Mavs Season Preview For Smart People
TV PREDONUT: Let me make this clear right off the bat: this isn't a prediction piece.
Not because predictions are a fool's errand; under normal circumstances, I'm all too willing to tether my credibility to far-ranging, improbable declarations.
But given that the start of the season is less than two weeks away and some teams barely have a starting lineup under contract, we can officially declare normalcy to have flown the coop a long time ago. It's not enough to proclaim that we're neck-deep in the craziest offseason in NBA history; we're also approaching a regular season truly unprecedented in its brutality, with each team steeling itself to run an ultra-marathon of 66 games into roughly 120 days.
In sum, nobody knows what's going to happen in our most static professional sports league – not when the build-up, as Donnie Nelson so succinctly puts it, involves "compacting a four-month period into four or five days."
That's especially applicable to your defending champion Dallas Mavericks, who have spent the past week shuffling lineup pieces at breakneck speed. Out went Tyson, J.J. Barea, Butler, Rudy and Brewer. In come Lamar Odom, Vince Carter, Delonte West, Brandan Wright, and probably another name or two before the Christmas Day renewal of unpleasantries with the Heat.
We keep up with the immediacy part of this "process'' (as Rick Carlisle calls it) by heading down to the AAC to catch up with Fish and some of The 75-Member Staff for a DB.com VideoCast on "CHAMP CAMP mood,'' "Dirk and depth,'' "the fast-moving front office'' and more:
There's a lot to be sorted out with this – minutes, roles, on-court chemistry, to name three. But there are also a lot of things that we know about The Champs 2.0 right here, right now. Here are a dozen of them.
DONUT 1. We know that nobody – repeat, NOBODY - has a pair of more versatile forwards than Shawn Marion and Lamar Odom
After two years with The Matrix, Mavs fans are well-versed with what Marion brings to the table; he runs and steals like a 3, boards like a 4, guards them both, finishes on the break, and has cultivated a nice herky-jerky back to the basket game that both compliments his herky-jerky J and combats the effects of age. Rarely, if ever, is it pretty; the guy who routinely threw down skyscraping alley-oops in Phoenix is long gone. But it's damn effective.
Now the Triangle of Trust has added Odom, who has an even wider breadth of tools in his belt and brandishes them looking as silky as ‘Trix does gritty. An NBA lifetime ago, before the name LeBron was on anyone's lips, it was Odom garnering earnest, if misguided "next Magic" praise because, more than anything, he makes everything seem so effortless. He passes and handles the ball like a point guard – will Rick let LO reprise his point forward role in stretches? –finishes, either with the midrange jumper or off the dribble, like a small forward and does it in the frame of a power forward. Make no mistake, temperament – not talent – is the reason Lamar Odom has been a very good player over his NBA career instead of a dominant one. Not a bad temperament, mind you, a good one; he's demonstrated a pronounced willingness to play any type of role for the sake of his teammates and the cause of winning. That adaptability, both in play and personality, fits this team like a glove.
Dallas has a lot of weapons to go to war with; Marion and Odom are its pair of Swiss Army knives, fit for any type of fight.
DONUT 2. The Lakers' best defense against Dirk now plays with Dirk
Let that sink in for a moment.
The team that His Mamba-ness declared "wants to get [the Mavs] back" for the shellacking Dallas dished out in these playoffs are now completely unequipped to defend the best player in that series and the catalyst for Los Angeles' evisceration because they handed the Mavs the one guy who had any measure of success against him defensively.
Maybe this new CBA isn't so bad after all.
DONUT 3. We know that the Mavericks will miss Tyson Chandler
There is a growing sentiment among some Mavs fans that maybe, just maybe, TY wasn't that important or irreplaceable in this whole championship run after all. That, on paper, Big Wood can put up similar stats and The Ianimal can supply the athleticism and together it will be as if Tyson never left.
Whether this is a coping mechanism for Chandler setting up shop in New York City or a revisionist history post-mortem, I can't say, but it's patently untrue.
What Chandler did on the court wasn't just about stats, as great as they are. It was the way he rotated on defense to clean up everyone else's mess, the ground he covered to block shots, his unparalleled ability to communicate and marshall the defense, the fact that you couldn't foul him because he always nailed the free throws.
Then there's his status as the vocal leader on the title team, which was about little things as much as big ones. It was Tyson who bitched out Shawn Marion for not boxing out for a rebound in a nondescript regular season game, imploring him to do better, just like it was Tyson who didn't think the team was nearly focused enough in the Portland series and had the stones to say so before it went to hell in a handbasket. When LeBron punctuated the Heat's Game 1 with an ostentatious alley-oop, it was Tyson who screamed like a banshee after immediately throwing down an even bigger flush on the other end and Tyson who did everything short of forechecking Chris Bosh on the next Heat possession when Bosh tried one last celebratory dunk.
