Inside Mavs Practice: The Pendulum Swings
With an unceremonious close to what we'll label the "Odom Era," the Dallas Mavericks exited the playoffs via a sweep at the hands of OKC, thus ending a season that began amidst unknown expectations and lingering championship celebrations.
We all know how it began, with an 11-point loss to the Miami Heat on Christmas Day, in a game that was far more blowout than the final margin indicates. And, we all remember how it ended.
Unfortunately, what lay between was a tangled mess of unrealized hopes, an incomplete and unrealized chemistry and ultimately … disappointment.
From the supreme achievement of a championship to being swept in the opening round of the playoffs for the first time since Dirk Nowitzki joined the Mavs, and only the second time in franchise history, the pendulum had swung from one extreme to the other – at least as it concerns playoff teams -- with merely a breath between.
So, here we are entering a new era of Dallas Mavericks basketball, this time with a gym full of faces unfamiliar to the jersey now draped over their broad and sometimes impressively hairy shoulders. (Why do you assume we're talking about Chris Kaman?)
Here are a few observations – some small, some speculative, some little more than gut inklings, based on a day in comparison to its counterparts from the recent past … on a weekend that grants just some early glimpses of players on the practice court ...
The Non-Set Starting Lineup?: Elton Brand jumped into the first-team center position at practice when Kaman went down (see below), which gave Carlisle a chance to note that his starting lineup -- presumed to include Kaman at center upfront with Dirk and Marion and featuring newcomers Collison and Mayo in the backcourt -- is far from set in stone.
The coach used the phrase "an open competition'' for starting spots. He is mostly speaking specifically about the chance for Brand to outplay Kaman. Additionally, though, it's about sending a message to the 18 guys in camp that nothing is a given ... even as we assume that we know the future of the starting lineup and we assume we know the fates of the three guys at the bottom of the totem pole (Mbenga and Holloway to Frisco, Akognon back to China).
Emotional Feel of the Room: Looking back to last year, due to the sudden nature with which the lockout had concluded there had been time to fit in a couple of practices prior to Media Day, which meant the day did not act as our first opportunity to see the team as a whole (as whole as it was at that time) in one place.
The reality surrounding the departures of Chandler, Caron and Barea was only beginning to settle in during those first practices. Unsurprisingly, the tone was unmistakably somber. Just before Media Day, there came what almost everyone assumed was a positive move in the acquisition of Lamar Odom for almost nothing.
While it didn't show in Odom's demeanor, which very accurately foreshadowed his lasting impact as a Mav, the rest of the team seemed to receive a small emotional jolt. Smiles were a little easier to blossom than they had been a day before, leaving the team's Media Day mood a little lighter than it had promised to be.
This year, what disappointments this offseason carried (yeah, we're looking at you, Deron) were no longer fresh. There's been time to move on, and to embrace what's come next.
Enter Collison, Mayo, Brand, Kaman and Dahntay.
"I was pretty disappointed with the way July started," Dirk says. "At first Deron didn't come and then J-Kidd and Jet left, two warriors that had been through a lot of stuff with me and won the championship together and were like brothers to me. That was tough to see those two guys go somewhere else. It's going to be weird to see them in different uniforms, for sure.
"But then I think we settled in a little bit."
We're not glossing over the departure of Terry or Kidd or the missed swing for Deron Williams. Dirk speaks very openly about those transactions and bemoaned losing his "brothers.'' So those losses and/or missed opportunities are not forgotten, but the tide that slipped away has had time to return, and it carried with it … optimism.
Whether it was watching Dirk joking with Kaman as they posed for a few pictures together, or listening to Dirk, and others, speak very positively of what this team should be able to do from the center position, particularly on offense, or hearing all of the new guys saying exactly what you'd hope they would ... there's an undercurrent of hope beyond what was present last year, even in the wake of the Odom deal.
"I still think we have a heck of a team,'' Dirk said, mixing into the conversation an acknowledgement of "Plan Powder.'' "For basically saying we want to be a player next summer, we still put a decent product out there. We're going to compete and see what happens.''
A season ago, you got the impression that a weight had been lifted off of a few shoulders. This season, there's still the freedom granted by that truth, at least with Dirk, but there's a renewed determination as well, both from the multitude of new faces and the holdovers, such as Dirk and Shawn Marion.
We're not saying last year's team wasn't determined. Every player and every team is determined, or at least they should be. But, there did seem to be a shift in demeanor. It's far too early to say anything definitively, yet there seems to be a renewed vigor to the body of the team with the infusion of new blood … and youth.
Another way to put it … perhaps those shoulders left unburdened a season ago, still basking in the joy of the weight removed by a championship, have a new collective chip pressed upon them that was absent at this point last season.
Maybe it's nothing. Maybe it's just us seeing what we think we'll see, or hope we'll see … or maybe it's something.
Time will tell.
