Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Dallas Mavericks.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
Not since the Chicago Bulls completely blew up their 1999 lockout-year roster following the squad's third straight title has a team willingly put the seeming kibosh on a championship repeat like these Dallas Mavericks. The group didn't hesitate for a second in declining to in any way appear competitive in negotiating with other teams to re-sign Tyson Chandler, they made no offer to entice Caron Butler to stick around, J.J. Barea joined the Minnesota Point Guards, and their big offseason move came in "can't turn that [stuff] down" deal for former Laker Lamar Odom. Odom, you'll recall, plays the same hybrid forward position as Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion. And Brian Cardinal.
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Topping that, if to either offer honest insight or disarm fans should the Mavericks swing for the fences and miss during the next offseason, Mark Cuban offered up an emailed and ostensible pre-excuse two weeks ago, telling fans that it was flexibility and not [insert All-Star here] that he was after.
So why gear up for a group like this? A rebuilding gig on the fly with 42 well-compensated Hall of Famers on the roster?
It's because they have 42 Hall of Famers on the roster, silly.
This remains perhaps the most likable group of players in the NBA, to say nothing of the most interesting and intriguing most nights out. Coach Rick Carlisle helps take care of the latter portion, he might be the league's most creative coach and certainly remains the quickest on his feet. Jason Terry and Cardinal are far from Hall of Famers, but they're two of our favorites to watch, and an extra-long layoff is exactly what Nowitzki and Jason Kidd need if they want to do it all over again in June.
The group might not even make it to May, not because they let Chandler and Butler go, but because the West is that strong. Though we respect the team's adaptability, we wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if any number of teams took them out in the first round. As much as we respect last year's champions, the same lack of shock would apply to that crew as well. This is the minefield that Dallas had to and will have to find its way through -- which to me says more about the Mavericks than anything.
In the meantime, you're going to see Dirk Nowitzki, Lamar Odom, and Jason Kidd on a basketball court at the same time for long stretches. You're going to see times where Jason Terry is thrown into that mix, and Shawn Marion will be around to finish off broken plays, gather, and score. There are going to be times this season where you wonder why the Mavericks even lose quarters, much less games.
If you can't be cheerful about this group, even without the estimable and respected Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and Caron Butler, then just leave the NBA to the rest of us.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Dallas Mavericks
I'm so excited for you!
There's an awful lot to love about Rodrigue Beaubois. During a revelatory 2009-10 rookie season, the guard from Guadeloupe won fans by combining length, athleticism, speed and quickness with shooting acumen (51.8 percent from the field, 40.9 percent from three and 80.8 percent from the line) and the capacity to ignite and provide instant offense, averaging 20 points per 36 minutes off the Mavericks bench.
Like many coaches, Rick Carlisle often seemed hesitant to turn to a rookie in big spots, giving Beaubois just 10 total minutes of run in the first five games of the Mavs' first-round 2010 Western Conference Playoffs series against the San Antonio Spurs. But with Dallas down three games to two, staring at a 22-point deficit in Game 6 and facing elimination, Carlisle "freed Roddy B," who blitzed off the bench to help spark a second- and third-quarter swing that turned the game around and briefly even put the Mavs in the lead. With the game in the balance, Carlisle went away from Beaubois in the fourth quarter, not recalling the rook until the game's final three minutes, after the Spurs had regained a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
San Antonio held on to close Dallas out, but the near-day-saving performance -- 16 points on 7-of-13 shooting and five rebounds in just under 21 minutes -- cemented Beaubois as one of the league's emerging talents at lead guard and seemed to signal big things ahead in his sophomore season. Then he broke a bone in his left foot while practicing with the French national team; surgery and rehab kept him on the shelf for more than half of the season. His return inspired hope, but his shot was off (down to 42.2 percent from the field and 30.1 percent from deep), he turned the ball over and fouled more frequently, and he never looked like the game-changer he'd been when fully healthy the previous April.
Beaubois re-injured the foot in the Mavs' final regular-season game, saw no action in Dallas' run to a championship and had a second surgery in June to try to make things right. And now, it looks like they are -- reports of Beaubois looking healthy and quick in Mavs training camp were supported by a 17-point outing in Dallas' first preseason game.
With Jason Kidd and Jason Terry returning, Vince Carter and Delonte West imported to play big roles and Dominique Jones healthy again after a foot injury of his own, the Mavs' backcourt is crowded. Beaubois won't be handed major minutes. But if he can stay healthy, watching him hustle to earn them should be a lot of fun.
I'm so worried for you!
In the aftermath of the Mavs' championship, an awful lot of ink was spilled on Dallas' offensive onslaught -- Dirk Nowitzki's ineffable greatness, Jason Terry's off-the-bench shot-making, J.J. Barea's jitterbug drive-and-kick game, and so on. While the praise was certainly well-deserved, Dallas' improvement on the other end of the floor was frequently just as, if not more, important, and Mark Cuban's crew will likely have a tougher time holding opponents down this season.
By featuring a disciplined zone look and unleashing center Tyson Chandler to clean up everything, the Mavericks were the NBA's seventh-most efficient defensive unit in 2010-11, according to Basketball-Reference and Hoopdata, their first top-10 finish since '06-'07. With Chandler now earning $58 million to clean up messes for Amar'e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the New York Knicks, though, Dallas will have to try some different looks to find a workable defensive approach. While running Dirk or the newly imported Lamar Odom at the five for stretches will certainly give the champs "a whole different wrinkle" offensively, as president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson recently said, I'm skeptical that any such units -- especially ones where Dirk's expected to anchor the paint -- could effectively replace Chandler's activity.
