There's a fundamental problem with analyzing a single playoff series. When all we have to go on is the matchup between two opponents, it is almost impossible to determine how much credit to give the victor and how much blame to the loser. We can use regular-season performance and add in subjective assessments of the quality of play in the series, but ultimately we don't really know how to evaluate relatively even series except in hindsight.
Such now seems to me to be the case with the Dallas Mavericks and the Portland Trail Blazers. After intently following all six games the two teams played and attending the three at the Rose Garden, I came away feeling much more like the Blazers had lost the series than that the Mavericks had won it. Portland's poor outside shooting and defensive breakdowns seemed like self-inflicted wounds, but now that I see the Los Angeles Lakers suffering the same problems in the series they trail to Dallas 2-0, it is becoming apparent that I underestimated Dallas.
I wasn't alone, of course. The Mavericks could legitimately feel like the underdogs despite having home-court advantage for their series with the Blazers, since so many people picked Portland to win. Meanwhile, the widespread assumption going into this series was that the Lakers would face their real test in the Western Conference Finals against either the Memphis Grizzlies or the Oklahoma City Thunder.
What I find interesting is that the analytics community and the public at large wrote off Dallas because of entirely different reasoning. Nationally, the story was the Mavericks' track record of disappointing playoff series, history that loomed large after Dallas surrendered a 23-point lead during Game Four in Portland. (At least until the team bounced back to win the next two games and the series.) Statistical analysts focused on the fact that the Mavericks' point differential (+4.2 points per game) was out of line with the team's 57-25 regular-season record. The Lakers won an identical number of games with a vastly superior differential (+5.7) and three teams that finished behind Dallas in the standings (Boston, Denver and Orlando) also topped the Mavericks in differential.
To the extent I was interested in Dallas' past playoff experience, it was because the Mavericks' tendency to pad their record with a series of close wins failed to translate in previous seasons. There was no reason to believe things would be any different this time around, and I wouldn't necessarily say they have been. Dallas' execution down the stretch to win Game 1 in Los Angeles was impressive, but the Mavericks lost both games against the Blazers decided by five points or fewer. For the most part, Dallas' wins have been more decisive than they were against easier competition during the regular season.
So why were the Mavericks underestimated by their differential during the regular season? The first key reason is the importance of Dirk Nowitzki. Strictly in terms of how Dallas' play changed with him on the floor, Nowitzki was as valuable to the Mavericks as any player in the league was to their team. His net plus-minus (+16.2 points per 100 possessions) ranked third in the league, per BasketballValue.com. Because of a right knee sprain that kept him out for nine games (during which Dallas went 2-7) and the need to save him for the postseason, Nowitzki played 63.5 percent of the Mavericks' minutes during the regular season. He's pushed that to 80.3 percent so far during the playoffs, which has inevitably helped Dallas.
Beyond that, Rick Carlisle has been able to tighten up his rotation. As John Hollinger noted yesterday the Mavericks gave a lot of minutes to players at replacement level or below, like Brian Cardinal and Sasha Pavlovic. Those players have been buried now, as has Rodrigue Beaubois, in favor of a nine-player rotation that really features only one weak link (starting shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson, who is rarely seen after the first media timeout of each half).
Dallas isn't alone in finding a smaller, more effective rotation for the playoffs. However, it may have made more impact for the Mavericks than any other team. This notion can be quantified by looking at the lineups teams have used during the postseason. If the groups Carlisle has played so far in the playoffs performed just as they did during the regular season, we would expect Dallas to outscore the opposition by 13.7 points per 100 possessions. That's a staggering figure, one more than triple the Mavericks' actual efficiency differential (+4.5 per 100 possessions), and it marks Dallas as the top team in the Western Conference (with an important caveat: Memphis' lineup stats are not available because the Grizzlies employ BasketballValue.com's Aaron Barzilai as a consultant).
Team Exp. Diff
Oklahoma City 10.2
L.A. Lakers 9.7
Using this methodology even serves to make the Mavericks' opening-round victory look more impressive, since the Blazers' playoff lineups were essentially even with those used by the Oklahoma City Thunder and superior to the ones the Lakers have used.
Dallas has shelved most of the lineups that were unsuccessful for the team during the regular season. Even units that did not include any of the players now out of the rotation have been replaced by other fivesomes. Given that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been an outspoken proponent of lineup plus-minus, it's no surprise that the coaching staff seems to be paying attention to these numbers.
Another factor to recommend Dallas was the team's balance during the regular season. The Mavericks were one of just three teams--the Lakers and Miami were the others--to rank in the top 10 in both Offensive and Defensive Rating. As compared even to elite teams like Chicago and San Antonio, the Mavericks lacked a glaring weakness. And while that doesn't entirely explain the result of this series thus far--the Lakers were slightly better than Dallas at both ends of the floor--it does show the Mavericks' potential.
The Lakers aren't finished yet, so there is still time for the narrative to change yet again. That said, at the moment Dallas has to be considered the favorite to win the Western Conference. Underestimate the Mavericks at your own peril.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.