For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the already disappointed Dallas Mavericks.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
There is nothing new to this Dallas Mavericks team that hasn't been covered already in our discussion about Dallas' various offseason deals, and the team's announcement that Dirk Nowitzki would miss six weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. The Dallas Mavericks are hoping to sneak in the back door of the playoffs this season after a calculated personnel gamble went (relative to its potential peak) terribly wrong, all the while hoping to bide time to restock the roster during the 2013 offseason.
Even if we do appreciate the strengths of this roster, this turn of events is frustrating to note -- especially heading into the last two weeks of October, with every NBA team tied for first. It doesn't mean that anyone is writing off the Mavericks' 2012-13 turn, however. Far from it.
Things will go terribly, to start. Nowitzki's absence means the squad will badly struggle to create spacing, shots, and eventual scores. It's true that the team's November schedule (after October openers against the Lakers and Utah) doesn't appear to be all that tough, but also keep in mind that Nowitzki-less games against the likes of Golden State, Portland, Toronto, Cleveland, Chicago, Charlotte and Washington (OK, not Charlotte and Washington) are going to be evenly-matched at best and a loss on paper at worst. There is a real chance Dallas could dig out of this hole with a 5-11 record heading into December. And that might be charitable.
[Fantasy Basketball '12: Play the official game of NBA.com]
This is in the Western conference, as well, with a series of improving teams attempting to break through the (pro-rated) 45-win barrier Dallas and Utah established last year and glom onto a playoff spot. Luckily for Nowitzki's knee, Kevin Love's knuckles and Andrew Bogut's ankle (geez … look out: LaMarcus Aldridge's labrum) are keeping the Mavericks' hope afloat.
The point is to get to the All-Star break with a respectable record after 50 games, with at least 2400 minutes of data and game tape for Rick Carlisle's coaching staff (now missing yet another top assistant, with Terry Stotts taking over in Portland) and Mark Cuban's endless array of number crunchers to sift through. From there, knee-willing, Carlisle will attempt to surround Nowitzki with the sort of helpers he needs to succeed — winning about 20 out of 30 down the stretch to make this whole exercise worthwhile.
Was it worth it? The team's motivations have been obvious since December of 2011, when the franchise declined to re-sign Tyson Chandler; instead focusing on the depth the squad already had (in the form of Brendan Haywood and Lamar Odom) and attempting to hold serve for a lockout-shortened season until cap space and a shot at either Deron Williams or Dwight Howard set in come July.
Williams and Howard, famously in ways we're all sick of, signed elsewhere. The Mavericks did the smart thing in finding chopped up contracts from all areas — Elton Brand, O.J. Mayo, Chris Kaman, Darren Collison, Dahntay Jones — all fantastic role players for a team featuring a superstar or two. The problem being that the Dallas Mavericks only employ one superstar, and he's likely out until December. Well-meaning vets can often put you over the top, but this is asking quite a lot from this crew.
Until then, the Mavs are in a "what do you want me to say?"-situation. It's true that the team would be better with Chandler aboard, but it's also true they'll go into the 2013 offseason with nearly as much free cap space to surround Dirk with, with a free agent cast that could serve as a better depth-defying batch of providers than another lone superstar and crew of minimum contract wonders ever could. The team took a big chance, missed out, and now they're trying to recover.
What do you want them to say?
Projected record: 42-40
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
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What Makes You Scary: Rick Carlisle and a defense that survived last year's purge. One week ago, this section probably would've been titled something like "Dirk Nowitzki entering a season in shape and without a title hangover," but, well, y'know. Now, as Dallas heads into the season without its biggest gun, Mavericks fans looking for something else to hang their 10-gallon hats on should take a gander at the sideline, where owner Mark Cuban this summer re-upped one of the league's smartest tacticians.
