By Earl K. Sneed
The Dallas Mavericks will not be winning the NBA’s “Gulliest” Team Award as currently constructed. In fact, they’ve been viewed as soft around the league for years, with a superstar in Dirk Nowitzki that personifies the team’s persona, but that may be about to all change, if Mark Cuban has his way.
Consider the Mavs’ recent history:
1) Taking a 2-0 series lead of the 2006 NBA Finals with a 13-point fourth quarter lead on the Miami Heat in Game 3 before Dwyane Wade realized he was the best player in the series and single-handily willed his team to four straight wins.
2) Winning 67 games, with the league’s MVP, and finishing with the Top Seed in the Western Conference, before falling in the First Round of the playoffs by running into the matchup problem of the century in a more athletic and eighth-seeded Golden State squad, that would go on to take the series in six games.
3) Most recently, dealing away many pieces of the team’s future and bringing in an aging, yet proven point guard, after the All-Star break only to lead to chemistry issues and another First Round exit, in a series were Hornets’ point guard Chris Paul made it appear that no one from the Mavs’ roster deserved to tie his shoes, let alone play on the same court as him.
With a West that is only getting younger and better, and with no First Round pick in this year’s draft (traded to acquire Jason Kidd) the Mavs have to look to get better this offseason by adding the right pieces without breaking up the nucleus of the team. But with a closing window of opportunity for the core of this Mavericks roster, I’d say it is time for a change.
And change is exactly what Mark Cuban seeks this offseason. Cuban, being the outspoken owner that he is, made it public that he would not stand pat. Gone is Head Coach Avery Johnson; he of the 2005-06 Coach of the Year award, a .734 regular season win percentage, and only two years removed from a NBA Finals appearance. Enter new Mavs Head Coach Rick Carlisle.
But like Avery Johnson, Carlisle has a postseason winning percentage below .500, with much regular season success, which includes the 2001-02 Coach of the Year, and a 61-win regular season with Indiana. But he does not have the hardware that Cuban so desires.
In fact, like his predecessor, Carlisle is viewed as a conservative coach offensively, with an emphasis on defense, so next year could bring the same brand of basketball that Dallas has seen since the departure of Don Nelson in March of 2005. Or it may not.
Understand that Carlisle is the first hand-picked coach in the Cuban era, after the owner inherited Nelson and Johnson. Also keep in mind that while Carlisle has never run an up-tempo offense in Detroit or Indiana, he did spend time at Suns’ training camp last season, studying Mike D’Antoni’s offensive sets, looking to implement the free-flowing sets into his own system.
Cuban knows exactly what he wants; offense that can mirror the “Nelly Ball” days of ole’, utilizing the open-court ability of Jason Kidd, but defense that the Mavs showcased at times under Avery Johnson that helped the team reach the NBA Finals. He does not want to get in shootouts with teams, but he wants to be able to score on the run and hamper you when on defense. Utopia!
Cuban’s vision could be referred to best as a “Gangster’s Paradise,” because he wants to intimidate you defensively, with physical defenders, all while outscoring you and remaining positive images off the court, which puts Josh Howard’s offseason plans in questions.
If Cuban’s idealistic plans are to come to pass, it will take an overhaul this offseason. At this point, everyone with the exception of Kidd and Nowitzki seem expendable, but Jerry Stackhouse figures not to be included in any deals. Stackhouse is the heart and soul of the team. He is not afraid of the big shot, and he is more than willing to deliver a hard foul when it’s time to. Beyond those three, expect for all others to be mentioned in trade talks this summer, with the most likely candidate to be Jason “The Jet” Terry. Terry is not a one or two, and with the arrival of J-Kidd, The Jet may have hit the runway with a departure time scheduled for this summer. If a team is looking for a combo guard that can knock down shots, the Mavs are taking phone calls for Terry with intent to get younger and more athletic, which they can’t do in the draft.
Now that Devin Harris is in Jay-Z’s camp and Jason Terry could be on the move, the Mavs have to live with the polarizing game of J-Kidd. Defensively, Jason Kidd does not have the cat-like quickness that he once had. Chris Paul’s coast-to-coast drives on Kidd during the playoffs and “He can’t guard me” chants prove that Kidd is older and laterally he is much slower. But he is still Jason Kidd, a legendary point guard with tremendous abilities offensively in the open court.
So, how do you maximize his offensive ability while not leaving him on the court as a liability on the defensive side of the ball? You play to his strengths. You run and run as often as you can on offense. Jason Kidd did not become a surefire Hall-of-Famer by being a great half-court point guard, which is what Avery Johnson tried to make him. When Kidd has the green light off the rebound he is as deadly as anyone with the ball in his hands, simply because he can get others involved by hitting teammates with laser passes from anywhere on the court.
Dallas’ problem in the backcourt is two-fold, and the responsibility should not always be placed on Kidd, as Dallas locals did. Dallas needs someone at the shooting guard position that can both demand their own shot off the dribble, while also having the quickness and defensive ability to shutdown the other team’s best perimeter player. With Kidd clearly unable to defend the CP3s of the league, the Mavs’ two-guard has to be able to shift to the top of the key and take the point guard out of the mix, while the 6-foot-4 Kidd defenses a wing player.
While there were glimpses of brilliance by Josh Howard early in the season to prove that he is that player, he faded as the season progressed and was virtually invisible after the Jason Kidd acquisition. So this offseason the Mavs have to answer if Howard’s play on the court and radio comments off it, that left me visualizing him puff-puff-passing with Method Man and Redman, are enough to part ways with the talented young player.
Carlisle has made a “good faith” effort by taking Howard out to dinner to discuss J-Ho’s role in the future plans of the Mavs’, but if a player becomes available through trade talks that can run with J-Kidd in the open court and defend, then look for the Mavs to pull the plug on Howard’s time in Dallas, and do so in a hurry. If Ron Artest wants to reunite with his former coach in Carlisle, the new Mavs’ head man has made it public in Dallas that he is ready to greet Ron Ron with open arms, which could leave Howard as trade bait for athletic swingmen to run alongside Kidd. Artest brings his own “gully-ness” factor which could change the whole complection of this team and he would add a defensive enforcer to a roster with no defensive identity.
In addition to more athleticism and perimeter defense, the Mavs need a true scoring threat in the post that can get points in their halfcourt sets. Eric Dampier is not the answer, and although he plays with a lot of heart, neither is an undersized Brandon Bass. Bass is more of a Jason Maxiell or Leon Powe than he is Al Jefferson, a consistent low-post scorer and rebounder. And with Dirk Nowitzki, all be him 7-feet tall, shying away from the painted area and settling for jumpers from 18 feet and out, the Mavs have to take a serious look at the low post this offseason. If someone, like an Elton Brand or Jermaine O’Neal becomes available Mark Cuban will seriously have to consider pulling the trigger. If the Mavs can get a player this offseason that can hold his own against the likes of Amare, Pau and Duncan, and bang with the big bodies in the West, then you have to once again consider Dallas to be a contender in the West.
With Cuban at the helm, Dallas will come up in a lot of offseason discussions, but then again we are saying that every year. Since losing four straight in the 06’ Finals, this squad has never rebounded, and it remains to be seen if they can do that now in the Carlisle era. With that said, imagine if the Mavs got gully this offseason.
Earl Sneed covers the Dallas Mavericks for The Sports Page Weekly, at www.sportspagedallas.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.