The Mavericks play their 20th game of the season tonight when they play Houston at the American Airlines Center, and after 20 games is usually the first time you can really take a macro view of an NBA team and see what direction they’re headed. Fortunately for the Mavericks, it would appear the arrow is pointed up.
When the season began, people outside of their own organization did not afford the Mavericks much love. The inability to complete the DeAndre Jordan deal (with Tyson Chandler not waiting around to find out how that would all unfold), losing a 19 point scorer in Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons undergoing a significant knee surgery, Wesley Matthews – their biggest off season acquisition – coming off an Achilles tendon tear from which few, if any NBA players, have ever made a significant recovery….so who was going to play point guard and center? The picture was not terribly pretty.
Yet the Mavericks over the last four years have made it a habit of dusting themselves off after a big swing and miss in free agency and putting together a team that remains competitive, and indeed, at times, compelling. And now Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban seemingly have done it again, orchestrated by the best coach in the NBA this side of San Antonio (and some might argue that given the constant overhauling of the roster, THE best). They sit at 11-8 entering the Rockets game, having played a very road intensive schedule that concludes on Monday in New York and will have seen them play 14 of their first 22 games on the road – including a stretch of 13 straight games in which they played in a different arena every night. Other than Golden State’s overwhelming dominance, one could make the argument that the Mavericks are the most positive story in the Western Conference.
And it only figures to get better. The center issue has been solved. While Tyson Chandler will always have a spot in everyone’s heart, Zaza Pachulia has been able to more than adequately replace him, averaging Chandler’s double-double in points and rebounds.The Mavericks acquired Pachulia from Milwaukee for a throwaway second round pick, as the Bucks, who were among the NBA’s top defensive teams last year went in a different (younger) direction (and are now struggling at that end of the floor and overall). Not only has Pachulia played well, but he also has lived up to his reputation as a great teammate and a terrific locker room guy. The Mavericks like to talk about finding “diamonds in the rough” – Brandan Wright and Al-Farouq Aminu come to mind – and Pachulia is a more mature version of just that. He knows who he is and how he plays, but perhaps more importantly, he knows what he’s not.
The backcourt has been solved. What if last year the Mavericks had a point guard who could average 14 points and 6 assists a game, while shooting 37 percent from three-point range? Rajon Rondo didn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t do it, so Deron Williams was brought in to do just that. Even in his worst times in Brooklyn over the last three years, Williams put up those kind of numbers. He’s played surprisingly good perimeter defense, and he’s been more than willing to take on the Monta Ellis role as a game closer, alongside the ultimate closer in Dirk Nowitzki.
And then there is Dirk. We’ve gone too long before bringing him up, but the bottom line is as long as he’s on the floor, the Mavericks have a chance to be good because of the respect teams still must pay for his ability as the sweetest shooting seven footer to ever grace the court. Dirk is as efficient as ever, as he’s presently on that elite 50 percent shooting, 40 percent three point shooting, 90 percent free throw shooting pace that has been accomplished by only six players in NBA history (Dirk did it in 2007) while improving his rebounding average for the first time in five years.
The Mavericks have done all of this with Chandler Parsons working on a minutes restriction and not being permitted to play in the second of the back to back games, and while Wesley Matthews has struggled to find his shot that has always been there for him. Yet in the last ten days he has started to find it, and the grit and determination he showed to make it back for Opening Night, was an inspiration to the Mavericks and really established an attitude for this team that they have carried forward.
No one is going to sit here and say the Mavericks are a championship team. However, this veteran group has the chemistry of a championship team. Most of them have made more than enough money to take care of themselves for the rest of their lives and then some, but other than Dirk and JJ Barea, none have won a title (Devin Harris reached the Finals in 2006, Deron Williams reached the West Finals with Utah in 2007). A more modest goal is a top four finish in the West that would give them the home court advantage in the first round, something they’ve not had since the 2011 Western Conference Finals. That didn’t seem possible in August, but the West isn’t as beastly this year as in the last several years. With a third of their road schedule completed on Monday, things are lining up for that possibility. And wouldn’t that be a very different story from the doom and gloom of July.