Over the course of his first four years in Dallas, Rick Carlisle's teams won better than 63 percent of their games, and while the lion's share of the credit goes to the talent-stocked rosters he was handed, some should also be reserved for Carlisle's ability to consistently engineer floor spacing and balance in his motion-style offense, putting the myriad shooters Cuban's handed him in prime positions to consistently find quality looks in the half-court. Similarly, while much of the praise for Dallas' defensive improvement in Carlisle's first three years belongs to top-flight assistant Dwane Casey (now engineering a similar rise up the ranks in Toronto) and gifted mistake-eraser Tyson Chandler (now cleaning up messes in New York), it's worth noting that Carlisle helmed top-tier defenses before coming to Dallas, too -- all six of his Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers teams posted top-11 finishes in defensive efficiency, with three ('02-'03 Pistons, '03-'04 and '05-'06 Pacers) turning in top-five performances, according to NBA.com's stat tool.
So it shouldn't be especially stunning that, even without Casey and Chandler last season, the Mavs allowed the league's eighth-fewest points per 100 possessions; as we noted in saying so long to Dallas after their first-round loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the defense wasn't the problem. Whether the Mavs can again produce a top-10 defensive unit will depend largely on Carlisle's ability to get newly imported power forward Elton Brand (who anchored the back line of the league's No. 3 defense in Philadelphia last season) comfortable in Dallas' matchup zone system, on do-everything defender Shawn Marion continuing to wreak havoc on opponents at four different positions and on offseason acquisition Dahntay Jones being able to consistently contribute his brand of tough, physical on-ball defense on opposing wings off the bench. A pair of rookies -- versatile forward Jae Crowder (reportedly an advanced-for-his-age help defender) and shot-blocking center Bernard James (who's just at an advanced age) -- could play key roles, too.
The task of integrating a slew of new pieces (interesting and talented pieces, but still new ones) into Dallas' established framework is a daunting one, to be sure -- the Mavericks already looked to have hardly any margin for error in a competitive and improved Western Conference, and Nowitzki's injury all but eliminated what little they did have. (More on that in a moment.) But few are better equipped to adjust on the fly on both ends of the court than Carlisle, giving Dallas fans reason some reason for optimism.
What Should Make You Scared: Spending somewhere between one and two months without Dirk ready to carry the load. The Mavericks' chances of making their 13th consecutive postseason appearance took a considerable hit last Friday, when news broke that longtime franchise centerpiece Nowitzki had undergone arthroscopic surgery to offer some relief to his injured right knee. While the team's initial post-scope timetable pegged Dirk at four to six weeks away from resuming on-court activities, the Mavs over the weekend indicated they're optimistic he'll recover more quickly ... although "hope" and "optimism" are dicey words to associate with a 34-year-old 7-footer's return from the first knee surgery of his life, "quick healer" or no.
Let's assume, though, that the Mavericks' adjusted expectations are accurate, that Nowitzki is ready to get back on the court after three weeks and will miss only the first fortnight or so of the season, costing him the year's first seven (if he returns Monday, Nov. 12, against the Minnesota Timberwolves) or eight (if he comes back Wednesday, Nov. 14, against the Washington Wizards) games. And despite the fact that "get back on the court" is something of a nebulous turn of phrase -- "resuming on-court activities" doesn't necessarily mean "suiting up for a game" or even "fully participating in practices" -- let's further assume that he's back in uniform and going all-out by the middle of November. Even so: How quickly can we reasonably expect Dirk to play his way back to shape and sharpness?
For a player (even an all-time great) whose game revolves so much around touch, feel and precision, re-establishing rhythm can take time; remember, it took Nowitzki about one-third of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season to shake summer rust and get game-fit, as he averaged just 16.9 points and six rebounds on 44.7 percent shooting (including a scary 18.4 percent mark from 3-point range) in 20 games between Christmas Day and Feb. 1. If it takes anywhere near that long for Dirk to return to form after three weeks on the shelf following a couple of weeks of intermittent practicing and missed preseason games surrounding a pair of procedures to drain fluid from the knee, Dallas is in deep trouble.
