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Dallas is in the zone. Literally.

Dec 29, 2010, 5:45 PM EDT

Dallas Mavericks v Miami Heat Getty Images

The Miami Heat have just one loss in their last 16 games.

Courtesy the new and improved Dallas Mavericks. A team that has actually swept the Heat this season and racked up wins against the Thunder, Magic, Jazz (twice) and the Spurs. And that is all in basically the last month alone.

(Yes, the Mavericks lost Tuesday night to the lowly Toronto Raptors, but that was the second night of a back-to-back and having to play without Dirk Nowitzki. Yes, they probably still should have won, but even good teams get to write off a few isolated bad games a season.)

Maverick backers are starting to believe that this season is different. That the team’s early play proves the point.

Right now, Dallas is in the zone. Because they are in the zone. Literally.

Dallas’ offense this season is pretty much just as productive, just as efficient as last season. The defense is the difference. Dallas is giving up 3.2 points per 100 possessions fewer this season compared to last (according to Hoopdata), moving them from a middle-of-the-pack NBA defense to seventh right now.

The Mavericks have made two big defensive changes this season. One is bringing in Tyson Chandler who, when healthy, is one of the better rim protectors and defensive centers in the game. And he has stayed healthy (that sound you hear is Mavs fans knocking on wood).

The other is they have adopted playing a matchup-zone defense more than maybe any other team in the NBA.

Zone defenses have been considered an NBA gimmick — you could run it for a few minutes to throw a team off balance, but once they adjusted it was too easy to rip apart. However, teams have started to stick with it longer (see the Suns in the Western Conference finals against the Lakers last year).

What Dallas does (and other teams are starting to do also) is different. For basketball junkies, if that zone the Mavericks run looks familiar, it’s because it’s had a lot of success before — with John Chaney at Temple. You remember him and his askew tie from many an NCAA tournament. Mavs assistant coach Dwane Casey brought the defense with him, and he learned it from current Clippers assistant Dean Demopoulos who was a long-time assistant of Chaney.

Chaney’s zone called for constant ball pressure and help defense in ready positions on other men. It’s not a classic zone but sort of a melting pot of several zones designed to pressure teams. It takes some skill and practice because men are handed off to other defenders and the positioning can feel awkward.

Dallas runs an almost hyper-aggressive form of what Cheney used to at Temple — you can do that with the longer, better athletes of the NBA — and they’ve added traps and more.

During the regular season, there can be no doubt it is working. Combine the zone defense with an MVP-caliber player (Nowitzki) on offense and deep talent across the board and you get a lot of wins. You get 24-6.

Before the season, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban boasted that the depth of the Mavericks made them a threat to the Lakers. That needs to be proven because in the playoffs, when bench rotations shorten, having a lot of depth matters less than quality players. We know the Lakers and the Spurs have quality, Dallas needs to prove it goes beyond Dirk. It also remains to be seen how the Mavs defense will hold up in a seven-game series where more weaknesses can be exposed and matchups exploited as teams delve deeper into game preparation.

Which is to say, the Mavericks still need to prove they are really contenders for a title. But right now they are very, very good.

They are in the zone.

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