Dirk Nowitzki's Position Change Has Given the Mavericks Playoff Hopes

One lineup tweak gave life to Dallas' playoff run. Here's how playing Nowitzki at the five has changed their season.

After an 11-27 start to the season, the Dallas Mavericks were essentially playing for a lottery pick in the coming draft.

But thanks to a lineup change made by head coach Rick Carlisle before the January 12 game against the Phoenix Suns in Mexico City, the Mavericks find themselves just two games back of the Denver Nuggets for the 8 seed out West, a race that will get even tougher with the addition of DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans.

Dallas struggled with injuries early on, never figuring out cohesive lineups no matter who was suited up. Carlisle turned to his seemingly prehistoric star to change the trajectory of their season.

Embracing Small Ball

Carlisle went all in on the small ball wave that has swept over the league by inserting Dirk Nowitzki at center alongside Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews, Seth Curry, and Deron Williams.

Andrew Bogut, an offseason acquisition, was ideally the player to anchor the middle for Dallas before the season started. The Mavs found it downright impossible to play Bogut and Nowitzki next to one another. The duo was too flat-footed to defend teams in a much smaller, much faster NBA. With Bogut and Nowitzki sharing the floor together, they have a net rating of -48.4 in roughly 72 minutes.

In the 18 games since the switch was made, Dallas has gone 11-7 and has been one of only five teams to be top-10 in both offensive rating (109.7) and defensive rating (104.1).

The other four teams? Golden State Warriors, Washington Wizards, Miami Heat, and Houston Rockets, who are a combined 52-16 during that span.

That's a pretty amazing feat for a bland roster with plenty of holes. Swapping Dirk to the five has completely opened up real estate, allowing the guards to operate in space, as Nowitzki is shooting 38.5% on catch-and-shoot threes.

The Other Guys

Curry is enjoying a career season with Dallas, thanks in part to the spacing Nowitzki provides.

In his last 15 games, Curry is averaging 15.1 points on 49.2% shooting, including 42.9% from three-point range. Those percentages are ones we are used to seeing from his older, MVP brother.

But there's a link there. Not only do they share the same last name, but they are also operating in more space than most guards in the league. On the season, 14.1% of Dallas' three-point attempts are classified as wide open looks, the seventh-highest rate in the NBA.

With that has come some impressive numbers from beyond the arc.

Yogi Ferrell45.84.8
Seth Curry41.64.3
Wesley Matthews38.17.1
Dirk Nowitzki38.74.0

As you can see, helping off of any of these shooters can spell death for any defense.

Pair that shooting with having Nowitzki stretch the other team's center all the way to the three-point line, and it gives Curry and Yogi Ferrell -- who is getting the reins to the offense after the waiving of Williams -- all the space in the world to gash defenses.

Ferrell, coming off two 10-day contracts, is looking like a solid future for the Mavs. He's averaging 14.2 points on 45% shooting and 4.7 assists so far in 10 games with Dallas.


The Mavericks' improvements stem largely from their spacing abilities, and that shows both in the numbers and on the film.

Look at all the space Curry has to work with after the initial screen from Nowitzki. Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles are forced to switch because of Nowitzki's deadly precision from downtown.

Once the switch occurs, Gobert is pulled out 25-plus feet from the hoop, with all defenders glued to their man because the five Mavericks players on the floor are more than capable shooters.

Any time you get a guard who can shoot effectively from beyond the arc matched against a big man that far from the hoop, it is a matchup that favors the offense.

It's the same thing here for Ferrell. Dirk's screen makes the defenders hesitate, and Ferrell's ability to knock down the jumper makes the defender reluctant to leave his side and not hedge strong enough on Ferrell, resulting in a wide open floater. Splash.

Playoff Hopes

With the addition of Nerlens Noel at the trade deadline, Dallas seems to be making the right moves to make a last quarter playoff push.

Noel, an athletic big, will help defensively as a rim protector and rim runner in transition, who can also play around the rim out of pick-and-rolls.

Barring any lasting injuries, Dallas seems to have the right formula down the stretch. Our algorithm gives them an 8.4% chance to reach the postseason -- not bad for a team with the seventh-worst winning percentage in the NBA after the All-Star break.