Speaking softly, humble, but with the confidence and cadence of a veteran who has seen and done everything the game has asked of him, Mario Chalmers off the court doesn’t deviate too far from the player we see on the court.
He most certainly is not the whipping boy you have been led to believe. He is an essential piece to this Miami Heat roster that has won the past two NBA titles. It’s even arguable the Heat could have overcome LeBron James‘s struggles in the 2011 Finals had Mario replaced Mike Bibby in the starting lineup sooner than Game 6.
In fact, the result of the past two Finals may have been different if not for Mario scoring 25 in a critical Game 4 win against Oklahoma City and 20 points–while shooting 4-for-5 from three–that were swept under the rug in the Heat’s comeback victory against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6.
He receives a bad rap as a result of questionable turnovers, but he hardly receives the due credit for being one of the league’s most prolific pick-and-roll players, on both sides of the floor; an elite three-point threat; and one of the most consistent players on the Heat roster this season.
No, to most outside of the organization he’s the B.J. Armstrong or John Paxson of this possible dynasty: there just to stay out of the way until his number is called upon to make a three-pointer when needed.
But to say Mario is nothing more than a spot-up threat who occasionally makes some big plays would be an insult to him and the entire organization. Although he is not always the primary scorer or facilitator, Mario does recognize that he is also a necessary cog in this high-octane machine.
“I’m a combo guard that can do everything,” he said after the Heat’s 112-98 victory over the Orlando Magic, a game in which he took only three shots, scored seven points and hit his only three-point attempt of the game. His field goal attempts can fluctuate to as low as the three he had against Orlando to as much as the 10 he shot against Chicago earlier in the week.
But he understands his role completely, which makes Mario a rare breed in this league: a player who is content with their constantly changing role.
“Guys like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James handle the ball a lot so you got to be ready to shoot,” Chalmers said. “When your number’s called to run a play, you have to be able to run it. My coaches and teammates got confidence in me to do that.”
That confidence wasn’t always there, though. After starting every Heat game his rookie year, the coaching staff’s confidence in Mario waned as he shot 32 percent from beyond the arc and saw his steals average drop from 2.2 steals per 36 minutes to only 1.8.
Over the next two years, Mario would go from starter to reserve to starter as the Heat experimented with Bibby and Carlos Arroyo as the starting point guard. It wasn’t until Game 6 against the Dallas Mavericks, however, when he recorded 18 points, seven assists and four steals in a futile effort, that coach Erik Spoelstra realized Mario was going to be an essential part of the future.
Sure enough, Mario was back to starting every game at point guard again, this time with confidence re-instilled in him. He responded that year, the 2011-12 season, with a career-high 39 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
That three-point shooting has been on a consistent uptick since the 2011-12 season. After three consecutive seasons of shooting 37 percent or less, Mario has yet to shoot below 38 percent, and is currently flirting with last year’s career mark of 41 percent at a shade under 40 percent shooting this year.
The improved three-point stroke culminated in one special night against the Sacramento Kings, where Mario unconsciously hit ten of 13 three-point attempts, tying Brian Shaw‘s decade-long franchise record for three-pointers in a game.
Mario attributes a greater focus, as well as the addition of a few All-Star teammates, to the improvement in his shot.
“I get a lot of threes off of catch-and-shoot more than I do off the dribble,” he said.
Chalmers is averaging 2.5 field goal attempts per game in catch-and-shoot situations, where he’s shooting an impressive 44 percent from beyond the arc. Among those having played in at least 25 games and attempting at least 2.4 catch-and-shoot threes per game, Mario ranks 18th in the league.
Per 36, he’s actually taking fewer three-pointers than he ever has, but he was taking over five three-point attempts per 36 the previous three seasons. The decline in field goal attempts overall has played a part, as the team becomes more and more efficient, but the percentage improvement stems from finding his shots more in the rhythm of the offense.
He also attributes the adjustment to the NBA three-point line as a key to his recent success, saying, “When you first enter the league, it takes a few years to adjust. You just keep shooting.”
And just keep shooting he did, even when his second and third-year percentages were well below what he shot his rookie season. When you’re a shooter, you just keep shooting, no matter how long it takes, until something finally clicks.