Simply – and crudely – put, Tyson Chandler made sure nobody screwed with the Mavericks, whether it was protecting his teammates with his presence or protecting the rim with his defense. Nobody since Jerry Stackhouse could do the former; no center in the history of the franchise could match him at the latter.
So as unpleasant a reality as it is to face, Tyson Chandler will be missed. The good news is that even without his intimidating presence, the championship run ensured that the "same old Mavs" label is dead and nowhere was that more prevalent than a widespread perception across the league that Dallas was soft.
Those teams have no choice but to respect Dallas now.
Short of finding another elite defensive center, though, is defense around the rim is irreplaceable. Haywood is a good man defender who is more than capable of starting for a contender, but one only has to watch the San Antonio series in 2010 for an exhibition of why he isn't at Chandler's level as an impact defensive pivot who can make enough stops for an entire defense. If the Mavs are to repeat, it will have to come in spite of a drop off in interior defense.
That being said…
DONUT 4. We know that while the D will be weaker up the middle, it will be stronger on the perimeter
You want to know how to replace Tyson Chandler's defensive impact without adding another dominant defensive center? You do it by improving on the perimeter and reducing the number of messes the center has to clean up in the first place.
So out goes JJ Barea, a poor defender whose skill on that end never matched his speed, and in his place is Delonte, a good defender who can stick to shooting guards but will be of much more service to the Mavs by going against point guard, thereby allowing Kidd to much more of his time matched up against swingmen, against whom he is still one of the best defenders in the game.
Odom is a matchup nightmare defensively, with the right combination of length and quickness to blanket both forward positions and the occasional center. Nobody would characterize Vince Carter as a defensive stopper but he's not going to hurt Dallas when he's on the floor, either, and the reintroduction of Roddy Beaubois into the rotation gives the Mavs another player to throw at point guards who is capable in the worst-case scenario and, in the best-case, finally becomes the impact defender so many expect him to be with his quick feet and long arms. There's a chance another defensive-minded swingman comes on board to replace the departed Corey.
It's way too soon to tell whether all of that is enough to compensate for the loss of Chandler, but as a collective that group (plus increased use of Kidd against 2s) offers improvement on defense at four other positions, which means much less will be expected of Big Wood than it ever was of TY.
DONUT 5. We know that, as of Wednesday, the Mavs are the only playoff team in the Western Conference to make a post-draft move to improve their roster
As is the case with the defense issue, there's no way of telling whether the overall net gain of the new imports offsets the drop off from the departures. But there's no disputing that unto themselves, bringing in Odom, Carter, and West improve the Mavs roster in several areas.
And that's more than what can be said for literally every other playoff team from 2011.
The Lakers may get Dwight or Chris, but right now all they've done is give away Odom for nothing. The Spurs brought in an exciting but completely unproven rookie in Leonard and it came at the cost of their best bench player in Hill.
Memphis lost Battier to Miami while DWest fled New Orleans as fast as humanly possible for Indiana. Apart from Game 4 against the Mavs, Roy's ailing knees left him a shell of his former self and sadly ushered him into early retirement at 27; Portland's only free agent move was to swap out Przybilla for the ageless wonder Kurt Thomas.
Denver just took on the Mavs' table scraps in Brewer and Rudy, but that doesn't offset Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, and my man J.R. Smith somehow being the only three players in the entire league stuck overseas because they didn't insert provisional opt-out clauses in their contracts with foreign teams for when the lockout ended.
Finally, Oklahoma City has stood completely pat – a strategy with considerable merit but nevertheless has them rolling with the same pieces that Dallas made quick work of in the conference finals.
That, folks, is the extent of what's gone on with the competition. You may or may not like what the Mavs have done thus far but give credit where it's due; they've been making move to get better, while their competitors have either run in place or taken a step back.
DONUT 6. We know that anyone worrying about how Carter or West will affect the locker room are underestimating the collective personality of this team
I could write another 2,000 words on trials and tribulations that the Mavs' newest swingmen have had over their NBA careers but the bottom line is there are four reasons why there's no need to worry:
*Even with Chandler gone, the Mavs still have their two "lead by example" guys in Dirk and Kidd, their other vocal leader in JET, and another prominent veteran who just summited the championship mountain in Shawn Marion. Those four run the show, and with over a half-century of collective NBA experience, clearly are the law in the room.
