The NBA belongs to LeBron James, the Larry O’Brien trophy is with the San Antonio Spurs, and coverage of the Association has never been more heavily focused on what happens off the court than what happens on it.
I mean, for God’s sake, there were a few days this summer when the country was following a billionaire’s private plane through the sky.
So, unless you were watching closely, there is a good chance you missed the Dallas Mavericks ascend into NBA Finals contention.
It still is a bit bizarre that the Mavs won the NBA Finals three seasons ago. They are the only team in NBA history to trail twice in the NBA Finals (0-1, 1-2) and still win the series in less than the full seven games. The Miami Heat team they defeated had just smothered a 62-win Chicago Bulls team in five games, and featured 26-year-old LeBron James, a spry Dwyane Wade and prime Chris Bosh.
Dallas, meanwhile, started Jason “Only Two Years Away From Soda-Gate” Kidd and DeShawn “Only Two Years Left In The League” Stevenson in their backcourt. Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler, at the height of their powers, were a formidable defensive presence - the Mavs sneakily had the sixth-highest defensive efficiency that season — but were passable, at best, on the offensive end. Old Peja Stojaković, Brandon Haywood, Corey Brewer, J.J. Barea and Ian Mahinmi — not exactly the Foreign Legion in San Antonio — rounded out the team’s depth chart.
The Mavericks’ second-best player was Jason Terry, who averaged 17.5 ppg during their 21-game playoff run, would never really come close to being the same player again after 2011. He missed time the following season, fell off the next year in Boston, then stopped playing good basketball all together in Brooklyn.
So how great was Nowitzki? His .485/.460/.941 shooting splits with 27.7 ppg and 8.1 rpg only begin telling the story. In the first game against Oklahoma City in the West finals, Nowitzki scored 48 points on 80 percent shooting from the field while setting an NBA playoff record with 24 consecutive free throws made in the game, the most made free throws in a playoff game without a miss. In Game 4 of that series, Nowitzki pulled out another 40 point performance, rescuing Dallas from a fifteen point deficit in the fourth quarter with just five minutes left. The Mavs would win that game in OT, pushing their series advantage to 3-1.
He had the “fever game” in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Nowitzki scored 62 points in the 4th quarter during that NBA Finals, the same number of 4th quarter points from LeBron and DWade combined. That’s an average of 10 points in the final frame of each game, which means he sort of averaged 40 points a night, because the 4th quarter of an NBA Finals game is essentially its own game.
Nowitzki had a playoff series for the ages. Alongside Wade’s ‘06 playoff run and Kobe Bryant in the ‘09 and ‘10 NBA Finals, Nowitzki delivered one of the three best individual post-season efforts between Michael Jordan’s last title in 1998 and LeBron’s ascendance in 2012.
Dirk didn’t win the championship by himself — Lakers fans are still pissed at the Mavericks lights-out shooting in the 2011 conference semi-finals — but there is something to the Mavericks possibly being the only team since 1980 to win a championship without multiple Hall of Famers on board. (Sidebar: The 2004 Detroit Pistons may or may not have a single Hall of Famer, which is certainly impressive, although I’d argue both Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton have a fighter’s chance at making it, and are both better players than Jason Terry.)
That credit belongs to Rick Carlisle, who has supplanted Gregg Popovich as the NBA’s most undervalued asset. Carlisle figured out that Nowitzki is virtually unguardable, has a timeless game that relies much less on athleticism than wit and veteran chops, and will probably go to the grave an above-average professional shooter. So, Carlisle reasoned, all you need to do is surround Nowitzki with smart, two-way players who can shoot and pass and the team will make the playoffs.
He’s bet correctly. Since 2000-01 — the first season Nowitzki averaged more than 20 points per game — the Mavericks have won 50 games and/or made the playoffs in all but one season. Ironically, Carlisle coached the stinker in 2012-13, but in the coach’s defense: (a) Nowitzki missed 29 games for the first time since his rookie season, (b) he averaged only 17.3 ppg in just 31 minutes a night - terrible for Nowitzki’s standards, and (c) the team’s top four minute-eaters were O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, 36-year-old Vince Carter and 34-year-old Shawn Marion. Phil Jackson wouldn’t have made the playoffs with that team; he would have retired before the All-Star break.
Practically speaking, Nowitzki/Carlisle is probably worth 40 wins as a duo. (Sidebar: The Mavericks still managed to go 41-41 in 2012-13, which was good enough for 10th place in a loaded West, and would have earned them the No. 7 seed in the East.) A decent supporting cast — players like Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon to take just a portion of the scoring burden off The Giant Schnitzel’s shoulders — morphs Dallas into an overqualified No. 8 seed in the Wild Wild West.
Had Phoenix snuck into the post-season in place of Dallas, there’s an argument to be made the Mavs would have been the greatest basketball team to miss the post-season in league history. They had the second-most efficient offense in the NBA — only the Spurs shot better from both the field and behind the arc last season.
