While they've struggled recently, a strong start to the season from Darren Collison, OJ Mayo and Chris Kaman could mean big things when Dirk and Marion come back.
** This was written before their game with the Wolves on Monday.
I was originally scheduled to write an article on how the Mavericks are playing so much better with Dirk out than in previous non-Dirk times. Then, of course, they dropped two in a row, one to a good team playing excellently and one in the worst displays of basketball I hope I see all season. Just like that, they were nearly .500. That's small-sample size theater for you.
Still, unfortunately, this is still much better than the Mavericks usually play without Dirk. Last year, thanks to some inspired play by Jason Terry, Dallas actually won 3 of 4 games without Dirk. A more accurate story is told by the 9 games he missed in 2010-2011, in which the Mavericks went 2-7, 2-8 if you count the game in which he came back and played 15 minutes in.
The questions are, obviously, what gives, and are the performances that propelled them to their impressive start, and kept them in every one of these games (the Mavericks have led at halftime every game, all season), sustainable?
In general, the answer is not really, and that's obvious. It's not because anyone is doing anything that they obviously cannot do; it's just percentages. Mayo will not continue to shoot 61% from three because no one ever has. Kaman and Wright will not continue to shoot 70% and 68% from the floor because no one ever has. Darren Collison won't necessarily regress that much, but he's a career 46% shooter, 37% from three, and he's shooting 51% and 44% respectively.
It's not clear, however, that that means this level of Mavs success is unsustainable.
After all, though all of those are statistical anomalies, they're not exactly statistical outliers. When Mayo cools down, he's still going be a great three-point shooter, and Collison a pretty good one. When Wright cools down, he's still going to convert at a somewhat fantastical rate. Last year, he converted 62% over the course of the whole season. Kaman is the biggest crash candidate-he hasn't averaged over 50% since 2009, and I fully expect him to miss a lot of shots any game now.
But with Collison driving, Mayo shooting, Brand and Dirk also challenging the defense inside, won't he keep getting good looks all season?
Call it optimism. But the fact of the matter is, the Mavericks are playing well when they don't really have to, when they really shouldn't be. And though they're doing it beyond their capabilities, their returns to Earth won't be all that dramatic and may come pretty close to the time where they no longer have to be.
It's not that the Mavericks best player is coming back. He is. But, really, it's one of the league's top two or three offensive players that's coming back. Not this week, not next week, I would guess not within a week and a half to two weeks of him starting in a real basketball game. It always takes longer for guys to play themselves back into shape then people remember.
And with him will come one of the game's top two or three defensive players, still, on swingmen. Just think about it for one minute. The Mavericks lost to the Knicks, who have roared out of the gates, by ten points, in a game where they shot 40% from the field, where only Mayo hit more than one three, where Darren Collison went 1-8. So NOT a good, NOT a statistically anomalous performance.
If you put Marion on Carmelo, who he typically holds to some pretty grisly numbers, as opposed to the 31 points on 10-22 shooting, don't the Mavs come pretty close to winning that game? If you add Dirk Nowitzki to that offense, doesn't it seem like they do win? That's not how life works, obviously. But I'm saying: if this team can play credibly when it plays poorly, it's not going to go away when Dirk comes back.
One thing a lot, a lot, a lot of pundits missed is that the performance of a team over the course of a year is multivariable and a lot of those variables are external. That is, everyone was writing about how the Mavs, since they'd have no continuity and didn't get any of the big fish they aimed for, would struggle to make the playoffs this season, and they still might.
But one thing everyone should do is scan the list of other teams in the league to get a handle on what things look like in the NBA in general. The fact of the matter, it takes more to struggle than being a good team with some question marks, it takes other teams being better, an incredibly obvious thought, sadly neglected. I still think the Lakers will figure this out, but besides the Lakers and the Heat there just aren't any juggernauts in the NBA. The sad part is, a lot of it is self-sabotage, teams that thought they couldn't compete and took the ball and went home.
The Mavericks clearly got some special talents in OJ Mayo and Darren Collison. Whether those talents will find one thing both of their careers have so far lacked, consistency, is less certain, but neither has ever had a better coach, and in less than a month, neither will ever have played alongside a better baller. And that always helps.
Dallas is deep and talented enough to give the Knicks a scare without their two best players, they're deep and talented enough with those guys to play just about anybody. We know, already, their biggest problem, which is rebounding. While it's true that Troy Murphy has provided a surprising burst in that department, and that Marion, arguably their best rebounder, was out, the Mavs would have beaten the Bobcats easily if they could have just grabbed a few more boards. And Dirk isn't going to help that too much.
But, bottom line, when all of this goes away, it's not going to go away by that much. It isn't Kaman shooting 60% from three, it's OJ Mayo. It isn't Bernard James shooting 70% from two; it's Wright and Kaman. And I don't foresee much problem in slotting Dirk right in there, making the game easier for every one, giving the Mavericks so much of what they've lacked.