*The third prominent arrival, Odom, is a fantastic chemistry guy who is used to winning and will fall right in line with the club culture. More importantly, he'll be the one with the biggest role. If any of the new arrivals wind up having real influence on the chemistry, it's him – and that's a great thing.
*Both players have damaged reputations, are on one year deals [Vince is on the MLE for three but only one is guaranteed] and badly want a ring. In other words, they have plenty of incentive to play nice.
*Donnie Nelson himself clearly isn't worried. Want to know how I know that? Because he didn't bat an eyelash to ship out Fernandez, who arrived at the cost of a first-round pick and didn't play a nanosecond in Maverick blue, at the slightest whiff of Rudy grousing for minutes. If he had concerns over either guy, they wouldn't be here.
Moral of the story is we have every rationale to assume that the only headlines Carter and West make will be with their on-court play. Given the low investment in both, the second it isn't is the second they probably are sent packing.
DONUT 7. We know that the most important move of the offseason might be inking the 15th man
It isn't spoken of often, but there was a time circa the departures of Finley and Nash that Dirk didn't have many close relationships with his teammates. That isn't to say he wasn't fond of them. (Hey, he gets along with everybody, even Fish, as you can see in the NBA.com video here.) But his inner circle was much more populated by Mavs staffers and executives than his fellow players.
That's still mostly true in 2011 because of how ingrained Dirk is in the organization, but less so. And with all due respect to Terry and Kidd, the two veterans who became the ballast alongside Dirk through the perpetual roster tweaking the Mavs have made over time, it's primarily because of Brian Cardinal.
Dirk loves Cardinal. Loves hanging out with him, loves making fun of him, loves tweeting about him, you name it. I can hardly claim to know the inner workings of the UberMan's UberMind, but from afar their dynamic appears to be unlike anything Dirk's had with a teammate since Nash, which is no small thing since Dirk is the godfather to Nash's twin daughters.
Priority 1 in Mavsland is winning.
Priority 1A is keeping Dirk happy, since Priority 1A invariably has a high correlation with Priority 1.
Given that, handing Cardinal the veteran's minimum to hold court at the south end of the bench and crack jokes with Dirk is the biggest no-brainer in the offseason. If he winds up making some strong cameos as he did last year, so much the better. But even if he doesn't play a single minute, Cardinal's worth his weight in gold.
DONUT 8. We know that if the Mavs can't turn Brandan Wright from an F to a C-, no one will.
Wright is 24 years old, or some two years older than Brandon Bass when the Mavs picked him up off the scrap heap in 2007. I bring that up because Donnie Nelson yesterday termed Wright a "Brandon Bass starter kit," an interesting idea but one that doesn't fully work for two reasons – one good, the other bad.
First, as pedigree goes, the 6'10'' Wright was a much bigger deal coming into the NBA than Bass, an eighth overall pick in 2007 who at the time was theorized to go even earlier. The canvas, both in height and potential, is much wider with Wright than it ever was with Bass.
The second reason doubles as the problem. Wright, like Bass before him, can shoot the midrange jumper uncommonly well but Bass is built like a cement truck at 6'8'', 260. Meanwhile, it isn't enough to merely characterize Wright as rail thin; he's the first NBA player I've ever seen who's prompted me to have a conversation with someone about whether he's anorexic. Wright entered the league weighing a scant 210 pounds, is still listed as that most everywhere and while he's probably gained a bit of weight since then, it can't be a significant amount.
Therein lies the problem, because the Mavs envision him as a 5 who moonlights as a 4 yet all Wright has shown in his brief NBA career is a propensity for getting tossed around like a rag doll by the rest of the league's burlier post players, most all of whom have considerably more meat on their bones. He'll be able to keep them off balance with the ball in his hands, that's a given, but if he can't move up a weight class, there's realistically very little he can do to hold his own at his position and, consequently, stay in the league.
This is Last Chance Saloon stuff for Wright and Dallas has had plenty of success in similar cases with Bass, Diop, and Antoine Wright to name three. But this could be a case where all the coaching in the world can't overcome genetics. If the Mavs can't salvage him, don't bet on anyone else being able to, either.
DONUT 9. We know that this front office knows how to build a team to handle a shortened season
That's how many back-to-backs Dallas will play in these next four months and change. That's also before taking into account a back-to-back-to back on the West Coast in mid-March.
All that talk about veteran teams benefitting from 16 fewer games? Yeah, not so much. Make no mistake, this season will be a grind unlike any these players have faced before and one that will sap the strength of older players.
