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How the Mavs Wrestled With Their Underperforming Defense

With opponents’ scoring numbers rising, Dallas took a page out of college football’s playbook and introduced the NBA’s version of the turnover chain

Ringer illustration

Rick Carlisle marched into the nondescript visitors’ locker room of Bankers Life Fieldhouse with a photographer in tow, calling his team to attention from their phones and their ice packs. Before he could fully explain himself, the ceremony was already underway; Mavs assistant coach Jamahl Mosley approached the corner locker of Willie Cauley-Stein, recounting aloud the backup big man’s lively contributions to a win over the Pacers. Mosley then presented a prize of his own design: a heavyweight championship belt of blue plate on white synthetic leather, adorned with Mavericks logos. Cauley-Stein was named Dallas’s first-ever Defensive Player of the Game.

As his teammates cheered, Cauley-Stein slipped into a Cheshire grin. Within seconds he had slung the belt over his shoulder to pose for the camera. “Coach Mose got this made to give us a little extra motivation to go out there and fly around on defense,” Cauley-Stein said after the pageantry. “That’s probably the biggest role I have on the team: being a rim protector, helping out guys on the pick-and-roll, flying around and making energy plays. Tonight I did that really well, and we got the dub, and I end up getting this.”

A tradition was born. Mosley, who organizes the Mavs’ defense, awards the belt after every win based on the consensus of the coaching staff. Cauley-Stein earned the belt on this late January night by blocking shots—and, in particular, for rotating out to stifle a Doug McDermott 3-pointer drawn up during a Pacers timeout. Josh Richardson took home the belt two weeks later for picking up Trae Young full court and living in the rising star’s personal space. “It’s coming back where she belongs,” Richardson smirked as he tucked the belt away into his locker. Tim Hardaway Jr. challenged that notion in Dallas’s next win, claiming the belt for himself by stepping up and drawing a fourth-quarter charge on Draymond Green. When he was handed the belt back in the locker room, Hardaway started mean-mugging almost instinctively.

This isn’t the Mavs’ first attempt at a celebratory token in recent years, though it’s easily their most deliberate. The extremely offline Carlisle has repeatedly plugged the team’s social media accounts for the latest on the belt’s comings and goings. In a way, it’s the coaching staff’s attempt at counter-programming against the cultural currency of getting buckets. “You see the things on social media where the guy scored this many, and a highlight is all offensive stuff,” Mosley says. “So [we’re] finding a way to celebrate our locker room for defending and making plays during the game—and only in wins.”

The belt is a football tradition, and Dallas is a football town. The University of Miami brought a similar idea to gaudy perfection with the Turnover Chain, a neck-straining pendant carrying thousands of gemstones and passed around to any defensive player who comes up with an interception or fumble. It’s a formula that has floated around college football, changing shape, for years. Alabama tried to stoke the same turnover frenzy with the Ball Out Belt, though they saved it for the practice field. Tennessee, in what feels like a failing of the state university system, championed the turnover trash can. Kennesaw State found a Turnover Plank, rounding the corner into absurdism. Mosley opted for something more recognizable, and with the help of equipment manager Kory Johnson and head trainer Dionne Calhoun, he brought the Mavs’ version of the belt to glimmering life—an echo of the belt the Mavericks carried around in celebration of their 2011 championship.

If all this seems like a bit much, that’s because it is. The belt is ridiculous by design. Yet in the heightened reality of the NBA, it’s also just another part of the noisy, overstuffed feedback loop that influences player behavior. When a player scores, they’re met with the delight of an adoring crowd—or, failing that this season, the simulated sound of one. If that player scores enough over time, they’re rewarded with contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars and sponsorships potentially worth even more.

These extracurricular influences are everywhere. What is the Sixth Man of the Year award if not a gentle encouragement of sacrifice? It’s dedicated to players who aren’t quite good enough to start for their teams, all to make the idea of coming off the bench more palatable. It has become a gunner’s award, even though the first player to win it was Bobby Jones, a defense-first former All-Star who moved to the bench for Philadelphia’s title run in 1983. “It doesn’t matter that much to Bobby whether he goes to Cleveland for the All-Star Game or back home to North Carolina during the break,” then-Sixers GM Pat Williams told The New York Times. “His goals are all team-oriented. His basketball life has been one of self-sacrifice, doing the things that help a team win.”

The award was just another way to acknowledge a particular sort of contribution. Modern teams do this internally as a matter of course, though often without the fanfare of a heavyweight belt. Walk into an NBA practice gym and you’ll find leaderboards in team shooting competitions, progress toward season-long targets in turnovers or assists, and gold-star systems for hustle plays. Stats like screen assists have rounded the bend into memeable parody these days, but for years coaches tracked and used them to promote the sort of helpful play that isn’t captured in the standard box score.