Mavs backers will likely point to the fact that the team managed an 11-9 mark in last year's 20 substandard season-opening appearances, and actually won all three early-season games Nowitzki missed due to knee/conditioning problems. Going .500 or better while Dirk's gone and/or not quite himself figures to be a tougher task this time around, though. While last year's Mavs could rely on veterans with multiple years of experience in Carlisle's system like Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Brendan Haywood to run the offense, create shots and backstop the defense, this season's squad features eight new faces and three (without Dirk, likely four) new starters, meaning the Mavericks won't yet be able to rely on established hallmarks of continuity, familiarity or execution to carry them to wins without their organizing principle. (Dallas' early schedule could be its saving grace -- eight of the Mavs' first 12 games come against teams that finished in the lottery last season, including a pair against the Charlotte Bobcats, always a sight for sore eyes/knees.)
As Rob Mahoney noted at SI.com's The Point Forward, the issue isn't only the loss of Nowitzki's individual production, but more that his absence upsets everything Dallas does offensively, screwing with spacing, allowing opponents to simplify their defensive game plans and requiring his supporting cast to offer greater production while facing increased attention. For a team whose offense fell off a cliff last year even with Dirk in the lineup -- from the league's eighth-most efficient offense in 2010-11 to No. 20 of 30 in '11-'12 -- and looks to again have few players who can create their own shots reliably enough to ease defensive pressure on teammates, things could get ugly quickly. Carlisle has one of the game's brightest offensive minds, but unless one of Dallas' role players takes a great leap forward when given the chance to see more of the ball (lookin' at you, Ovinton J'Anthony) or Dirk's ready to be the fire of old as soon as he tears off the warmups, the Mavericks' postseason hopes could be dead in the water.
(By the way: Stuff like this is why you go all-out to actually get that all-world playmaker your big man wanted, rather than miss the opportunity to "close the sale" -- not only because he can dish out those assists, but also because he can shoulder the scoring load when the German's ailing. Alas.)
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
Though retroactive narrativizing would have us believe otherwise, the Mavericks' 2011 title came as a shock to many. Few analysts considered them to be a serious title contender when the postseason began, and some (including me) even thought they'd lose in the first round. That's not to say that the Mavs were undeserving, or that the championship was a fluke. It just drastically changed the expectations and meaning of an aging squad that appeared to be heading into a transitional period.
Over the past two summers and last season, Dallas has gone about the same transition everyone expected them to prior to their title. Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler, Jason Terry, and others have left in free agency, with new, younger, not-quite-as-effective replacements coming in. The currently hobbled Dirk Nowitzki remains the focal point, but his age isn't going to stop being an issue. The hope was that these developments would also allow the Mavericks to bring in another superstar, presumably either Dwight Howard or Deron Williams. And while those pursuits failed (because of Mark Cuban's absence or not) the strategy continues to make sense regardless of its outcomes.
What's changed is how we respond to that risk not panning out. What Cuban and Donnie Nelson realized — accurately, I believe — is that the age and pending free agency of so many of their championship-winning players would cause the Mavs' time at the top to be short-lived. Instead of feeling beholden to that group, they chased long-term relevance and a more effective transition from one period of contention to what they hope will be another. The trouble now is that, because it didn't quite work, it's unclear exactly what the Mavs are. The recency of their championship marks them out as a dangerous squad, but the amount of roster turnover, as well as their advancing age, would typically force them into a position of diminished relevance.
To be sure, the Mavericks are still very good, and should be better than last season if only because they'll have more days off and had more time to plan for the considerable changes in their lineup. But it's also not quite wrong to think their post-title developments have been a worst-case scenario: key players have left, with only decent players and no superstars arriving to help out.
The good news, of course, is that their championship wasn't a dream. While it's natural to hope that a ring is the beginning of a dominant period rather than the culmination of a great run, that achievement means enough to render the aftermath largely irrelevant. It should go without saying, but: even one championship is a major accomplishment. If the Mavericks don't quite know what they are right now or have a solid sense of where they're heading, at least they can rest easy knowing that their past ended as well as it possibly could have.
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