Mavs Struggle While Challenging Elite

The Dallas Mavericks have officially crawled out of the terrible category in the NBA. Despite only averaging 13.9 points per game on 41% shooting, Dirk Nowitzki’s return to the lineup and him settling into his standard role has given the Mavs a legitimate on-court identity. With the boost from their superstar, Dallas has improved enough to the point where they’ve won five of their last six games. Coming into tonight they were only three games out of the final playoff spot and showing real signs of life for one of the few times this season.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is the Mavericks need to start showing they can beat elite teams from time to time, especially when it really counts during the final few minutes of games. A win in Los Angeles against the Lakers on the first night of the season seemed to show what this team was made of at the time, but the luster has certainly worn off of that game after the Lakers have unraveled and shown their true colors. Despite hanging close to the end and into overtime with teams like Oklahoma City, Los Angeles (Clippers), and Miami, the Mavericks just haven’t been able to get over the hump of actually being able to finish in those games.

Any astute NBA follower over the last decade will tell you that handling business at the end of games was where Mavericks teams of the past used to thrive. Though some luck is always involved with positive results in those situations, countless use of the trusty Nowitzki/Jason Terry two man game and the steady hand of Jason Kidd at the helm had a bit more to do with their success. Taking care of the ball, proper execution of the offense, and timely stops on defense were a staple of past Dallas Mavericks teams.

Now, two of those three players are gone and the new guard made up of OJ Mayo and Darren Collison need to fill that void and learn the skill of winning, an extremely underappreciated and overlooked quality in the NBA.

The chance to compete with and beat an elite team came tonight against San Antonio, a formidable opponent even without the ageless Tim Duncan or Coach Gregg Popovich, who missed the game. Ironically enough, crumbling in tight games against the Spurs hasn’t been a problem for the Mavs as they came into tonight 0-2 against San Antonio on the year with a 31.5-point average margin of loss. Still, tonight presented an opportunity for this Mavericks team to grow against a top tier team rather than running in the hamster wheel of mediocrity all season.

What a load of wishful thinking that proved to be.

After jumping out to a 26-point lead midway through the third quarter, there was no reason for San Antonio to take it out of cruise control for the rest of the night. Had Duncan played, he would have sat most of the second half anyway during their 113-107 win. After hovering around 30% shooting for much of the first half, the Mavs dug themselves too deep of a hole to get out of. Led by Tony Parker with 23 points and 10 assists and DeJuan Blair, of all people, with 22 points, the Spurs made easy work of the now momentum-less Mavericks. For all of their recent strides in the right direction, Dallas still can’t get exactly what the need against high quality opponents.

For now, it remains life in the hamster wheel for the 2012-2013 Dallas Mavericks.

Questions Abound Despite Recent Success in Dallas

Dirk Nowitzki wants to be a Dallas Maverick forever, but also doesn’t want to be chasing a low playoff seed every year either.

The figurative (possibly literal) Bank of Mark Cuban is open, but he doesn’t want to take on bad salary or deviate too far from the flexibility Dallas has built either.

The Mavs have won four straight games including a massive 104-83 victory over the now-powerful Memphis Grizzlies, but that came after four consecutive losses.

So, what does all of this mean? With every step forward so far this year, there has always been an equal or greater step backward. To their credit, the Mavs do appear to be coming together more as of late with their recent wins. Trying not to be too obvious, that is mostly due to the return of Dirk Nowitzki from preseason knee surgery. Not only that, Nowitzki has begun rounding into form and fitting more firmly next to his teammates.

Since circa 2005, the Mavericks simply haven’t had an identity if Nowitzki missed a game for any reason. If he happened to be out for an extended amount of time, things stayed ugly until he found his stride. As has been the case in recent years when Nowitzki returned from injury, Dallas didn’t immediately find their way upon his first few games back this year. Now, this current roster is discovering how to fit their games next to Nowitzki and the 2012-2013 Mavericks are looking a little more like what was expected before the season started. The problem is they are 17-23, in 12th place, and four games out of the last playoff spot. What’s an even bigger issue is Dirk’s further return to form will likely make this team much more formidable as the season progresses, without any postseason return due to missing the playoffs. That leaves the Mavs right where you don’t want to be in the NBA: Standings Purgatory.

Not quite good enough to make the playoffs and not quite bad enough to collect a meaningful pick when it comes to draft time. We’ll call this the “Milwaukee Bucks Zone”, if you will.

That makes me question what the opening of Mark Cuban’s piggy bank actually means. The fact of the matter is that despite how good this Mavs team becomes, it’s a long road ahead in order for them to make the playoffs. That being said, why would Cuban be so eager to potentially add a piece to make his team marginally better, while taking on additional salary and crippling the financial flexibility he so passionately pursued? It’s not that I don’t agree with making a move, I just don’t understand the logic that goes into recalibrating “Plan Powder.”

