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Devin Harris and the Rebirth of the Dallas Bench

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

The Mavericks would not have won the NBA championship in 2011 were it not for the contributions of J.J. Barea. It was Rick Carlisle‘s decision to insert the tiny Puerto Rican point guard into the starting lineup that turned a possibly grim Finals outlook into a six-game series win.

Barring health concerns, good and great teams largely do not make such stark changes to the starting lineup throughout the regular season, and especially in the playoffs. The starting lineup is typically home to the team’s best players, after all. If that’s the case, as it is on most NBA teams, there’s no reason to make significant changes. For that reason, Carlisle’s 2011 lineup change felt eerie. He’s almost a robotic coach, sticking to the script as much as possible when it comes to rotation, play-calling, defensive assignments, and so on.

Besides, Dallas’s biggest strength that season — and for many seasons leading up to the title run — was its bench play. Barea, Peja Stojakovic, Brendan Haywood, and of course Jason Terry provided big minutes and many points during the Mavericks’ magical run. Hanging in each player’s locker that season was a sheet that listed everything the Mavericks did better than anyone else. Included: “The Dallas Mavericks have the best bench in the NBA.”

Following the championship season, Dallas began to lose its bench mojo. Terry went to Boston, Barea signed with Minnesota, and Lamar Odom was many places, a basketball court frequently not among them. Despite still finishing among the leaders (or at the very top) of bench scoring per game in the last two seasons, the second unit still felt and looked undermanned. Sadly, though, the reserves outplayed Dallas starters not named Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion last season.

Carlisle has religiously given Nowitzki 10-12 minutes per game with the second unit, and during that stretch Nowitzki rarely posts up. He becomes more of a shooter, because his spacing influence is all Dallas needs. That’s what made Barea such a dynamic player on that title team. That’s what Carlisle was searching for when he made that lineup change, and that’s what he found. But since then, the Mavericks’ second unit has basically consisted of That Dude and a bunch of other dudes. It’s been rough.

But Dallas found Brandan Wright and Vince Carter, who worked very well together last season and into this one. Still, that dynamic presence Barea provided had been missing. Last year, Darren Collison tried and failed to replicate that game-changing quickness. Instead of driving to the basket off a Nowitzki screen, Collison in part drove Dallas into a ditch. After last year’s disaster, Nowitzki was thrilled — sarcasm aside — when Dallas finally landed its man this summer. The Mavericks finally landed DH. That’s Devin Harris, not Dwight Howard.

In Dallas’s quest to find a shifty point guard, the team also acquired Shane Larkin through the draft and Monta Ellis via free agency. Ellis’s impact on the team has been well-documented by this site and every other one. MontaBall has become a proper noun (now used without quotation marks!), and Ellis is one of the better offensive guards in the league this season. But it’s Harris whose impact might be the most tangible. In an optimistic, albeit super weird way, Harris is doing his best JJ Barea impression this season, and it’s working.

He’s only played eight games, so #SmallSampleTheater is still in effect, but Harris has revitalized the Dallas second unit. The Mavericks are 9.5 points per 100 possessions better than opponents when Harris is on the floor and 3.0 worse when he’s resting. Stunningly, Dallas is +13.4 points per 100 when Ellis is off the floor. The second unit has carried the team during the last few weeks, so much so that the top six players in terms of on-floor net rating since Harris’s return are all reserves. Nowitzki comes in at seventh, and he spends more time with the unit than any other starter.

The splits are further exaggerated in this table, comparing Harris & Co. against Dallas’s team averages since his return eight games ago:

bench4This is by no means a “Bench Monta!” campaign, and I’m not suggesting Harris or Wright or Carter start for the Mavericks. (The defense, as you can tell, is among the worst in the league regardless of who plays.) Dallas is doing what it does best, which is literally changing the pace of a game with its second unit. The foursome depicted above plays at an extremely slow pace — nearly four points lower than any qualified four-man lineup in the last two weeks, per NBA.com. The second unit slowly and methodically breaks down opposing defenses by using nothing but pick-and-rolls, often two or more each possession. Dallas runs more of those than any team in the league, thanks largely to Ellis, but the offense clearly does not rest just because he does. For a team to score that many points per 100 possessions while playing so few of them is remarkable.

Harris has essentially become the team’s “other” Monta Ellis, driving toward the rim and creating for others in the process. When he shares the floor with Nowitzki, Harris attempts 2.6 field goals from within five feet and hits 66.7 percent of them. With Nowitzki on the bench, Harris doesn’t get to the rim at all; more than half his shots with the German resting come from 20 feet and beyond, and from there he’s shooting less than 40 percent this season. Nowitzki’s shooting numbers, however, are not given a boost by Harris’s presence. For the most part, Nowitzki’s percentages by area actually dip playing alongside Harris, even despite Dirk’s recent scoring surge. Again, it’s just his mere presence that the second unit needs: Nowitzki’s usage rate dips more than three points when Harris is on the floor, and his assist rate increases more than two points. Nowitzki also has not committed a turnover when Harris is playing (with Harris off the floor, Nowitzki commits 16.4 percent of the team’s turnovers), which is admittedly a probable result of small sample size. The majority of the second-unit offense flows through Harris and Carter — both their usage rates climb when they share the floor.

It would be absurd to expect Dallas to score at such an unimaginable clip through the rest of the season. Dallas squares off against Memphis tonight, a team that plays at a similarly slow pace as the Dallas bench and actually plays defense, unlike many of the Mavericks’ recent opponents. Near future opponents include Indiana and Miami. Dallas’s March is also quite difficult, meaning the team will need all the scoring it can get. (Defense, remember, is not important here.)

Harris has managed to play a big part in salvaging the struggling bench, bringing with his long-awaited return an offensive blitz from Dallas’s versatile second unit.

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