Pop quiz: Which of these NBA players would you rather have based on the per-36-minutes stats below, knowing that both players had very similar physical measurements in terms of height, weight and wingspan:
Player A is Pelicans superstar-in-waiting Anthony Davis. Player B is finishing his sixth year of relative anonymity in the league, yet for each of the last three seasons has achieved a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of over 21, a total considered to be at an all-star level.
In terms of raw plus/minus statistics, Player B’s team has been 4.6 points per/100 possessions better with him on the floor than off. According to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus he’s a solid 1.26/100, good for 101st out of 437 players. Over the last two years he has ranked 61st and 53rd in the similar Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus metric, which uses ridge regression to provide more accurate results.
Player B’s career True Shooting Percentage is 61.7. Yet despite those stellar numbers, he has never averaged more than the 18.6 minutes per game he’s averaged this year. So who is our mystery man? And why doesn’t he play more?
Welcome to the conundrum of Dallas Mavericks forward Brandan Wright.
After being drafted eighth overall by Charlotte in 2007 and shipped in a draft-day trade to Golden State for Jason Richardson, Wright never really got out of Don Nelson’s doghouse, logging just 1,259 minutes over two-plus seasons for the Warriors before being dealt to the Nets for Troy Murphy and a future second-round pick (which eventually became one of the breakout stars of the first round of this year’s playoffs, Draymond Green.)
Since signing with Dallas as a stopgap replacement for Tyson Chandler following the Mavericks championship season in 2011, Wright has emerged as a valuable bench player. But why, with such stiff competition for playing time over the years as an aging Elton Brand, the nondescript Samuel Dalembert and the feisty-though-flawed DeJuan Blair, has Wright never been given more than spot duty?
One possible explanation was furnished in an offhand anecdote by ESPN’s Amin Elhassan, who spoke of Wright’s workout for Phoenix when Elhassan was a scout for the Suns. Referring to the occasional practice of having a player work out with a chair in place of a defender, ElHassan recalled that “the chair won.” So maybe he isn’t the greatest practice player.
But still, given his production for Dallas, surely a coach such as Rick Carlisle could see his talent and use him more frequently? The initial thought is perhaps Wright and Dirk Nowitzki can’t effectively share the floor. A quick look at NBAWOWY.com elimiates that as a possibility. Wright and Nowitzki were a net +8.9 points per/100 possessions in the nearly 700 minutes they played together this year, a decline from the net +12/100 the pair was in 387 minutes during 2012-13.
Searching for other common artificial limits on minutes provides little guidance as well. Wright is not particularly foul prone (averaging 2.8 per/36 minutes). He is a respectable if not dominant rebounder, especially offensively. He is good shot-blocker, though his overall rim protection is roughly average. His offense, while limited to rolls to the basket, putbacks and cuts to the rim, is superbly efficient. In fact, Wright ranked as the second-most efficient scorer on a per-play basis in the league this year, according to Synergy Sports.
So why can’t he get more playing time?
Is it the limitations on his offensive game? Wright has attempted only 23 shots all season (making six) that didn’t rely on his teammates getting him the ball at the rim or him grabbing an offensive rebound. If he’s asked to do anything with the ball out on the floor, it tends not to be pretty:
Perhaps it’s his penchant for making ill-timed defensive blunders? Wright grades out as a below-average defender for his position, despite his shot-blocking and mobility. Especially on a Mavs team that lacks a great deal of individual defensive talent and one that must succeed through scheme and execution, his tendencies to get lost in pick-and-roll coverage must make it difficult for Carlisle to trust him for long stretches:
Or is Rick Carlisle only the latest coach to not fully realize what he has to work with?
Seth Partnow lives in Anchorage, Alaska, with his wife, daughter and dog. He blogs about the NBA and related topics at WhereOffenseHappens.com. His work can also be found at Hickory-High.com and ESPN’s ClipperBlog.com, where he is a regular contributor. Seth can be reached on twitter @WhrOffnsHppns.