“The modern player, you get no credit for setting a screen and popping a guy loose for a 3,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said back in July. “So I think as a coach, you have to really focus in on that internally and show film of good screens and keep tabs of numbers. Show how many screen assists you had as a team the previous night when you’re watching film the next day. Here’s where we rank in screen assists in the league. Here’s how many we average, here’s how many we had last night. You show three really good ones and hopefully you also show a couple that also open something else up.”

The work of coaching is part game planning, part ego managing, part play calling, and part motivating. The latter is a black box. If a coach finds the right word, it can become a season-long rallying cry. If they try rapping the right words, however, the whole episode could go down in infamy. There are nights when the presentation of the belt borders on farce—like when the Mavs gave up 130 points to the Pelicans back in February but managed to pull off a win. “I didn’t want to give it out that night, actually, to be honest with you,” Mosley admits. But he and his fellow coaches relented for the sake of ceremony, awarding the belt to Jalen Brunson for how aggressively he crashed the defensive glass. Two days later, the Mavs would host the Trail Blazers in what would become a defining moment of their season. Dallas lost in Dame Time that night, 121-118, as so many other Blazers opponents have this season, but in the process demonstrated its struggles to play a complete defensive game and to execute in critical moments.

“The stats will show that we had two very good, productive quarters and two very poor and unproductive quarters,” Carlisle said after the game. “That’s our battle right now, is to get more consistent—be more consistent.”

The battle within the battle, in this case, was merely to act on the defensive game plan. When Lillard isolated against Dorian Finney-Smith with the game tied inside the final minute, the Mavs were supposed to flock a second defender to the ball to force it out of Lillard’s hands. “We’d gone through that in our prep,” Carlisle said. It didn’t take. Carlisle then called for the double from the sideline, but, as he explained, “the communication didn’t get there.” Lillard threw a shoulder fake that rocked Finney-Smith off his axis, and then calmly stepped back for a go-ahead jumper. Dallas dropped to 13-15, and its defensive rating to 27th in the league. It was the kind of loss that sits with a team, one that, through an act of god, would hang over the Mavericks for an entire week.

When bracing winter storms reduced the entire Texas power grid to a wheeze and a sputter last month, the homebound Mavericks found themselves unable to play the games on their schedule and without a functional practice facility. Detroit’s flight plan to Dallas was rerouted to Chicago, for once the more temperate of the two winter landings. What was supposed to be a quick trip down to Houston for the Mavs was called off entirely. Dallas was grounded, with nothing to do but stew in its uneven play through the first 28 games of the season.

So the Mavs found a way to get to work. The team’s home base in the Design District may have been without electricity, but just across the interstate, the Mavs set up shop at their actual home court at the more steadily powered American Airlines Center. The Mavericks were fortunate in that the weather, for them, was mostly an inconvenience; even for the players who lost power, the difficulties manifested in manageable troubles like Maxi Kleber being forced to ascend the endless staircases to his high-rise home to pack up a few things. While making the best of its circumstances, Dallas managed to practice four times in five days—unthinkable in a season when teams have struggled to squeeze in any practice time at all.

“I guess it may be a blessing in disguise for us,” Brunson said. “We haven’t had a multiple-day break in between games for a long time.”

Dallas needed that sort of hard reset as much as any team in the league. According to The Dallas Morning News, the Mavs have lost more player games (41) due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols than any other team in the league this season, yet have had only a single game postponed due to COVID absences. Most of their difficulties stemmed from four Mavericks (Richardson, Finney-Smith, Kleber, and Dwight Powell) testing positive back in January, upending the rotation for the weeks they stayed isolated at a hotel (some at a hotel in Denver, where they learned of their positive tests mid-road-trip), and the additional weeks it’s taken them to work their way back into a rhythm.

Data courtesy of Cleaning the Glass

“COVID is tough,” Richardson said. “It’s hard to really understand the toughness of it and everything that goes into having it and recovering [from] it until you go through it.” Players around the league who have tested positive have noted their heavy legs, low energy, and shortness of breath even months after the fact. Richardson says that he motivates himself and his teammates with the energy of his play, but what happens when that energy just isn’t there?

With Finney-Smith, Richardson, and Kleber out of commission for upward of 20 days, Dallas lost three starters and the team’s top three defensive players. The best, healthiest version of Kristaps Porzingis could have helped the Mavericks weather a COVID-shortened rotation. Instead, his ongoing recovery from right knee surgery—and noticeably stiffer movements—called even more attention to the players who were absent. Unsurprisingly, the stout defense the Mavericks played at the outset of the season turned flimsy as the team leaned on unfamiliar lineups and called deep reserves into action. “It was tough, just knowing some of the young guys were forced to go out there and do stuff guys like me and J-Rich could’ve helped them with,” Finney-Smith said.

