The Wizards have the 2nd best record in the Eastern Conference at 7-2 and are undefeated at home where they had most of their struggles last season.
This team's record should tell us there is a much better product on the floor than last season, but there is still some skepticism about just how good the Wizards are. Outside of the Milwaukee Bucks, the Wizards have not defeated a team with a record over .500 this season. They lost to the Miami Heat and were demolished by the Toronto Raptors.
The Dallas Mavericks will prove to be the biggest test yet for the Wizards so far this year. They will get to try their luck against the league's best offense and a Western Conference playoff team.
Just so we could find out a little bit more about the opposition, Kate Crawford of Mavs Moneyball answered some questions for us.
Bullets Forever: So the Mavericks are not only one of the best offenses in the league, but they're about five points per 100 possessions better than the 2nd place Cleveland Cavaliers. Most people thought the Cavaliers would be a shoe-in for the best offense in the league with all of the weapons they have, but it turns out the Mavs have been lightyears better. They are on pace to be one of the best offenses in history and it does not seem like the team is playing at its full capability yet. What makes this Mavericks offense click so well and play well rounded basketball?
Kate Crawford: This was floating around basketball Twitter, but it’s pretty striking: when you look at the gap between Dallas’ offense and Cleveland’s, you have to go all the way down to the bottom half of the league to find a comparable gap between Cleveland and another team.
Things are certainly looking historically good, but I’m a naturally pessimistic fan, so I think we’re going to see a bit of regression. Jameer Nelson has been having a really rough season, so Raymond Felton may be an upgrade when he returns from his suspension, and Chandler Parsons will probably show some improvement, but both Tyson Chandler and Brandan Wright have true shooting percentages above 70 percent right now. That’s insane! And almost certainly going to come back to earth at some point, right?
But still, the Mavericks’ offense is beautiful to watch. They’ve assembled a lot of great individual players and put them to work in a flexible, free-flowing offense that takes advantage of everyone’s individual talents and focuses on finding smart shots. Even if they slow down a bit, it’ll be tough to find a team that’s more fun to watch this season.
BF: The Mavericks finished 49-33 last year and got the 8th seed in the West. This team obviously made improvements to the team in the offseason with the additions of Tyson Chandler, Chandler Parsons and Jameer Nelson. Even with those huge improvements, the Mavericks are still sitting at third in the toughest division in basketball. How much better do you think this team is than last year's and where do you see them finishing in the conference?
KC: Honestly, it just seems too early to say. I think we’re going to see a decent amount of movement in the rankings as teams find their rhythm and play enough games to even out fluctuations in their performance. The Mavericks’ defense has improved a bit lately, but I’m still concerned that it’s going to be a problem as the season goes on. Right now, I see them as a fifth or sixth seed, but won’t be terribly surprised if that’s wildly incorrect.
BF: Rick Carlisle has been one of the best coaches in the league over the last decade or so, but has not been truly recognized for it. He's doing another great job this season with so many different types of players on his roster. How does he distribute minutes to his guys on a nightly basis? Does he have a rotation that is set in stone or is he a coach who will operate through the temperature of the current game?
KC: I think Carlisle has historically been under appreciated, but it seems like this is the year that the coach is finally getting his due. He seems to be the consensus number two pick for best coach in the league. I’m not sure if people were really impressed by his leadership during the playoffs last season or if he’s just been around and with one team long enough that everyone is finally starting to pay attention, but it’s nice to see him recognized for the stuff he does well.
That definitely includes identifying the strengths and weakness of individual players and thinking about how they match up with opponents, but I do think he struggles a bit with rotations during the regular season and sometimes overreacts to match-ups. He’s very much the tactician who makes adjustments and likes to play around with lineups, especially early on, and there are some (especially featuring all three defensively challenged Mavericks guards) that don’t really seem to be working out. Historically Carlisle has sometimes seemed reluctant to play talented younger guys, so it’s been nice to see Brandan Wright see some good playing time early this season.
But I think the playoffs, when he can really focus on one opponent, are where Carlisle’s focus on tactical adjustments shine, and I’m optimistic that he can get this team there.
BF: The Mavericks' offense is in historic territory, but their defense is not as bad as most people think. The Mavericks allow about 105 points per 100 possessions and are ranked 13th in the league in defensive efficiency. What is the key to their defensive system and what is the biggest improvement they've made on that end since last year?
KC: You’re right that the defense isn’t quite as bad as most people think, but that’s a fairly recent turnaround. Dallas definitely did their part to earn that reputation earlier this season. One of our writers had a nice breakdown of this following the Mavericks’ loss in Portland two weeks ago, but one of the biggest problems seems to be perimeter defense. Over the summer Dallas traded Jose Calderon (who was atrocious on defense) to the Knicks for a sort of "point guard by committee" model, and that hasn’t really been as much of a defensive improvement as some had hoped, especially when combined with the loss of Shawn Marion and Parsons’ less than stellar defensive efforts so far.
In that vein, I think the single biggest defensive improvement was adding Tyson Chandler. The Mavericks are a bit rebound-challenged, but Tyson has been a rebounding machine. And I can only imagine what some of these games would’ve looked like if we’d been lacking not just perimeter defense but also a strong presence in the paint.
That said, it’s still early. Some of these problems on the perimeter (blown rotations, bad pick and roll defense, etc) have at times seemed like a lack of effort, and it’s probably hard to maintain focus when you’re blowing opponents away in the first half. It was a nice change to see Dallas really tighten up in their comeback win against the Kings last week, and I think it’s reasonable to expect some continued improvement on this end. Unfortunately, I’m still not sure this team has a high enough defensive ceiling to win it all.
BF: I could not let this Q&A end without a Dirk question, right? He's been so amazing this year. This is the best basketball I've seen him play, personally, since the 2011 championship season. The thing about it is that he's doing it in so few minutes--he's only averaging 27.5 minutes per game. He's averaging 19.6 points per game and is scoring 125 points per 100 possessions. What is the secret? How is he being so productive in so little time in the twilight of his career?
KC: Yeah, it’s great that Carlisle has been able to limit his minutes a bit this season. He’s been able to do this in part because Dallas made some good moves over the offseason and that’s taken some pressure off of Dirk, both in terms of big-picture scoring responsibilities and making defenses pay more attention to the other players on the court. And hopefully, keeping his minutes low over the course of the season will help ensure that his productivity stays high and his risk of injury low.
I’m not sure that this is contributing to his efficiency, but one of the things guys who are able to stick around the league for a long time seem to have in common is that they’re constantly working on their game. Over the summer Dirk retooled his jump shot to work on a quicker release, and it’s possible that’s helped make him an even better shooter.