- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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DALLAS - The Dallas Mavericks won 50 games last season as a mediocre defensive team. Imagine what they could do if they improve on the less glamorous end of the court.
Coach Rick Carlisle intends to find out.
"We're a team that's got to be more dependent on our defensive system and less dependent on shot-making to ensure that we can win games," Carlisle said. "If you look at it and see that number -- 7-27 in games when you don't shoot 45 percent -- it's miraculous that we won 50 games. But it just goes to show you we can score, and on nights when we shoot well, we're hard to beat.
"The burning question is can we become a team on nights when we don't shoot well that can hang in and still win a high percentage of games? That's the mission."
Actually, according to Elias Sports Bureau, Dallas was 10-27 when it shot less than 45 percent from the floor last season. However, Carlisle's point remains that the Mavs gave up points too easily to be an elite team. As a result, improving defensively has been the Mavs' primary focus during the offseason and preseason.
The Mavs, who play their second preseason game tonight at Washington, were mediocre defensively by almost every statistical measure last season. They allowed 99.8 points per game, which ranked 15th in the NBA. They ranked 17th in points per possession allowed.
And Dallas ranked 14th in the stat cited by Carlisle: winning percentage when shooting less than 45 percent. Great teams can win ugly games. Here's proof: The Cleveland Cavaliers, who had a league-high 66 victories last season, had the NBA's best record on sub-45 percent shooting nights (17-11). The Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic (20-15) and NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers (13-12) were the only other above-.500 teams in such games.
For the Mavs to become legitimate contenders, they'll likely need to get to that level. That's why defense was the first thing discussed about every potential offseason acquisition, according to general manager Donnie Nelson.
Forward Shawn Marion, the centerpiece of a blockbuster trade, might be the league's most versatile defender. Carlisle believes the long-limbed, high-leaping Marion can defend any position on the floor. Free-agent signee Quinton Ross, the Dallas Kimball and SMU product, would have been the Mavs' best wing defender last season. Forward/center Kris Humphries is a smart, physical defender. Drew Gooden gives the Mavs a center who can guard the modern speedy, skilled big men who give Erick Dampier fits. Mavs insiders point to Tim Thomas' efforts against San Antonio star Tim Duncan as proof that the 3-point specialist is an underrated post defender.
"By adding those pieces, we should already be better," said Dirk Nowitzki, who has developed into a decent team defender after being a liability on that end of the court early in his career. "But we all know that defense is about effort first and then being on the same page. All the hustle is not good if there's no direction out there.
"You need length, you need athleticism, but you also need a concept out there and a system that works. That's what we're trying to establish now. That takes some time with a bunch of new guys, but I think eventually we'll get there."
Tim MacMahon covers the Dallas Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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