By virtue of their roster construction, there isn't much the Mavs can do about that. What they can, and did, do is stock the team with useful players from 1 to 15, because odds are every single one will be needed at some point this year. Every spot on the roster – save center, which will be addressed shortly – runs at least three deep in quality players who can man the position and there figures to be no fewer than 10 guys right off the bat who will play substantial minutes each night [those 10 are Kidd, West, Beaubois, Terry, Carter, Marion, Odom, Nowitzki, Haywood, and Mahinmi for those of you keeping score at home].
Kidd logged 33.4 minutes per game last season and barely made it through; don't be surprised if that number dips below 30 this season. The same logic applies for Marion, Terry, and even Dirk. More than ever, core players' minutes will be carefully rationed, lest they risk burning out before the postseason – with its own wave hellish of back-to-backs – arrives.
So those of you who clamored for more Dominique Jones last year? Good news; you'll see it this year. Along with Wright, Cardinal, and perhaps everybody but Drew Neitzel.
Bottom line, if they make it through camp you can expect to see them on the floor in the regular season.
DONUT 10. We (should) know that even when it looks like there's no plan, Rick's got one.
I'll admit it; going into the playoffs, I was convinced that Rick Carlisle didn't have the slightest clue what his rotation was.
Monday night, Roddy's starting at the 2. Tuesday, it's DeShawn
Wednesday night Brian Cardinal plays 3 minutes. Thursday, it's 25.
Friday night, Kidd gets a game off because his weary bones have double-crossed his nimble mind. Saturday and Sunday, we're wondering when, if ever, Rick will let him sit down in the 4th quarter.
I thought Rick was in over his head. After Game 4 against Portland, I wondered aloud on the DB.com Podcast if he should be handed his walking papers if the Mavs lost the series. Fish told me to shut up and almost canned me. But I highly doubt I was alone in all of this.
You know the rest.
My point is this: there will be times, like the 13th back-to-back of the season when Dominique Jones gets 25 minutes in first leg and a DNP in the second, or in the two weeks before the playoffs when every guy on the roster gets some burn, when you may be tempted to question what Rick is up to.
Even when it doesn't look like he has a plan, Rick Carlisle has a plan. "Be Ready,'' he says, and we are. We'll all be best served by sitting back, watching, and letting the man work.
DONUT 11. We know that there will be a lot more "2004 All-Star Team" jokes
We heard ‘em all the time last year between Dirk, Kidd, Jet, ‘Trix, and Stojakovic. Swapping out Peja for Vinsanity, an eight-time All-Star, guarantees even more this year.
Those past their prime All-Stars won a title last year.
No reason they can't this year with more horsepower and stopping power under the hood.
Those AARP jokes?
Keep ‘em coming.
DONUT 12. We know that no matter what, these are the champs
It's a cruel reality of sports that the team that wins the title is never the same group that defends it.
Sometimes, there's only a minor tweak here or there. If Mark Cuban had his druthers, this would be one of those times.
The CBA and its re-charting of the NBA landscape forced Dallas into making a choice.
There was Door A, leading to Tyson, JJB, Tuff Juice, Brewer, Fernandez and an interminable stay in a hotter, nastier luxury tax hell.
Then there was Door B: Odom, Carter, West, Wright, two more cheap vets, and the cap flexibility to go big game hunting next summer for one or two of Dwight, Deron, or CP3.
Door A romanticized the past at the expense of the team's long-term viability as a contender.
Door B steamrolled a path to the future but, in so doing, relegated the heroes of mere minutes ago to collateral damage.
Truly, though, there never was a choice. So tough calls were made, fat was trimmed, and not even six months after the franchise claimed its first championship its playoff roster was halved. These champs aren't those champs. These are the Champs 2.0, the same house with a fresh coat of paint.
But, original or new and (hopefully) improved, they are still the champs. The banner will be raised on Christmas Day and the hardware doled out soon after. We will still see plenty of the things that made us love last year's team – Terry's swagger, Kidd's genius, Matrix's hustle, Dirk's everything.
We'll see new things that will make us love this year's edition, too. Like Odom's ease with the ball in his hands. Or West's tenacity. The flashes from 34 year-old Carter that remind us all should count ourselves fortunate to watch one of the most exciting players in the history of basketball wear a Maverick uniform, even if his star has dimmed from its once incandescent heights. With any luck, some flashes from Roddy B and DoJo that buttress the bridge from the title team to the next generation.
The goal is to be wading through another title defense by this team next year. But this season shouldn't only be about the destination. It should be about the journey and the joy of celebrating what was already accomplished. For the first time ever, we don't have to watch this team and wonder "what if," but instead get to celebrate what is.
The Mavs aren't nipping at someone else's heels anymore. They stand tall atop the hill, ready to ward off all challengers.
Enjoy it, Dallas Mavericks fans. The ride of our lives is about to begin.
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