Now he’s leading all Heat rotation players, including the likes of Ray Allen, Shane Battier and LeBron James, in three-point shooting. Not only that, but he’s also shooting a career-high 47 percent from the field, which can also be attributed to a greater focus in finding the best available shot.
Ah, the benefits of playing with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Heat may have the 23rd-ranked pace in the league, but the 110.1 points per 100 possessions is the league’s best offensive efficiency by a mile, as is the league-leading 59.8 true-shooting percentage and 56.3 percent effective field goal percentage.
Naturally, both Mario’s effective field goal and true shooting percentage are at career-highs. He’s also driving to the rim more than he has his whole career, too. According to Basketball-reference.com, the distance of his shots is at a career-low (12.9 feet per shot); 36 percent of his field goal attempts are coming near the rim (his previous career-high was 25 percent back in his rookie year); his free throw rate of 32 percent is a career-high, and his three-point attempt rate of 42 percent is a career-low. His PER of 14.8 is also a career-high.
Even more important than his career-high percentages, though, is how adept he’s become at running and defending the pick-and-roll. No team in the NBA is better at defending pick-and-roll ballhandlers than the Heat, and that all starts up top with Mario, who, naturally, is tabbed with the responsibility of defending the opposing point guard.
So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mario leads the entire NBA in points per possession given up to pick-and-roll ballhandlers. Overall, he’s allowing an absurd 31 percent shooting on 68 attempts, and an even more impressive nine percent on 22 three-point attempts.
“Our bigs do a great job of talking,” Chalmers said. “When you have bigs who talk like that, it makes everything easier. All I have to do is lock in on my assignment and focus.”
He knows how essential his teammates are to the team’s success defending pick-and-rolls, but he’s also perfectly aware that he can put his assignment in a straitjacket.
The Heat’s success defending pick-and-rolls stems from having active bigs, such as Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen, being able to simultaneously disturb the pick-and-roll ballhandler and impede the intended passing lane between the ballhandler and receiver. Having a player with hands like Chalmers only helps. There’s no better example of this than Chalmers and the Heat’s destruction of Linsanity last year.
It’s not just on the defensive end where Mario thrives. He’s also one of the league’s most effective at running the pick-and-roll, ranking 17th in points per possession and shooting 55 percent on 108 attempts.
He attributes this to years of experience running the pick-and-roll, including at Kansas, where he played under Bill Self.
“Coach Self taught us like we were an NBA team,” Chalmers said. “He made sure we got our work done, but that we still got enough rest and that we were always prepared to play.”
Of course, Mario’s defining moment from those runs with Kansas was his game-tying three-pointer over the outstretched hands of Derrick Rose in the NCAA Championship.
Confidence is key for Mario. In fact, he’s taken to mentoring his backup, Norris Cole. The Cole-Chalmers lineup this season has revealed how experience and developing a proper chemistry can play a large factor in a lineup’s success. In 276 minutes together, the duo have a net rating of 11.5 and are allowing only 98.5 points per 100 possessions, while scoring 110 points per 100 possessions. The Cole-Chalmers lineup has a higher net rating than such other combinations as Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
“I’ve been trying to teach Norris as much as I can, as much as I’ve learned,” Chalmers said. “We’re a good complement to each other. He pushes the tempo when he comes in and, you know me, I keep the tempo going when he exits.”
It truly is hard to believe Mario is already in his sixth season. The former second-round pick is only a few years removed from losing a starting spot to two players that were out of the league shortly after he replaced them. Now he has a solidified role.
He’s also continuing to impress in a role that asks him to be an opportunist. As you can guess, Mario’s role is like few others. He’s not a primary scorer, nor is he even the primary facilitator.
“I just read the defense, settle into the flow of the game and pick and choose my spots,” he said.
No wonder he has the second-highest offensive rating on this team among rotation players, trailing only Chris Bosh. He’s comfortable where he’s at in this convoluted, misunderstood role (at least from the outside) as the Heat’s version of a point guard. Like everyone else on this Heat roster, he, too, has made a significant adjustment in his game to complement his teammates.
When you’re as confident as Mario Chalmers, though, you’re going to thrive in any role.
Is Chalmers underrated or overrated?
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