There's something doubly tragic about watching this playoffs, in which the Mavericks were featured for so small a time. The success of the Heat and Thunder conjured not just the pain of loss, but envy of their youth. Their victories over the Lakers, Spurs, Mavs and Celtics were not just blows to the present hopes of these traditional powers, but the beginning of what may be a very long decade for the rest of the NBA.
Now, I'm not one to buy into this "passing the torch" business. The Spurs picked the wrong time to go on a long overdue slide, but there is no law in heaven that says they couldn't have beaten the Thunder and the same goes for the Heat, who were one quarter away from losing to the battered, aging Celtics. If the Celtics are done, it will be because of contracts, and there's no reason the Spurs can't give the Thunder trouble next year, too.
But I cannot have an issue with the general notion of time itself. When Tim Duncan is 40, Kevin Durant will be 27 and Dirk will be 37. The Thunder are already too young, too fast, and too athletic.
So the question is, what do the Mavericks need to do to stay relevant in a Western Conference controlled by Oklahoma City?
First things first: the sweep, I think, was a little misleading, and Dallas is actually better suited than most to take on the Thunder as long as Dirk Nowitzki can keep producing. This is not specifically because Dirk is amazing, but because of the specifics of his game.
Outside of Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder do not feature a lot of all-purpose stoppers. What they do have defensively is a cadre---Ibaka, Collison, Perkins, occasionally an improving Durant-of long-limbed, aggressive post defenders. All of whom, aside from the occasional game in which Collison is allowed to be more physical than is typically allowed, Dirk barbeques. It is presumably for this reason that, armed with almost literally nothing else, the Mavericks still took three out of four games down to the wire. And that will still be there next year.
The other factor working the Mavericks favor is Shawn Marion who, from the evidence of both the eye test and Durant's own admission, guards the Durantula about as well as he can be guarded. In the 9 games the Mavericks and Thunder have played against each other in the last two playoffs, Durant has shot over 50% just twice. In that same span, he's done that 15 other times against the rest of the league.
However, that matchup will not be long-lived. Marion is probably on his way out, and even if he isn't, he won't be as good at chasing 20 year olds around at 35 as he was at 34, and even less so at 36 and so on.
And despite the fact that it was close, the Mavericks were outgunned on offensive and hopeless on defense. Last year, they won because they had Marion on Durant, Tyson Chandler to meet Westbrook at the rim, Peja and a hot Terry to stretch the D, Barea to take some pressure off the shooters and DeShawn Stevenson to do some dirty work. This year it was Dirk vs. Durant, Westbrook, and Harden on offense and Marion vs. Durant, Westbrook, and Harden on defense.
No good. And unless the Mavs make some big splashes this offseason, there will be no way next year either. Here's what they absolutely must have:
1) A second shot creator: This has actually been an absolute must have for the Mavericks roughly since the Nick Van Exel experiment. Remember, as good as the Mavericks have been in general, and even with last year's shiny trophy to keep us all warm, Dallas has lost in the first round four times in the last six years.
It barely needs stating, of course, but this is not because Dirk fizzles in the playoffs. Jason Terry was Dallas' second best offensive player, and as good and valiant as the Jet has been, he's the kind of guy who can be muzzled by playoff defense. Last year, for the first time ever, the Mavericks had enough offensive firepower to keep the other team's defenders off the Jet, and the results were stunning. Now, even he's probably gone in free agency.
This is why Deron Williams, or a near Deron Williams, is so crucial if the Mavericks are going to have success next year. Playoff games often come down to shot creation at the end, and every one of the Thunder's big three can get a good look at the basket, while only one of the Mavericks' big anything has been able to for the last half decade.
#2 A stiffer defense. Marion can guard almost anything, but he can't guard everything at once and, again, there's no telling how long he'll be wearing blue. He, and occasionally Delonte West, can't do anything by themselves since passing exists and the Thunder have so many options. The Mavericks must find a way to get a rim defender, or, at the very least, get enough perimeter defenders who can keep their guys on the other side of them. There was a playoff game I recall where the Mavericks let Steve Nash score 50 points against them and won, but suffice it to say that doesn't sound like a winning strategy.
#3 The Mavericks need to get young. The front office has an unfortunate tendency of not taking the draft seriously, and as a consequence they haven't been in a position to make too many impact draft picks. When they have, they have an unfortunate tendency to make horrible decisions based on institutional stubbornness. But it's been way too long since anybody on the Mavericks drove the lane hard (since, basically, Barea's departure). It's been way too long since they've won a loose ball of any kind.
Dallas was, despite some flashes, a .500 team last year. They were at around .500 every month but January. They were 19th in points per game, 12th in points allowed, 15th in assists and 11th in rebounds, middle of the road everywhere-and they're going to lose some of their major contributors.
Beating the Thunder may not be their biggest concern this off-season. But if they're going to make their way back to title contention, they're going to have to achieve all of the above.