Dirk Nowitzki can only scratch his head. (Getty Images)
Time and again in the final 12 minutes, Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks turned to Harden, his team's most gifted facilitator, to orchestrate offense and bring the West's No. 2 seed back against a defending NBA champion fighting to stave off elimination. And time and again, the 22-year-old lefty delivered.
Harden had a hand in creating 24 of the Thunder's 35 fourth-quarter points — scoring 15 points of his own (6-of-9 from the floor, 3-of-3 from the line) and assisting on a pair of 3-pointers by Kevin Durant, as well as one by Daequan Cook — to bring Oklahoma City roaring back from an 81-71 deficit at the start of the fourth and lead them to a 103-97 win on the road in Game 4 of their first-round Western Conference playoff series.
The presumptive Sixth Man of the Year finished with 29 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals in 34 1/2 minutes off the bench for the Thunder, who closed out a four-game sweep of the Mavericks and will move on to face the winner of the opening-round matchup between the third-seeded Los Angeles Lakers and the sixth-seeded Denver Nuggets. L.A. leads that series two games to one, with Game 4 set for Sunday night in Denver.
The Mavericks will not move on. They will go home, and we will not see them again until the NFL is running things. Last year, Dallas was the last team standing; this year, Dallas is the first team to exit the postseason. What a difference a year makes.
Some Mavericks — certainly centerpiece Dirk Nowitzki, and presumably valued defender Shawn Marion, who is slated to make $17.5 million through 2013-14, according to ShamSports.com's salary database — will go home, take some time off and begin preparing for another run in Big D next season. This time, they'll have a proper offseason and training camp to get up to speed. This time, Dirk won't come in out-of-shape with a title hangover that takes more than two months to work off. This time, for these guys, the job will be the job, and not a sawed-off nod at a victory lap.
Some of them — free-agents-to-be Terry, Jason Kidd (who reportedly wants to get paid one more time), Ian Mahinmi and Delonte West, plus unguaranteed-contract types Vince Carter and Brandan Wright — will spend the late spring and early summer wondering if they'll be wearing new jerseys and occupying new locker rooms next season. That number probably also includes almost-too-obvious amnesty candidate Brendan Haywood, the current leader in the clubhouse in the race for the first round's worst overall performance — although Orlando Magic guard Chris Duhon's not far off the pace — and a big man still on the books for $37.7 million over the next four seasons.
It also includes head coach Rick Carlisle, who went offense-heavy and damned the torpedos in a work-your-tail-off effort to put a badly overmatched seventh seed in position to win three of the four games in this series. Carlisle has come to the end of the four-year contract he signed in 2008, having won 63.5 percent of his games since coming to Dallas and just under 60 percent as an NBA head coach. His tenure with the Mavericks has confirmed that Carlisle is one of the league's best coaches. If he is not retained, the Mavericks have most likely done poorly, and will suffer as a result of it.
Off the court, owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson will have plenty of cap space to play with — not counting unguaranteed deals, Dallas has just under $40 million committed for next year with the cap expected to hang around $58 million, and Dallas' number shrinks substantially if it can jettison Haywood and if it chooses to move Marion — which gives the Mavs a ton of flexibility heading into free agency.
Which, of course, was the plan all along.
After the league and players' union struck a new collective bargaining agreement to govern league business prior to the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, Cuban allowed multiple members of the team that won the franchise's first NBA championship — center Tyson Chandler, backup point guard J.J. Barea, and wings Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson — to walk out the door rather than make any attempt to re-sign them to long-term deals. This, mostly, did not go over very well.
Mavericks fans eager to see their beloved champs get a legitimate, full-strength chance to defend their title carped at their famously free-spending owner for all of a sudden deciding to pinch pennies. Amid their jeers, Cuban openly said that the team's strategy was going to be to create as much financial wiggle room as it could going forward rather than hamstring itself by committing to salaries that would keep Dallas over the luxury tax line and subject the Mavs to the new system's significantly steeper dollar-for-dollar tax penalties. We can get the band back together and take another run at a title this year, Cuban argued, but that'll mean we take two (or more) steps backward for the years to come. Which one do you really want?
"We have to change our approach," Cuban said on Dallas radio before the start of the season in December. "By getting back under the cap, we have a ton of flexibility not only for free-agent signings, but also trades."
Cuban and Nelson made window-dressing attempts to keep the team competitive this year by plugging roster holes with veterans on short-term deals, including Carter and West, both of whom provided reasonably sound performance for the team's limited investment. Dallas also swung a trade with the Lakers to import reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom, who'd become disenchanted with L.A. after the team tried to include him in a deal that would have made Chris Paul a Laker. That one didn't go so well.
