The Dallas Mavericks, after breaking through to win the first NBA title in franchise history last June, regressed back to the pack in the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season. To discuss what happened and where the Mavericks go from here, we've put together an SB Nation Dallas round-table.
1) How would the Mavericks have done this season if they had kept their free agents from the title team?
Andrew Tobolowsky: A lot of this, obviously, depends on who they would still sign. I think the Mavs probably miss DeShawn 2011 some, but remember this was a guy who couldn't see the floor after his three-point shot deserted him just a year before, and you'd be really hard pressed to say that Delonte hasn't given the Mavericks more production than Barea, though it's possible that the Mavs need what Barea gives them more than what Delonte, who is more of a shooter, does.
Would the Mavs be doing a lot better if they had Tyson Chandler? Yes. Absolutely. And not just this year, but last year. If this is it for the Mavericks dynasty, though there's plenty of hope still that it isn't, the epitaph is going to be "Never Cared Enough About Centers". Never. And I don't want to raise my blood pressure too much, but obviously the two times they made the Finals, they had a recent center acquisition performing very well--yes, even Erick Dampier.
The thing is, there probably isn't a better thing you can do for your team than pick up a young defensive stud of a center who can score a little, make up for everyone's mistakes on the perimeter, shoot foul shots, and play with his heart. There probably isn't a better thing they'll be able to do with their money this offseason, or next, and probably, in general, just a big loss the Mavs will have to deal with forever.
Willie Funk: The loss of Tyson Chandler was touted as a monumental loss, and to a certain extent it's had an effect. But I'd argue it's felt as much on the offensive glass in getting a jump-shooting team more shots -- something the underutilized Brandan Wright provides a bit of. However, his absence will be magnified should the Mavs run into the Lakers, who have two bigs that can cause serious problems.
The Mavs' glaring hole on offense is still a dearth of athleticism and ability to get to the basket and create open shots for others from the perimeter players. The "mental toughness" bit that people attributed to DeShawn Stevenson is also a bit overstated. He was a better defender than Vince Carter has been, but he isn't a game-changing loss. The hero of the playoffs was really J.J. Barea and his ability to get into the paint. Letting him go was tough, but $20 million on a 5'8" defensive turnstile would have been indefensible after letting the team's best interior help defender walk already.
Overweight, 20-foot fade away shooting, no-defense playing Caron Butler was the most overrated and overpaid player on last year's free agent market; his loss was a big a boost to the Mavs' title (run via Dirk getting more shots) as anything that happened over the course of last season.
Jonathan Tjarks: I'd agree with Andrew that there's a clear division between Tyson Chandler and the other free agents the Mavericks let go. Barea, Butler and Stevenson, for all their contributions last season, were replaceable players, and Dallas upgraded from all three with Delonte West, Vince Carter and Rodrigue Beaubois. Chandler, though, is an elite 7'0 defensive center in the prime of his career who will probably win the Defensive Player of the Year award this year.
It's not a coincidence that the Mavericks finest playoff run in the last decade coincided with Chandler's presence on the roster. Chandler is all three of the Mavs current centers in one package: Haywood's ability to play post defense, Mahinmi's athleticism and Wright's finishing ability offensively. With him, Dallas was a title contender; without him, they aren't.
2) With that in mind, do you think Dallas made the right decision in saving cap room for 2012? Or will we not know that answer until we see what they do with it?
Tobolowsky: No. Free agency doesn't usually solve a team's problems. Mostly, you get impact players through trades and, if you get a high enough pick, you get them through the draft. It isn't likely we'll ever see the kind of collusion and shadyness that led to the Heat happen again and "superteams" besides the Heat and Celtics have fallen flat because of talents not meshing well together (see the Knicks for most of this year). Dallas would have been in a better position to rebuild if they had ridden out what they had, embraced sucking when it came, and then traded and drafted their way to young talent.
Funk: Without question. Even with Dwight Howard off the market, Deron Williams is all but a lock to land in Dallas. He'll be a perfect pick and roll partner with Dirk, which should extend Dirk's career by a few seasons. Even without him, the team has too many aging starters it will have to replace in the near future. Killing any cap flexibility would have been seriously damaging to the team's long-term future.
Tjarks: A qualified yes. I still would have kept Chandler and rolled the dice that the team could have convinced Williams to come to Dallas without Howard, but on the whole, Dallas is in a position to ride the "superteam" wave that's taking over the NBA. In looking around the league, the only logical destinations for Howard are in Chicago w/Derrick Rose (which he has shown no interest in pursuing) and joining Williams. NBA superstars have all the leverage when it comes to choosing their next team, and Dirk + Deron + Howard makes too much sense not to happen.
3) What was the biggest highlight of the regular season?
