, Terry, Peja group that came out of nowhere and scored everything in sight.
Even if Stotts does use this lineup more frequently and successfully, the Mavericks still had a second, heavily used group that dominated other teams and carried them through the playoffs. The only possible analog for the Blazers is the starters. Portland has always been a starters heavy team and, unlike Dallas, they will need those guys to come through to make a run through the playoffs.
So far, it’s not going well. The starters with Afflalo have a net rating of -9 in 181 minutes. The offense has been OK but the defense has fallen off a cliff. They’re allowing over 114 points per 100 possessions, a number that would easily be the worst in the league. 181 minutes isn’t a definitive sample size but it’s not small either.
The good news is it’s relatively early and there’s still enough games for those guys to work out some more kinks. Aldridge is certainly capable of Nowitski-esque run through the playoffs. We’ve seen Lillard get hot countless times and Afflalo can certainly stroke it. The harder thing to see happening is McCollum or Blake joining the three pointer party. But hey, if freaking JJ Barea can do it, why not 3J or Blakey.
Without their best defender, the Blazers will likely need this kind of offensive explosion in the playoffs if they want to make a run. This isn’t unprecedented as the Mavericks rode this same kind of explosion all the way to the title. But it will be an uphill battle against the odds. As tantalizing as the comparisons may be on the surface, replacing Wesley and Butler are two entirely different tasks.
*All stats are from basketball-reference.com or stats.nba.com unless otherwise stated.