Lone Stars

Despite having a ramped-up roster of  former All-Stars, home court advantage and relative health, the Mavericks took their fourth and final L last night… The Playoffs will continue to unfold without Dallas, and, as always, we’ll wonder why we thought Dallas was a real Title player. Well, one writer never had such delusions. During the pre-season, Khalid wrote in SLAM 134 that the Mavs couldn’t be contenders as long as they weren’t better than San Antonio. He rests his case below. –Ed.

by Khalid Salaam

One of the differences between making blanket assumptions and actually doing research is how going just a little deeper brings forth an entirely new understanding. I came into writing this story thinking that the Dallas Mavericks adopted the mantra of their division and cross-state rivals, the San Antonio Spurs: Identify your core groups, balance their inequalities (in this case an aging roster) with free agents who have skills the core doesn’t and extend the staying power of your franchise’s championship aspirations.

But the more you look, the more the Mavs look less like the Spurs and more like another in-state franchise. A window of opportunity once wide open for a title seems suddenly close to being slammed shut; a yearly influx of brand-name stars who look awesome on paper but may not fit with the roster; a superstar with a shaky big-game rep; a famous owner with the most heart in the organization. You see where this is going, right? I’m talking about the Cowboys. I mean, the Mavs are even hosting this year’s All-Star Game in the new Cowboys stadium.

The ’09-10 season will be in full swing when you read this, and by the time holiday sales are here, the truth will start to manifest. The preliminary excitement that exists for most teams starts to wane and we see what we got. Especially this year, as the disingenuous mask the NBA brass tries to pull off as parity has totally disintegrated. The League has long been a bastion of team dominance. Parity has always been a joke, and in any given season there are only three or four teams that have an actual chance to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season. Apart from those, there are maybe two teams who, if everything happens perfectly (no injuries, everybody plays to their potential, etc), have a puncher’s chance of winning.

The remaining teams are left to fight for the crumbs of relevancy, maybe a token appearance during All-Star Weekend festivities being the only national pub they’ll get. This year, the gap between the haves and the have-not-a-damn-thing is as wide as it’s been in decades. For an aging team with title hopes like the Dallas Mavericks, that’s decidedly a bad thing.

There are only five teams that I personally would bet any amount of money on to win the NBA title next spring: the Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Cavs and Magic. Those are the only teams. They have all improved; the Mavs are not on that list.

“Is there a sense of urgency? Well, when people ask me that, I say the same thing: Yes,” says Dallas’ perennially underrated head coach Rick Carlisle. “But as a coach I have that feeling every single year. I don’t worry about windows closing or time running out in any particular year. I coach with that urgency every game in every year.”

The redundancy of mentioning the Mavs’ age in every story is tiresome, yet undeniably necessary. They have five heavy rotation guys who are 31 and older, including 34-year-old human buzzkill center Erick Dampier and a nearly 37-year-old Jason Kidd. To be honest, Kidd has played well into his later years and remains a consistent force at PG. And even if quick guards blow past him, his ability to lead the break and set up players for easy scores remains high.

Of course, the Mavs did bring in some quality guys. In particular, the talented Shawn Marion, who automatically makes them better. His ability to score without having many plays scripted for him should fit well opposite Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki remains a top 10 player in the League, and his unique ability to stretch defenses isn’t going anywhere. But he needs certain guys with him who fit in with his distinctive talents. He averaged 26 points and 8 rebounds last year, and at 31, Dirk will undoubtedly have yet another All-Star season. His ability to score has never been questioned; each and every contest you know what he’s going to do offensively. Even his defense has improved to the point where it’s now respectable. But respectable and good are not the same. They need a stopper. Enter the Matrix.

“It wasn’t no big secret,” Marion explains. “There weren’t that many teams with cap room that I could sign with. So I had to be realistic, but at the same time I made a decision for my career and for the chance to win a championship and decided to come to Dallas.”