Obviously, there are a couple exceptions here. If Cuban can find a move out there that makes the Mavs better in the short-term AND protects their long-term cap space, then that is fantastic. If the open doors of “Bank of Cuban” means he can snag a superstar to place next to Dirk, then that would be perfect. But isn’t every team looking for those moves, too? All the time.

Considering what is going on in Sacramento with the Kings and what already happened in Seattle with the Sonics/Thunder, a generous and loyal owner is something that can’t and shouldn’t be taken for granted. The Mavs are currently a flawed team and knowing that Cuban is willing to fix it is encouraging for fans and veterans like Nowitzki and Shawn Marion. For now though, it’s just difficult to know exactly what he means by that.

Mavs Face Season Defining Stretch

A win is always a good thing, but tonight’s victory for the Dallas Mavericks over the Philadelphia 76ers was meaningful for quite a few reasons. The schedule for the Mavs was relatively light to begin the year. That seemed ideal at the time considering Dirk Nowitzki was aiming to return from knee surgery by Thanksgiving. A perfect situation would have been for the young Mavericks to stay afloat against the easier part of the schedule and have Nowitzki back in time for the first round of heavy lifting in the 2012-13 season. The good news is that the Mavs did stay afloat, going 11-10 through their first 21 games. The bad news is that Nowitzki is still on the shelf, with no set date to returns. The worse news is that the Mavs’ schedule reads as such after tonight’s 107-100 win over Philadelphia: vs. Miami, at Memphis, at San Antonio, at Oklahoma City, vs. Denver, and vs. San Antonio.

It would be tough to hand pick a gauntlet much tougher than that.

With no Dirk and little hope being given to the Mavs without him, they will have to play well beyond themselves to save the season. With the given schedule, it is more than possible that Dallas could go 1-6 over that stretch, including tonight’s win against Philadelphia. If that scenario presents itself, then the Mavs would be a frightening 12-19 when the calendar flips to 2013. If that were the case, they’d have to play 29-22 over the rest of the season JUST to get back to .500, a record that won’t get you to the playoffs in the Western Conference.

In the most simple of terms, poor performances over the next six games would be catastrophic for the Mavericks.

If there was ever a time for Darren Collison to step up to another level and support new head-Mav OJ Mayo, that time would be now. Collison has been an enigma since Dallas acquired him in the offseason, losing his starting job and finding himself taking up permanent residence in Rick Carlisle’s doghouse. It’s likely none of that will affect Collison’s minutes heading into this stretch, as now-starting point guard Derek Fisher suffered a strained right knee on Tuesday night. If Fisher’s injury is serious, Collison will get the majority of the point guard minutes simply because of the numbers game. Carlisle may not be happy with Collison’s production this season, but he’s simply running out of options at point guard.

Little known NBA fact: Somebody does have to be on the court, dribbling the basketball for each team.

Actually, that may be the theme so far for the Mavs this season. Rick Carlisle has had so little trust in his guards outside of anyone not named after a condiment that he brought in 38-year old Fisher to run his offense. Dallas leads the league in different combinations of starting lineups this year for that exact reason. Carlisle can’t find a lineup he likes with Nowitzki out and he won’t sit around to let the same guys lose games for his franchise. The Mavs may be performing poorly, but Carlisle refuses to let them stand pat.

The irony for Carlisle hits hard during this upcoming, potentially season defining stretch. Over the next twelve days, that same Nowitzki-less roster that he can’t allow himself to trust will be exactly who holds the season in their hands.

Expect some sleepless night for Rick Carlisle during the holidays.

Two Teams Looking For Their Identity

Two different franchises both searching to figure out exactly who they are met at the American Airlines Center on Saturday night. Though both are in a state of flux, their current situations aren’t necessarily due to the same circumstances.

The Dallas Mavericks are still attempting to stay afloat while they wait on the return of superstar power forward Dirk Nowitzki. The frustrating thing for the Mavericks is that the identity they’re looking for can’t possibly be found until Nowitzki starts playing again. OJ Mayo has been tremendous while averaging 22.2 points per game on 50% shooting and Darren Collison has had his moments with 14 points per game complemented with 6.5 assists. The latter of those two has had the spotlight on him recently, as the Mavs’ success is almost directly tied to him playing well.

“When he’s aggressive, we’re a great team,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban said of Collison before tipoff on Saturday night. “He doesn’t realize how good of a scorer he is.”

