12 Contenders And How Deep Is Their Depth?

It is not the sport itself, but the marketing contrivances of the NBA – Christmas Day was promoted as "LeBron vs. Kobe'' with little bother for the other two dozen schlubs in baggy shorts – that creates the illusion that basketball is about the individual, like golf or wrestling or chess. This is messianic hoohah. ...

It can apply on a particular possession … or even in a slightly larger slice of basketball life. But it doesn't get the best teams in the NBA through their 82-game grind.

That's where depth becomes a necessity … screwing up the mano-y-mano mirage as it does.

In Tuesday Morning Mavs Donuts, I take a glance at how 12 seeming NBA contenders are faring when it's time for someone besides their marquee guys to share the stage … wrapping it up by finally getting around to your Mavericks:

DONUT 1: San Antonio Spurs – His name is Gary Neal.

He played college basketball at Towson State and at La Salle. He is an undrafted rookie. He is a 6-4 combo guard. He is 26, having banged around professional basketball in Turkey and Spain and Italy.

And then he showed up for the Spurs' Summer League team, dazzled, and got himself a three-year contract.

Now he's scoring 21 points in a game to help beat Dallas.

This is how the Spurs do it. Duncan and Parker and Manu, of course, are the foundation of the club that possesses the league's best record. But they do it in other ways, too.

His name is Gary Neal.

I'm not going to go nuts with the "Spurs-discover-jewels'' angle here; on the Mavs roster there are spots for Beaubois, Ajinca and ex-Spur Mahinmi, three French-speaking kids who count as "jewels'' in their own ways.

But the Spurs are the No. 1 team in the West. So they get the No. 1 Donut.

DONUT 2: Boston Celtics Boston has an elite record in the East, and yet we still haven't seen the lineup or the rotation the Celtics plan on rolling out on opponents come spring.

Big man Kendrick Perkins (knee) has been unavailable all year. Jermaine O'Neal, Shaq and Rajon Rondo have bounced in and out of the trainer's room. Delonte West has a fractured wrist. And now Kevin Garnett has a calf sprain.

Yet Boston is a great team … anticipating greater greatness.

"Once we get everybody healthy,'' Paul Pierce says, "we're going to be a scary team.''

DONUT 3: Utah Jazz There are similarities, I think, with how Utah and Dallas are constructed, in this sense: There is Deron. There is Dirk.

There are extremely professional cast members alongside them. … and they've all been at the lip of the cup.

Both teams … able to flirt with playoff runs on an annual basis … both facing doubt because they've never actually quite done it.

DONUT 4: Miami Heat The Heat is attempting to defy all basketball logic by letting "Miami Thrice'' serve as a long-term three-man team.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are great, all agree … but the supporting cast is weak.

"So what?'' seems to now be the response James, Wade and Bosh, who, since a just-over-.500 start (remember what the Mavs did to them to put them at 9-8?) that caused the naysayers to party, having recorded a 15-1 record in the month of December.

Were we all wrong? Are the Basketball Gods altering the carved-in-granite rules?

LeBron is now noting – selfish in his unselfishness – that he and Wade will miss out on MVP votes because each guy's greatness will offset the other guy's. He's also calling his guys "The Heatles'' … you know, like The Beatles.

We don't have to like it. But we're going to have to get used to it.

DONUT 5: Chicago Bulls Chicago is keeping the revolving door at the doctor's office spinning. Carlos Boozer returned from missing the start of the season just in time to see Joakim Noah exit after tearing a thumb ligament. Chicago has the third best record in the East even with those front-court comings-and-goings, and eventually, when Noah's high-energy defense is combined with Boozer's numbers (right around an MVP-worthy 25 points and 11 rebounds per since his return), Derrick Rose will be fortified with lots of help.

DONUT 6: Los Angeles Lakers – What LA is capable of when it comes to surviving the 82 was established back on Nov. 19, in a game against Toronto. Kobe was tired and Gasol was tired and Artest was unfocused, so …

Andrew Bynum's came off the bench for 16 points and seven rebounds. Matt Barnes came off the bench for 12 points and nine rebounds. Shannon Brown came off the bench for 14 points. The Lakers' backups beat their Raptors opposite numbers by a score of 57-27. LA's stars didn't bother to play the first seven minutes of the final quarter.

"I was very pleased with the bench,'' said coach Phil Jackson, and he should have been. LA won, 120-110, in a game that was essentially a vacation day for his stars.

I'd love to see the recent Kobe-vs.-Phil disagreement about Bryant's penchant for one-on-one play be a crack in the foundation. But I don't think we'll see it.

Instead, on Jan. 19, Lakers-at-Mavs – and finally, we'll get to see two of the touted benches go at it.

DONUT 7: Orlando Magic Hard to judge Dwight Howard's chorus line when they keep changing the dancers.

They needed big-man depth after trading away Marcin Gortat … and now might not have Brandon "The Animal'' Bass healthy.


DONUT 8: Denver Nuggets Coach George Karl deserves some credit for keeping The Cuckoo's Nest in control. … But you know it's all going to hell as soon as Carmelo Anthony is able to strangle Nurse Ratched and make his escape.

DONUT 9: New Orleans Hornets The Hornets began 2010 with an 8-0 win streak (until Dallas did them in) then finished the calendar year by going 11-14.

What's gotten exposed? Their lack of depth.

DONUT 10: New York Knicks Every time I check in on the Knicks, they lose.

That's because I check in on the Knicks only when they play marquee games against top teams … and New York keeps losing those games.

From December 15 to December 30, they played six so-called "marquee'' games. They lost four of those, dropping meetings with Boston, Miami, Miami again and Orlando while topping OKC and Chicago.

That's a 2-4 mark in a two-week span against the sort of team the Knicks – trying to emerge from a six-year playoff draught – will face on a nightly basis come spring.

Amar'e is ready for that. Felton might be. That's it.

DONUT 11: Atlanta Hawks I think the Hawks have quality second-level guys. But maybe it they had higher quality first-level guys they wouldn't be 2-6 in roadies against winning teams.

DONUT 12: Dallas Mavericks And finally … to your Mavericks.

They might be the best team in basketball with Nowitzki (and a bunch of healthy Dirkettes) at their disposal.

Last week, they lost three straight without him.

That can be used as evidence of The UberMan's MVP deservedness. But more immediately, Dallas would like to use his absence to showcase the "depth and balance'' coach Rick Carlisle hailed as a strength all the way back in training camp.

"I don't care if guys are happy or unhappy about their minutes … It's not about role definition. It's going to be about role acceptance,'' said Carlisle firmly, meaning to send a message to former "star-level'' Mavs like Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry and Brendan Haywood.

Overall, Carlisle's preaching has worked: Dallas entered last week at 24-5, and some of those supplementary guys keyed a Monday win at Oklahoma City in which Nowitzki exited in the first half with a sprained knee. … and then after that? Well, they endured a lot. Let's put it that way.

But even with the second-best record in the West, Dallas has other concerns. We'll know more about Caron's knee today. And DallasBasketball.com has the scoop for Premium subscribers detailing the Mavs' in-house thinking on a trade for Andre Iguodala.. ... (Get yourself signed up for just $3.33 monthly!)

What to do next for Dallas?

Success tonight against Portland is a start. And if the Mavs would like to sweep away the hoohah and re-establish the argument position that billboards and TV promos aside, basketball is a team game, they might want to flex some of their non-Nowitzki muscles.

Visit the DB.com Store to get that UberMan T-shirt!

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