“Usually when you’re hurt or something you can be around the team and coach the guys,” he added. “But when you’re a couple states [away] sitting in a hotel, you kinda feel useless.”

It was during that challenging stretch that Mosley first unveiled the belt. He had conceived of it months earlier as a riff on the Employee of the Month motif; why settle for a plaque on the wall when you can be the heavyweight champion of the world for a night? It’s something to connect the team, something they can bond over and strive toward. From the very beginning, the goal was for the belt to eventually become extraneous—for the Mavericks to build a culture of celebrating defense and each other. “A lot of times as coaches, you can convey to guys what a certain team does and what they run and whatnot,” Mosley says. “But at the end of the day, it’s gotta be that locker room that holds each other accountable to what you’re asking them to do.”

While the belt brought focus to the team’s disposition, the Mavericks’ unexpected practice time allowed them to home in on the details. In a simpler world, defense would be the uninterrupted project of the Mavericks’ season. Trading an all-time shooter like Seth Curry for an all-league-caliber defender like Richardson was a statement of intent. Yet Dallas was able to play only nine games—none with Porzingis—before its roster was compromised by COVID. When their season ground to a halt, the Mavs were finally able to see how their team should fit.

“I think [practicing] was more important than just players being out, even though that disrupts the rhythm, too,” Kleber said after one of the Mavs’ snowed-in sessions. “But just [getting] time together now, and talking about things, analyzing stuff, and going to practice has been the most important, and I think more important than guys individually coming back from being sick.”

In six games between the storm and the All-Star break, the Mavericks went 5-1 and ranked second in the league in defensive rating during that stretch. Most encouraging was the variety; Dallas is branching out a bit from the conservative, drop coverage it relied on to guard pick-and-rolls last season, instead modulating its style of defense to fit what a matchup allows. Those can be sharp turns to make when a team is playing the third game of a road trip and starting a lineup that hasn’t yet found its balance. With dedicated practice time, however, players can adjust their habits to fit the goals of the system and defend in a way that interlocks with their teammates.

“If you can drill a guy in certain things, you can move into that direction in a certain way,” Mosley says. “Like going from a drop coverage to being up on the level of the ball. You can get guys to do that, especially if they know they have the trust from the teammate behind the ball. So now you’ve gotta work on another side of it. On-ball defense—if you’re not a guy who can get into the ball, how can you use your hands? There’s different ways you can get guys to change what they’ve done. Cause the game’s so different now; it’s not what it was. So guys have to be willing to change certain styles. You have to.”

How well those varied approaches work for this particular roster is a question for a larger sample. Mosley hopes the Mavs can push into the top 15 in defensive rating by season’s end, and that their effective field goal percentage allowed—currently ranked 16th, according to NBA Advanced Stats—finishes closer to the top 10. He’s also toying with an overhaul of the belt ceremony, requiring the previous winner to hand over the belt to the next. As it stands, the Mavericks are already gunning for it. Luka Doncic, one of the few Mavs who has yet to win the belt, has made his intentions for it known. When reserve James Johnson jumped into the game against the Celtics after being out of the rotation for weeks, he declared—to the bench, to himself, to the universe—that he was coming for the title. He took it home, but only after smiling so wide as he held it in the locker room that you could see the corners of his mouth peeking out from the sides of his mask.

There is an art to awarding the belt that goes beyond a player’s impact stats or even getting a critical stop. “Sometimes the numbers will even out,” Mosley says. “That’s where you have to go off of the feel of knowing our guys will be so excited if Person A gets it, or Person B gets it.” You celebrate Finney-Smith not just for one key play, but for throwing himself in front of every James Harden drive. You give Powell his moment in the sun for communicating well in the pick-and-roll, but also for fighting his way back from a brutal Achilles injury, and then from COVID-19. You cheer for Wes Iwundu not just for the way he challenged shots, but for making the most of his minutes when his number was called.

The latest winner of Defensive Player of the Game honors was both a fitting tribute to the progress the Mavs have made, and a bit of a cop-out. After a rock-fight win over the Oklahoma City Thunder without the help of Doncic, Mosley decided to give the belt to the whole team—a choice truer to the spirit of the belt than its rules. Maybe it’s fair play considering that game was one of the five stingiest defensive performances any team has managed this season. Dallas is an unexpected centerpiece on that list, the only team to play three of the top 10 defensive games thus far. The Mavs have also managed two of the 10 worst. Those are the reflections of a team in a funhouse mirror, distorted to the extremes of one of the strangest seasons in basketball memory. Before the Mavs can even begin to aspire to the best that they’ve shown, they first need time to find out who they are, to see themselves plainly.


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