Size Matters … Unless It Doesn't: Now, for a couple of meaningless observations:
Collison is listed at an even six feet. Barea is listed at an even six feet. Each of us is about 6-1. Barea was at least a couple of inches shorter than we are. Collison, on the other hand, seems an inch taller than us.
If you've seen Collison play, you'll never mistake him as tall (for an NBA player) … but this still came as a small surprise.
Again, maybe it means nothing … just thought we'd share.
Mavsellaneous: Keeping the dichotomy of opposing spectrums or expectations alive, Mayo didn't seem as tall as expected. Oh, and Brandan Wright, as thin as he still is, seems to have added some thickness to his arms and shoulders in the weight room. ... The Mavs will have a single practice today and then two-a-days again on Monday ... The Mavericks announced they have extended the contract of team physician Dr. T.O. Souryal. Souryal, in his 20th season with the Mavericks, signed a five-year extension with team. "I am grateful to Mark Cuban and the entire Mavericks organization for giving me this opportunity to work with such an elite organization," Souryal said. "The cutting edge technology that we use with the Mavericks players is a benefit to all my patients." ... Last three players on the court Saturday? Cunningham, DoJo and Roddy B. And then Beaubois outlasted them all getting in extra work with D.A. ... Rick's weekend review: "The things you do in the first week of practice are the things that are going to remain most ingrained throughout the season. These practices are critical. These are the things guys are going to remember the most. A lot of this stuff is your core stuff, fundamentals. It builds the foundation of what you're going to be as a basketball team."
1-on-1 with Brandan Wright: From Bible verses to Barcelona visits, we dish with B-Wright:
Wright, by the way, on Sunday came up lame with a quad problem. He's day-to-day going forward.
How's Kaman's back?: Coach Rick Carlisle offered glowing reports on the physical condition of Dirk, Marion and Brand.
"It was a really good practice," Carlisle said on Saturday at midday. "We had one casualty. Chris Kaman went out with a sprained lower back. It't not considered serious."
"Not serious'' is likely accurate. But as recently as two years ago Kaman missed 50 games due to injury. The Mavs -- having given him a one-year, $8 million contract -- are counting on him to serve as the best offensive center Dirk has ever teamed with. Kaman averaged 13.1 points and 7.7 rebounds last year with the Hornets, and has career averages of 11.9 points and 8.3 rebounds.
Where is Everybody?: Perhaps it is nothing more than a coincidence of timing, with the Cowboys having their locker room availability almost simultaneously on Friday and then spending the weekend prepping for the Monday Nighter against the visiting Bears, but it sure seems like there are a lot fewer media bodies wandering the Mavs practice court than either of the past two seasons.
You'd expect this in comparison to last year, when the Mavs returned to camp as the defending champs – not to mention the lockout just ending -- though it wouldn't seem to vary too greatly from the year before … when they were coming off a first-round exit at the hands of the Spurs.
There also appeared to be a lesser national media presence.
Is it a clear indication this team will enter the season flying well below the radar, beneath the tightly focused beam of attention pointed squarely at teams like the Lakers, Heat, Thunder, Knicks and Nets?
Is it at least partially a symptom of the Cowboys splitting the local media's responsibilities?
That's likely, too.
But, now you know. Make of it what you will.
Jae's body type: At first glance, Crowder has a body type the Mavs haven't really had available to them recently. Listed at 6-6 and 235 pounds, think DeShawn Stevenson with an extra inch or two in height and about 20 extra pounds that looks to be almost purely muscle.
We raved about his energy and impact in the Las Vegas Summer League and the willingness to do the "dirty work" that could get him on the court sooner rather than later. Now, we'll just say we wouldn't want to be placed in a position to stand between him and something he wanted.
So, there you have it. A few musings derived from observations of a team and players in a weekend environment largely devoid of what their true jobs will be: playing seriou basketball.
It's not hard to see a hunger in this team that may have been too muddled by a myriad of circumstances to thrive a season ago, but there's little to see how that will translate to the court as of this moment. Will they come together to become something greater than the sum of its parts … who knows?
"I don't think one player can match what (a superstar like Dwight Howard is) doing,'' Brand says. "Maybe we'll have to do it by committee and be solid all-around team and play our roles, these new guys. You say Dwight Howard and Deron Williams, I know we as a team, with the pieces we've put together, I feel we could match or get close to matching what they would've brought.''
The journey has only just begun. We've come to the beginning of a road that stretches into the distance ahead, but can only see the gravel beneath our feet with certainty. The new season is here … and like anything in its infancy, there rests hopes and dreams that have yet to be proven faulty.
Success certainly isn't a given, but it hasn't been proven to be impossible either, which raises another question for this team: what exactly would be considered success for this group?
"You have to think that way," said Carlisle of his "We-Play-For-Championships'' mindset. "If you're setting yourself for 'Most Improved,' that's kind of demeaning way to approach it from a fan perspective."
Today, we only know one thing … the season has begun.