The Mavericks hovered around a bottom ten pace for most of 2014 in order to limit the number of possessions its handicapped defense needed to stand up for itself. Consider Dirk Nowitzki the Adrian Peterson of the NBA. He has such a unique, unstoppable skill set that it is a forgone conclusion he will get his every night. Enter the genius of Carlisle: What better way to maximize Dirk’s ability than to (a) build your offense around featuring his talents and (b) limiting how often the other team has the ball, thus allowing Nowitzki to have the ball as often as possible.
In the playoffs, despite an unpredictably valiant effort, the Mavericks fell to the Spurs because of that defense. They allowed 112 points per 100 possessions to the San Antonio machine — they won’t be the first nor the last team to get burned by the best passing and screening team in basketball. But Mark Cuban and the Mavericks brass, deftly determined to make another championship run with Nowitzki, needed to add defense and depth.
That was the big change the Mavericks made this off-season, and it really began last summer, when the team correctly chose offering fair deals to talented veterans over storing their cap space for a third-consecutive summer. For whatever reason, none of the superstars that have flirted with Dallas in recent years — Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony — ever came to town. And so last season the Mavericks decided to surround its home grown superstar, the same one that took over the 2011 post-season, with enough talent to be competitive. Now, after several of the NBA’s most fascinating transactions, Dallas has their best team on paper in years.
They reacquired Tyson Chandler to protect the rim, a player who loved playing for Dallas and badly needed a change of scenery after the failed experiment in the Knicks front court. The price for Chandler was Calderon and several young players like Shane Larkin and the draft picks that became Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo (aka The Greek Freak’s brother). While these young pieces are nice for a rebuilding team like New York, Dallas has a limited window, and players like Chandler and Raymond Felton have the much needed experience to compete against the giants of the West right away.
In the sexiest move of its off-season, Dallas pried Chandler Parsons away from their divisional rival Houston. (A bonus victory for Dallas? They have instigated one of the game’s best new rivalries between Parsons and Harden.) Parsons realized Houston was never going to pay him $15 million per season — whether or not Bosh ended up joining the Rockets, which he didn’t — and decided to take the money in Dallas. Parsons gives the Mavericks a third capable scorer and helps replace the shooting lost in the Chandler/Calderon trade.
Then the Mavericks went to work filling in their roster. They retained Devin Harris and added Jameer Nelson to their backcourt. Instead of overpaying to keep Vince Carter, they signed Al-Farouq Aminu and Richard Jefferson to backup Parsons on the wing. Greg Smith, Brandon Wright and Jae Crowder are long-armed young forwards who will help the team’s veterans keep their legs over the 82-game regular season.
Dallas is going to start Harris/Ellis/Parsons/Nowitzki/Chandler and bring Nelson/Felton/Aminu/Jefferson/Wright off the bench. That team isn’t just better than a year ago, that team’s better than the 2011 NBA championship team.
In many ways, the league is in a comparable place to where it was three years ago. LeBron is on a brand new team; the East isn’t quite up to snuff; and the West is a war zone. Whoever makes it out of the West alive is simply better tested for the NBA Finals than the champion in the East; the Chicago Bulls could be a giant, but as great as they look on paper, we’ve yet to see this team score enough points to win deep into the post-season — and then there’s the Derrick Rose question marks.
Dallas took San Antonio to seven games last season, by far the toughest series the Spurs had all post-season. If healthy, this Mavs team will make a run at a Top 4 seed, and giving Dirk/Carlisle home court advantage in a playoff series is a terrible idea. Dirk/Carlisle have only lost four playoff series together, and their only dropped home series was against, you guessed it, San Antonio.
Here’s how the Mavs make it back to the Finals: Dirk posts one more elite, crazy efficient season (23 points, 8 boards, 50+ percent FG%); Parsons and Ellis both score 18 points per game; Chandler finishes Top 5 in DPOY and pulls down eleven rebounds with a pair of blocks; Harris/Nelson/Felton combine to be a serviceable point guard rotation; Aminu finds his NBA destiny as a swarming defender and transforms into a poor man’s Shawn Marion; Brandon Wright and/or Greg Smith have a moment in the NBA; the Mavs secure a Top 4 seed and take care of a young team (Portland or Golden State) in round one; they draw the Thunder in round two and overwhelm them with shooting — ala the 2011 conference semi-finals against the Lakers — aided by at least one roster-related roadblock for Oklahoma City; Chandler has the series of his life protecting the rim against the Spurs in the conference finals; Nowitzki out duels Duncan; and the Spurs finally show signs of fatigue, no matter what their minutes restrictions are during the regular season, because it is REALLY REALLY HARD to play 100 games three seasons in a row.
If that Mavericks team is in the Finals, who in the East beats them? Maybe Chicago, maybe Cleveland if LeBron goes Super Saiyan. But most likely the West champion is going to take the cake again. I wouldn’t bet against Nowitzki and company in the Finals if they make it out of the ring of fire in the West.
Go ahead and count them out. Three years ago, that’s what they were banking on, and it worked out pretty well.
Joe Mags (@thatjoemags) is the Editor-in-chief of The High Screen.