For the most part, responsibility for manning the middle will likely fall to Brendan Haywood, and while he is certainly a strong interior defender whose contributions on that end often went overlooked on subpar Washington Wizards squads, that, too, represents a drop-off.
Haywood blocks a higher percentage of shots than Chandler, but he doesn't clean the defensive glass as well (Chandler grabbed 26.6 percent of opponents' misses last year, while Haywood snagged 20.9 percent), and he doesn't extend the defense -- hedging on pick-and-rolls, stepping out on shooters, attacking drivers and covering all angles while still being able to rotate back to his man -- as well as Chandler is able to with his superior athleticism. When he's engaged, Haywood is a capable defensive center, but he just isn't as swarming a presence as the man who placed third in Defensive Player of the Year voting a season ago. (And when Haywood isn't engaged, that's a whole 'nother story.)
With Dirk, Kidd and Terry returning alongside new pieces like Odom and Carter, the Mavericks will certainly continue to score points, and it's possible that the contributions of Haywood, Odom and Shawn Marion, still a talented defender, will keep Dallas competitive on that end. But even dropping off to a league-average mark could mean the difference between returning to the Promised Land and falling just short in an increasingly chaotic Western Conference.
I have no idea what to make of you!
Setting aside the fact that there's something deeply weird about the idea of Vince Carter coming to town as the new Caron Butler/DeShawn Stevenson -- it's like last decade just ate the idea of a shooting guard and threw up or something -- I'm really curious how his signing will work out for the Mavs. More to the point, I'm curious which version of Carter will show up at the American Airlines Center.
Will Dallas get the Carter who started last season with the Orlando Magic -- the one who looked eager to play a major supporting role, who sharply facilitated for teammates and posted near-career-best True Shooting and Effective Field Goal percentages through the first 22 games? Or will the Mavs get the Carter who finished the season with the Phoenix Suns after Otis Smith remade the Magic on the fly -- the one who jacked more shots per 36 minutes despite only hitting 42.2 percent of them, whose numbers (save for 3-point percentage) fell across the board, and who, as The Two Man Game's Rob Mahoney recently noted, "never seemed all that comfortable or enthusiastic about the chance to play in Phoenix," even alongside All-World playmaker Steve Nash?
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If Carter gets with the Mavs' program and stays healthy, he's still a productive player (even at the cusp of turning 35 years old) who can add depth and firepower to an already stacked offense capable of scoring in just about any way you'd like. If, on the other hand, a non-featured role leads to a lackadaisical Vince who jacks shots, floats through possessions and sours what was one of the NBA's sweetest mixes a year ago, Dallas has the backcourt depth to fill in the blanks and, if necessary, can jettison Carter without too much heartache or too high a price tag. (His three-year contract for the "mini" mid-level exception, one of the new wrinkles in the lockout-created collective bargaining agreement, pays about $3 million this year, with the final two years only partially guaranteed.)
Whether or not it pays off, the gamble makes sense for the Mavs; looking at it on paper, in fact, it scarcely even seems like a gamble. Yet I can't shake this feeling that, before too long, frustrated Mavs fans will be clamoring for more West, Beaubois or Jones and less Vince. All the talent in the world, but he just seems to have that effect on fan bases, doesn't he?
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
DALLAS MAVERICKS: "The Candidate"
In the late 1960s, director Michael Ritchie and movie star Robert Redford started a series of films on the loosely defined subject of what it takes to win. They only made two, but both are landmarks of the era. The first, 1969's "Downhill Racer," concerns an Olympic skier who triumphs over all professional obstacles even as he proves to be an obstinate jerk who grows practically zero as a person. The second, 1972's "The Candidate," is typically considered a classic. Redford's Bill McKay, a community organizer, decided to run for senate, sells out most of his principles, and ends up with the nomination. It's not a particularly subtle movie; but national politics aren't, either.
The Mavericks didn't sell out their principles to win last year's championship -- if anything, they held to them strongly while acknowledging there was room to tweak around the images. But one moment from "The Candidate" does nicely demonstrate the position the Mavs find themselves in this season. In the final scene, embedded above, Redford asks his political advisor (played by the always terrific Peter Boyle), five simple words: "What do we do now?" Given the difficulty and compromises of the campaign, it's a question without a clear answer. The goal is to win, and beyond that there's no coherent plan for governance.
Dallas has an easy answer to that question: try to win another championship. But that goal may prove more difficult than you'd think. The Mavs dominated last season's playoffs, but they were more of a surprise than your typical winner -- many pundits, myself included, expected them to lose in the first round to the Blazers. Those doubters were shown to be horribly misguided, but the point remains that the Mavericks aren't exactly dominant. Before last spring, many thought they should quit trying to keep pace with the rest of the league and start a reloading process. They play from a position of strength now, but they're still an aging team now without the defensive lynchpin of their championship run. Can they really challenge for a title again this year? Or is that a hopeful outcome for a team without a more coherent long-term plan?
Obviously the Mavericks should play to repeat -- there's no reason for them not to. Still, it's a little unclear what comes next. If they can't contend this year, things might get complicated for the franchise brain trust. Success is supposed to clarify options, but in Dallas' case the future might end up cloudier than they were last April.