Mavs Clinch! 12 Straight Years! What's Next?
Where is this team headed?
Between the long champagne-soaked lockout, the departure of central figures in last year's title run, all the strange and disheartening losses (most recently the 2011-12 season time capsule that was the Utah game), the Odom Odyssey, the impending departure of half the roster and the wacky compressed season, is it fair to wonder where the headspace of this Dallas Mavericks team is?
Does this team possess any degree of the mental fortitude displayed by last year's squad? Is there anything that we could point to for a guide on how this all will turn out?
It has become in vogue for the remaining Mavericks apologists (a group that seemingly gets smaller with each successive loss but also a group that kinda includes those of us at DB.com) to cite last year's poor finish as a reason for hope that this year's squad can turn it around and muster at least a respectable playoff showing. To expect a return to the Finals is probably a bit ambitious (if not foolhardy), but hey, it happened last year right?
However, unlike last year there are few signs of championship life that we have seen so far from this squad.
Last year's squad was 24-7 on Jan 1st, including a 12-game winning streak including victories over such foes as the Spurs, Heat, and Thunder. Further, the 2010-11 Mavs had three winning streaks of eight games or more. Those runs, while multifactorial in origin, at least demonstrated that the team was capable of putting together extended runs of greatness, even against elite competition. Therefore, the 16-5 gallop through the playoffs wasn't entirely the out-of-nowhere Cinderella story that it is increasingly viewed as.
This season's squad has zero winning streaks of eight or more and only two such streaks longer than five games.
More telling is the team's record in close games. Being able to prevail in such games, a mark of mental toughness and collective focus, has been a hallmark of the Nowitzki/Terry era, especially when infused with the BBIQ of Jason Kidd. Last season, Dallas was 17-11 in games decided by five points or less. This season, Dallas is 10-13 in such contests. Allowing leads to evaporate is at least partially forgivable when you can still close a team out if the game gets tight, however, when you are under .500 in such situations, it can be fatal. Fluky, last second losses do not happen without the right situation and the Mavericks have allowed opponents too many such opportunities this season. Part of this is the regression of Dallas' offense from 8th in the NBA last year to 23rd this season.
Most troubling is this team's tendency to get walloped on the boards. Last year, Dallas was only outrebounded by 10 or more seven times. This season, that's happened 15 times already and they've played 20 less games than last season. Six of those 15 games have come against teams the Mavericks will likely face in the playoffs, San Antonio, OKC and both teams from Los Angeles. If the old basketball adage that 'no rebounds = no rings,' is correct, then this statistic is particularly troubling.
However, this is a wacky season, and games are coming fast and furiously. "All the data is dirty," Cuban is fond of saying. He often reminds us media cognoscenti that we will see a whole new type of basketball in the playoffs. Perhaps this is true and things will turn around. As Carlisle demonstrated last season, he is capable of leveraging match ups, managing lineups and in-game adjustments among the best in the league.
Pointing to a relaxed schedule, however, is not, by itself reason to believe Dallas will finally turn the corner. This season, the Mavericks are essentially a .500 team (17-16) on one day of rest, the sort of rest sometimes available between games in the playoffs.
Taken together, these stats paint a very pessimistic outlook for the defending champions. "The Eye Test'' does not offer much relief either. Only the most Pollyanna among us might predict a magical run akin to last year's. However, therein lies exactly what makes such runs so special: no one sees them coming. Only in retrospect can we assess last season's unexpected magic and find clues that predicted such a finish.
No one saw it coming last year, and no one should this year.
But we should celebrate a 12th straight playoff berth. That is elite stuff. The Dirk Nowitzki Era, The Cuban Era, it's a winning era.
But while we celebrate the moment -- and we do -- we also anticipate what's coming. We'd be foolish to rule out the possibility of coming success. That's why we watch.