All season long, the 2011-12 edition of the Dallas Mavericks bore little resemblance to last year's model; they won more than they lost and ripped off a few short winning streaks (largely against less-than-elite competition) but they never once, to my memory, looked like a legitimate threat to defend. Early-season "whens" ("When will the Mavs get it together? When will Dirk round into form?") turned into late-season "ifs" ("What if Dallas doesn't have another gear? What if Jason Kidd is as done as he looks? If Dirk's not a superhero and JET's off-target, is there somewhere else they can go?") and, at season's end, were answered with a whispered, "No."
[Related: Thunder' Perkins suffers right hip strain]
While the temptation is to blame the drop-off on the personnel that Cuban and Nelson let go — especially after seeing Chandler move to Manhattan, turn the New York Knicks into a top-five defensive unit and earn Defensive Player of the Year honors — the facts don't quite fit that framework. The Mavericks were still a top-10 defensive team without Chandler, allowing the league's eighth-fewest points per 100 possessions and holding opponents to the league's sixth-lowest field-goal percentage while playing that mutant matchup zone that Carlisle's coaching staff has grown to favor and deploying Marion as a nightmarish cover artist capable of making life miserable for opposing scorers at four positions on any given night. Whatever ZIP code Chandler called home, the defense wasn't the problem.
No, where the Mavericks fell off a cliff was on the offensive end, which sounds weird considering they employ one of the planet's most unguardable individuals, but is true. A year after averaging just a touch under 110 points per 100 possessions, a mark good for ninth-best in the NBA, Dallas turned in the ninth-least-efficient offense in the NBA, ranking 22nd by scoring an average of just 103.3-per-100 over the course of the regular season.
That's a giant drop, but that kind of thing can happen when your one All-World monster posts across-the-board dips — Dirk went from 51.7 percent from the field last year to 45.7 percent this year, shot one more 3-pointer a game despite hitting 2.5 percent less often, grabbed a smaller share of available rebounds, assisted on a lower percentage of team baskets, used a higher share of possessions and did so less efficiently — and no secondary scorer steps in to fill the void. If anything, you could argue that Dallas missed Barea — a reserve trigger-man capable of providing an instant infusion of offense off the bench, a capable facilitator who could pick-and-roll opposing second units to death, collapsing defenses with penetration to create open looks for shooters in the corners and on the wings — more than Chandler, given the way their offensive production so often went to pot this year.
The Mavericks were a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of point differential, a middle-of-the-pack team in expected wins and a seventh seed in a strong conference. That they were swept out in the first round is a mild surprise, but not a huge one; if Dirk wasn't going to be that All-World monster, this team didn't have a prayer.
Nowitzki, who will turn 34 this offseason, is set to make $43.6 million over the next two seasons, and will continue to be the focal point of Dallas' attack. But for Dallas to return to the heights they reached last postseason, he'll have to be joined by a playmaker capable of getting him easier looks, creating his own offense and improving the quality of offensive production from the cadre of role-players that the remixed Mavs will likely employ moving forward.
That, of course, sounds an awful lot like All-Star Deron Williams, the soon-to-be unrestricted free-agent point guard who famously grew up near Dallas, who perhaps even more famously seems eager to disassociate himself from the Nets and after whom, perhaps most famously, Dallas has reportedly long lusted. The Mavs figure to be able to create enough cap space to make a serious run at one max-contract free agent (and perhaps two); Williams would seem like a natural fit. We'll have to wait and see if what seems to make sense to us makes financial sense to Cuban, Nelson, Williams and his representation and, if so, how the rest of that rebooted Dallas roster fills out before we'll have a great handle on their chances next year. All we know for sure right now is that, for the Dallas Mavericks, this year is over.
On one hand, we might mourn for the loss of a team that gave us so many thrills and such beautiful play throughout that glorious golden summer of 2011. On another, we might realize that joyful group died the minute the buzzer sounded to end the 2011 Finals, and that this year's version was ousted by a pretty freakin' joyful group in its own right, helmed by a similarly unguardable four, packed with similarly likable shooters and looking for all the world like a similarly dangerous thing just learning how to use its claws. The kings are dead. Long live their legacy.
Other popular content on Yahoo! Sports:
• Amar'e Stoudemire shares gnarly photo of hand injury on Twitter
• Illinois transfer's profane announcement causes a stir
• Shine: Eleven great baseball attractions worth visiting
- Sports & Recreation
- Dallas Mavericks
- Dallas Mavericks
- Dirk Nowitzki
- Mark Cuban