Still, the continuity they want will only come from consistent performances from those players alongside Nowitzki. Obviously, that won’t be possible for at least another few weeks, as Nowitzki announced his return won’t come until well into December

On the other hand, there’s the Los Angeles Lakers. The always well-documented Lakers made waves early this season when they fired Coach Mike Brown after only five games and a 1-4 start. Much was made of Brown’s Princeton offense not fitting his superstar personnel, so Mike D’Antoni of ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ Phoenix Suns fame was brought in. Similarly to the Mavs, the Lakers have the built-in injury excuse as Steve Nash recovers from a fractured leg suffered in the first couple games of the season. Once he returns, the hope is that eventually reuniting D’Antoni with Nash will ignite an offense that includes Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace.

That being said, their offense didn’t appear to be a problem tonight.

Coming into Dallas without a win on the road this season, the Lakers were poised to end that streak. Despite missing their top two point guards, the Lakers had their way with the Mavericks. Los Angeles had their season high in points for a half by dropping 65 in the first two quarters on Saturday. World Peace started the game by making six straight shots to set the tone for how the night would go.

After a few laughable defensive performances from the Mavericks, Rick Carlisle has been more vocal recently about tightening up that end of the floor. The message was not received by his team as they basically allowed the Lakers to do whatever they wanted. After giving up 115 to the Lakers tonight, allowing them to cruise to a 115-89 victory, the Mavericks have allowed 226 total points to their opponents over the last two games. It’s a safe bet that Carlisle will again be quite vocal about defense over the next few days.

Dirk Nowitzki’s eventual return will fix a lot of things for the Mavs. Giving up 113 points per game on the defensive end isn’t one of them. There is quite a bit of work to be done in Dallas if the Mavs plan on making the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference.

New Face Off Against Old In Dallas

In Dallas on Wednesday night, it would’ve been a fair argument for some Dallas Mavericks fans to say they recognized more faces on the opposing team than they did on the Mavs. After a second consecutive offseason overhaul, Dirk Nowitzki currently sidelined after knee surgery, and Shawn Marion remaining as the only key player from the 2011 Championship team, no one would blame Dallas-ites for feeling more familiarity with a New York Knicks roster that now includes Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd.

The well-documented story of Chandler’s departure is still a heavily debated, open wound in Dallas-Fort Worth. From the Mavs’ end, the basics surrounding Chandler not returning to Dallas after the Championship revolve around the front office not wanting to commit four years and $58 million to a non-scoring center. The merit of the simplicity of that argument is up for debate, but it’s simply the deciding factor from their end.

Things are a bit murkier with Kidd’s Maverick exit. This past offseason, amidst the craziness and disappointment surrounding the Deron Williams free agency decision, Dallas and Kidd supposedly had a three year deal in place. Long story short, Kidd eventually bolted for New York and, at the time, left the Mavs in the dust with massive amounts of uncertainty clouding the franchise.

And Mavs owner Mark Cuban was not happy about it. As a matter of fact, he felt so misled that he eventually ranted his thoughts about retiring Kidd’s number in the American Airlines Center.

“I was more than upset,” Cuban told the Ben and Skin show in August on 103.3, ESPN Radio Dallas. “I thought he was coming (back). I was pissed. J-Kidd’s a big boy, he can do whatever he wants, but you don’t change your mind like that. I’m sure I’ll get over it at some point, but as of right now, I wouldn’t put J-Kidd’s number in the rafters.”

Though seemingly a pretty rash opinion from Cuban, what eventually played out during the offseason may have been best for both sides. Dallas went on to trade center Ian Mahinmi to the Indiana Pacers for young point guard Darren Collison, giving the Mavericks a speedy option at the position that they haven’t had since Devin Harris in 2008. Ironically enough, Harris left town in the trade that acquired Kidd from the New Jersey Nets.

Conversely, Kidd couldn’t have found himself in a better position. The Knicks, loaded with talent and led by Carmelo Anthony, were in need of the veteran leadership that Kidd oozes. Loaded with guards, coach Mike Woodson can pick his spots with Kidd, who is averaging his least minutes per game in, um, ever. Had Kidd stayed in Dallas, he would be playing too many minutes each night and that would limit his effectiveness. Just like the circumstances surrounding Jason Terry’s departure from Dallas, Kidd still had use, but it was just time for a change.

In the end of the day, all parties have moved on from what was in Dallas. The championship happened, it was glorious, and now it’s in the past. As are Kidd and Chandler’s Maverick playing days. The Mavericks chose to go a younger route, which is the exact opposite path the Knicks are currently on, as they have an average age of nearly 33 years and a 35 year old rookie.

The new Mavericks actually pulled off an upset by beating the old Mavericks, I mean the Knicks, Wednesday night 114-111. Kidd had 17 points and 5 assists in 36 minutes and Chandler was his usual solid self with 21 points and 13 rebounds. Would Dallas have been the favorites if Kidd and Chandler were in Mavericks uniforms? Maybe, but the Knicks’ window is now. The Mavericks are willing to sacrifice overall success now to hopefully prop their window open as long as they can.

The ultimate payoff to the decisions made in support of that strategy will only be known with time.