Tobolowsky: There have been times when the Mavericks flashed what they were last year, this season, but from my perspective it has to be the stretch from Jan. 7 to Feb. 17. I figured they would start slow, I wasn't surprised they got blown out in opening night, and when they locked it into gear and ripped off 5 straight wins by 15+ points, I thought they were ready to contend again. The lost two heartbreakers in California the next two nights, on Fisher and Chauncey buzzer beaters, but rebounded to win their next 6. None of us could have guessed that they would play sub .500 ball for the rest of the season.
Funk: Their performance against the Thunder and Spurs. While it didn't seem overly notable at the time, the Spurs ended up earning the top seed in the West. Against the Thunder, the Mavs were able to overcome their age and play a youthful team even. The games against the Thunder especially showcased the Mavericks' ability to control a game even against more athletic opponents and still play solid defense -- things that will be essential in the postseason.
Tjarks: I was lucky enough to be on the court when the Mavericks raised their banner on Christmas Day. That was really something, especially when you look back at where Dallas was as a franchise in the mid-1990's or how green Dirk looked in his rookie year. The game itself was pretty brutal, but it can't take away what an incredible accomplishment that banner really was.
4) What was most disappointing?
Tobolowsky: My breaking point was somewhere around the OT loss to Portland on April 6. I never really cared where the Mavericks placed this year, so long as they made the playoffs. I knew they'd have some struggles reintegrating everybody and that their quality wouldn't necessarily be reflected in their regular season win-loss record. April 6 is when I began to fear it actually was. All of a sudden, instead of worrying whether Dirk would finally snap out of it in time for the playoffs, I had to worry about whether Dallas would make the playoffs. And then I thought, maybe they aren't struggling. Maybe this is who they are.
Funk: The opening game loss to the Heat, closely followed by every game of the Lamar Odom experiment (which at the time was rightfully lauded as a brilliant move). Not only were the Mavericks wrecked on a national stage on their banner-raising night, but their lack of athleticism was painfully evident. While some of that rust can be attributed to the lockout, it looked like a lopsided AAU game.
Tjarks: Every part of the Lamar Odom experience. Like it or not, Odom is one of the faces of the NBA, and his disappearing act only reinforced all types of negative stereotypes about the league and its players. He's one of the most talented players in the league, and I loved watching him as the sixth man-point forward in LA. He just didn't handle any part of his situation this year well, which is disappointing on so many different levels.
5) How are you feeling about the Mavericks playoff chances right now?
Tobolowsky: Everybody in the West has flaws. It looks like they'll play the Thunder, and that's actually a favorable matchup for Dallas. They'd get killed on the boards by the Spurs or the Lakers, but Haywood can battle a bit with Perkins and Wright can actually get some playing time. The Spurs have a lot of reasonably talented offensive players, but nobody pours it in and that could be a problem in a defense-oriented series. The Lakers are a powder keg, will probably be missing Artest for a while (should be anyway), and have possibly the worst bench in the playoffs. The fact of the matter is, nobody is better in the playoffs than Dirk because there is no defense that works on him.
Funk: While the Thunder are the presumptive favorites to win the West, they were exposed against the Lakers this past weekend. If you keep the Thunder in the half court, they have a tendency to play isolation 1-on-1 basketball. And with two poor 3-point shooters in Sefolosha and Westbrook on the floor at the same time, the Mavs would be able to pack in their defense and hide their inability to keep Westbrook in front of them. The X-factor would be James Harden. He's arguably their most skilled offensive player in terms of being able to create for others while also being a threat inside and out. Durant will get his, and Dallas would be wise to have Marion do what he can against him without over-helping. Unless Westbrook gets hot from the outside, Dallas has a real shot of giving the Thunder trouble as they did last year.
If the Mavericks draw the Lakers, however, I can't say I feel terribly confident. Losing Ron-Ron for seven games is really a boost for Mike Brown -- without the pressure of playing the bigger name, the less-than assertive coach will be forced to play a better offensive player and comparable defender in Matt Barnes. The big issue for the Mavericks will be the Lakers' inside game. Haywood does a decent job against Bynum, but Dirk can't guard Pau Gasol. Jason Kidd was the real Kobe-stopper last year, but the addition of Ramon Sessions makes the Mavs vulnerable to his penetration on defense and Kidd is a year older. Offensively, Dirk would have to do 30 a game with the Mavs' inability to get to the rim and score. If they can get Kobe to continue his Iverson-esque antics he's displayed throughout the season, that would surely help, but even then it might not be enough.
Tjarks: It looks like Dallas is going to end up in the Oklahoma City/LA side of the bracket, which isn't the worst thing in the world, because I think the Memphis Grizzlies will ultimately come out of the West. I don't think the Mavericks, especially without home court, would be favored in a series against either the Lakers or the Thunder, but I think they would have a chance against both. Against LA, you'd have the same weak perimeter defense that let Terry and Barea explode in the playoffs last year and, as Willie points out, Dallas has "The Real Ruben Patterson" in Kidd. Against Oklahoma City, you could play Wright at the 5, making the Mavericks much more dangerous offensively, and play the same type of pack-it-in defense that allowed Dallas to win the WCF last season.