After underwhelming stints with both Toronto and Miami last year, Marion attaches his unorthodox game to a team big on point production but lacking on defensive difference makers. “What I bring is a little bit of everything, and that includes defense. There’ll be times when I’ll do certain things that were missing here before. Whether it’s getting on the floor or rebounding or defense, whatever is needed. I know there are particular things I can do that they need,” he says.

Marion whispered when he said that last part, as if he didn’t want to show up anyone who might be within earshot in the tight locker room. There was no need to ask why he whispered since his face said everything I needed to know.

The Mavs continuous rep as the déjà vu all over again team in regard to defense is well documented. Every year cries of “if only player X could play better defense” are regurgitated in every Mavs team story. Including this one. The belief that this team is only a steal or a blocked shot from winning the title has kept them from making wholesale changes. They’ve tinkered instead of rebuilt and, because of that, allowed other teams to pass them. They’ve fallen victim to the idea that playing defense well is a conscious decision and not the result of talent and execution. Yes, coaching is a big part of it, and bringing in Carlisle last year (to replace another defensive-minded coach, Avery Johnson) was a great idea. But as it is with being able to score 100-plus points per game, stopping teams requires agility, quickness, intellect, strength and talent. Players can either defend the pick and roll or they can’t—all the wishful thinking in the world isn’t going to change that. No matter how they spin it.

“Last year, we were so focused on changing our style of play offensively that we didn’t spend enough time on defense,” says reigning Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry. “The focus now is on getting one or two more stops in crunch time. We do that, we’ll be in the top 10 defensively and a top-three team in the West. I mean, we have to go out and prove it and show what we’re capable of, but this is a really good roster.”

It’s not just Terry either. All the Mavs believe this, or at least say this when interviewed. It’s probably some combination of habit, conditioning and cockiness. “I bring defensive energy, rebounding and offense if needed. That’s what my role has been for my entire career. They wouldn’t have brought me Dirk Nowitzkiin if they thought I couldn’t provide that,” says oft-traveled forward Drew Gooden.

They’re not going to say the opposite and admit that they have no idea how to keep teams from scoring. For example, last year they allowed 99.8 ppg, good for 15th in the League. The Spurs allowed 93.3, good for second. And while the Mavs made quick work of the Spurs in last year’s first round, they were taking advantage of an injured team. With Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan back healthy, coupled with Tony Parker, newly acquired Antonio McDyess and Richard Jefferson, a promising rookie in DeJuan Blair and the continued brilliance of Gregg Popovich, that equals a helluva division foe. And how can anyone look at a team as a contender when they probably won’t even win their division?

Ultimately two moves did the Mavericks in, both courtesy of the Orlando Magic. During the start of summer free agency, Dallas signed Magic center Marcin Gortat to an offer sheet, only to watch Orlando match the offer. A good try, but ultimately an opportunity lost. This was exacerbated by losing the reserve big they did have in Brandon Bass, who signed a four-year deal with Orlando. Defensively, losing out on both big men is a dream deferred, one they’re not likely to recover from.

“Replacing Bass will be very hard,” Carlisle concedes. “His body helped a lot with interior defense and rebounding and physical play. We can’t ask any one person on this team to do that. What we’ll do is get contributions from different players, specifically Marion and Gooden and [James] Singleton. We still need to block out and hold the fort inside.”

So yeah, they’re retooled. But are they better? In addition to Marion and Gooden, the Mavs also brought Tim Thomas and his faulty bravado onboard. The hope is that the aforementioned names will mesh with the Nowitzki/Jason Kidd/Josh Howard/Jason Terry core, and this will be enough to give them another shot at a World Championship. But with the Lakers and Spurs improved—not to mention Denver and Portland coming at least as strong—it’s going to be tough. Dallas was 50-32 last season and still finished third in their division and sixth in the Western Conference. Best-case scenario doesn’t see them besting that by much. Carlisle has his work cut out for him. “We want to be a running team but one that plays with a defensive mentality,” he says. “Is that hard to do? Yes, but the special teams can do both.”

We’ll see if this one qualifies as special.