What Now for the Mavs?
The Dallas Mavericks were eliminated from postseason play in a demoralizing Game 7 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday. It’s was disappointing they went out that way, since Dallas had put up one hell of a fight through the first 6 games – going toe to toe and trading blows with the best team in basketball. There’s a myth in sports that anything other than a championship is a failure. We’ve all bought into it at some point, but it’s a blatant lie. A lie Golden State’s ownership obviously bought into when they fired Mark Jackson yesterday. You know hard is it to win a championship? There are only 4 active coaches that have done it- Rick Carlisle, Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, and Doc Rivers. Let that sink in. And while it is true that the season ended on a particularly bitter note, I have a difficult time quantifying this season as anything other than a resounding success.
Dallas won 49 games and wound up as the No. 8 seed in a historically tough Western Conference. If they were in the East, they would have been the 3rd seed and legitimate contenders to make it to the NBA Finals (you laugh, but just look at the Washington Wizards). Their 49 wins were just one away from the magical 50-win mark and 7 more than ESPN predicted they would have in the preseason. To put that in perspective, there are 8 NBA franchises that have less than four 50-win seasons all time. The Raptors and Bobcats have zero, and the Nets have only had one in 47 years.
Dallas managed to do all this with a starting lineup consisting of three defensive liabilities (Calderon, Nowitzki, and Ellis) and a roster that was the 2nd oldest in the NBA (San Antonio is 4th). In the cutthroat business of professional sports, veterans are forced to adapt as the game changes and their bodies begin to deteriorate. You have to become crafty and sharpen your skill set. Dirk can no longer drive past defenders, and Vince Carter isn’t going to win another dunk contest anytime soon, but they proved they can still hoop at a high level. Dirk has always been a tough guy to defend (a 7-footer with a high release point while he fades away off one foot), and the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off has grown smaller as the years go on. All he needs is a crease, just the tiniest bit of contact to get the space he needs to unleash his patented jumper. When he struggles (like he did at times during the San Antonio series) defenses still have to respect his ability to score, even at the ripe old age of 36. After getting off to a slow start, Vince Carter found himself on the short list of 6th Man of the Year candidates. His corner three to beat the buzzer in game three proved to be one of the signature moments in what was by all accounts an epic first round playoff series. Jose Calderon, who has never really been an explosive athlete, conducts the offense with mastery and finesse and remains one of the most efficient three point shooters in the game. And Devin Harris…well, Devin Harris is still playing like it’s 2006.
Dirk is still far and away the best player on this team, but he isn’t the Dirk of old. He needs help. Help that neither O.J. Mayo nor Darren Collison could previously provide. He needed a reliable sidekick, and he got just that and more from Monta Ellis, who started all 89 games the Mavericks played this year. Ellis, who had previously been regarded as a selfish volume shooter, posted his most efficient season since leaving Golden State. He averaged 19 ppg and led Dallas in assists with 5.7 per game, often the result of his ability to drive to the basket and collapse the defense. At 28 years of age, he still has plenty of basketball in him. If he can develop his jump shot in the off season, coach Rick Carlisle believes he could make “quantum leaps” in his overall game. What exactly quantifies as a quantum leap for a 6’3 two guard who thrives on getting to the basket and has a career scoring average of 19.4 ppg remains to be seen, but if Ellis can reach the point where he is consistently hitting jumpers from 16+ feet out, he is going to cause real problems for opposing defenses.
So what’s next? Dallas heads into the off season with $30 million and a lot of question marks. The biggest of which is who will be back next year. Dirk is a no-brainer to return and has already agreed to take a significant pay cut. The details of his contract haven’t been ironed out, but most believe it will be along the lines of the 3-year, $30 million deal Tim Duncan signed in 2012. Other Mavericks heading into free agency are 2011 championship team holdout Shawn Marion, aging sixth man Vince Carter, and veteran bench contributors Devin Harris and DeJuan Blair, who both signed one year deals at the veteran’s minimum last offseason. All players have expressed a desire to return next year, and, in a perfect world, Dallas would be able to bring them all back. But money talks and none of these guys are getting any younger. If a team like Miami pulls off a three peat and is able to offer Marion more money and the opportunity to win another championship, it’d be hard for him (or anyone for that matter) to turn that offer down. Ray Allen made that decision 2 years ago and that worked out pretty well for him.
Regardless of who they bring back, Dallas will still have glaring needs at the 3 and 5 positions. Dalembert is a quality big and an absolute steal at $3 million a year, but Dallas is in desperate need of a bonafide rim protector. The Mavericks have been looking for a defensive anchor at the center position since they let Tyson Chandler go and, ironically, he might just be the solution to their problem. ESPN’s Marc Stein and Tim MacMahon have already reported that Dallas has expressed interest in acquiring Chandler, who might be placed on the trading block if the Knicks decide to rebuild, a very real possibility (especially if Carmelo Anthony takes his talents elsewhere). Larry Sanders, a longtime bleep on the Maverick’s radar, may also be available if Milwaukee decides he is no longer worth the trouble and wants to separate itself from what was an absolute nightmare of a season. The most likely free agent target would be Marcin Gortat, though it will be difficult to swipe him from the Wizards if they continue their improbable run through the playoffs.
All rumors for the small forward position point toward former all star swingman Luol Deng. Deng has defensive pedigree (2nd team All-Defense in 2012) and an offensive game far more refined than the incumbent Shawn Marion. At 29, Deng is also 7 years younger than Marion. If Deng is the smart bet, Lance Stephenson is a gamble. The current Indiana Pacer has all the talent and potential you would want out of a player. A 6’5 Swiss army knife, Stephenson lead the NBA in triple doubles and averaged 13.8 points, 4.6 assists, and 7.2 rebounds per game. But how much did he have to do with the Pacers late season collapse? He’s been labeled as a punk, hot head, and locker room cancer. But so was Monta Ellis not too long ago. Stephenson will be an unrestricted agent at the end of the season, and it seems Dallas has no current interest in pursuing him. I trust Mark Cuban and the Dallas front office, but they’d be foolish to not at least look into signing him.
The Mavs put up a fight against a San Antonio team that won 62 games and had beaten them 9 times in a row heading into the series. Rick Carlisle got every bit of effort and talent out of this team. They knees were creaky, their defense was porous, but you can’t question their hearts.