Draft Diamond in Dallas

Things are dull for the Dallas Mavericks right now. There have been some good wins so far in this young season, coupled with some franchise-first losses. OJ Mayo, Darren Collison, and Chris Kaman have lit it up some nights, only to lay eggs in a few recent games. All in all, the beginning of the 2012-2013 season has been about as low-key as any Mavericks season start in over a decade. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing, but just comes with the territory of playing in a football-crazed area of the country without your star player for the first six weeks of the year. Even considering the circumstances, there have been some pretty terrible periods of basketball played by a franchise that has raised their expectations. For the Mavericks, that means they’re now flying under the radar in Dallas.

Despite all that, one Maverick that isn’t going unnoticed is rookie forward Jae Crowder. Looking back though, there was never a chance that Crowder would keep a low profile.

“We knew coming out of Marquette he was ready to play a man’s game because of how they’re coached in that program,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. “He’s a four year guy, played in a lot of big games and was Big-East Player of the Year. That’s a big deal.”

With his dreadlocks-for-days hair that he ties into a ponytail and endless energy, Crowder was born to be a fan-favorite. Nine games into his career, he is scoring 7.4 points per game with a surprising 39% shooting percentage from beyond the arc. His stats aren’t world beating, but that’s not why he is getting so much individual attention in Dallas right now. In the same way that high expectations for a team’s results affect fan reaction to certain situations, low expectations for a team’s drafting will draw excitement from a fan base when an exciting prospect, any exciting prospect, appears in their midst.

Though 2009 pick Roddy Beaubois is currently contributing to this Mavs team, Dallas hasn’t seen a legitimate All Star caliber player come up through the draft since the Mavs acquired Josh Howard in the now famous and fabled 2003 draft. For a franchise that has seen the likes of Maurice Ager, Nick Fezekas, Shan Foster, and Dominique Jones come through the Mavs’ system in recent years, even the slightest glimpse of potential, like that shown by Crowder so far this season, creates a buzz amongst Mavs fans.

With that being said, what is to be expected from Jae Crowder? When Beaubois showed flashes his rookie year, most notably in the 2010 Playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs, reason was thrown to the wind. Maverick officials and fans alike claimed Beaubois was finally the ‘Robin’ Dallas was waiting for the place next to Dirk Nowitzki’s ‘Batman’. Fair or not, expectations skyrocketed for Beaubois and needless to say, it hasn’t worked out as expected.

So, again, how should the expectations for the 34th overall pick in the 2013 be handled? Despite his useful play so far, the tag as a second rounder should make it easier on Crowder. As it stands now, with the injury problems Dallas is currently suffering through, Crowder is a part time starter at small or power forward who has a high-energy motor and can hit three pointers with regularity. As the season progresses, he will turn into the backup for Shawn Marion at the three.

Is playing 12-15 minutes at the three spot on a solid NBA team good production for a rookie second rounder? Of course.

Can Crowder fill that role for these Mavericks? Definitely.

That’s how simple it can and should be for Jae Crowder this year. Expectations can become a burden when they get out of control and fans lose perspective. Taking Crowder for what he is now, without looking down the road and applying those hopes to this year, will keep Mavs fans in a happy place with the rookie.

As for other aspects of the seasos, well… no promises.

Mavericks Remain A Mystery

With so much currently new and unfamiliar with the 2012-2013 Dallas Mavericks, it’s tough for anyone to have answers right now.

After jumping on the season quickly by winning four of their first five games, Dallas has since lost those good vibes that came with the 4-1 start by dropping three consecutive games. Despite two of those losses coming on the road, losing to the Charlotte Bobcats for the first time in franchise history was the breaking point that quickly sent the 4-4 Mavs into their first mini-tailspin of the year.

During that Charlotte game in particular, the young, Nowitzki-less, Marion-less Mavs made far too many mistakes down the stretch, which led to them coughing up a more-than-winnable game. Over the course of the last few years, starting with the acquisition of Jason Kidd in 2008, the Mavericks have prided themselves on finishing close games in a smart way and not beating themselves when it mattered most.

In Charlotte, Kidd wasn’t there and mistakes were. Darren Collison, Kidd’s replacement at point guard, was the biggest culprit in the final minutes, making multiple mistakes on the break, missing easy lay ups early in the shot clock, and committing costly turnovers.

Collison has advantages over Kidd in so many ways it gets tough to keep count sometimes. He’s quicker, faster, can score easier, guard quicker point guards, and so on. Still, the Basketball-Jedi mind of Jason Kidd will be something that the Mavericks will miss at times over the course of the season. The return of veterans will hopefully help with that, but until then the games must go on with the roster as currently constructed.

“We’ve got to make sure these guys are ready to play,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said with a ‘no-excuses’ attitude.  “We all own it.”

Still, nothing can truly be judged with this team until Shawn Marion and Dirk Nowitzki come back from their injuries and fall back into their customary roles. Specifically with Collison and OJ Mayo, there have been some roller coaster moments, some significant peaks accompanied with a fair share of valleys.

Regardless, almost all of their performances are meaningless until the Mavericks are at full strength and the newcomers show they can successfully and efficiently play alongside Nowitzki. This is one of the primary reasons why finding out Nowitzki would miss significant time was such bad news, obviously behind missing the actual production the Big German provides.

OJ Mayo has been absolutely torrid from behind the arc, shooting at a 61% clip so far this season. That’s fantastic for the Mavs, but worthless if he can’t keep his shooting rhythm and efficiency up after getting fewer shots upon Nowitzki’s return. Darren Collison is averaging 14 points a game on 51% shooting, but his true value will come from being a consistent weapon while playing off of Nowitzki in the two man game. He’ll have to adjust his game to fit that mold in the heat of the regular season.

Right now, the only thing that can really be measured by watching these Mavs is the win-loss record while waiting for their big time players to return. Until then, the hope is that OJ Mayo keeps making shots and Darren Collison continues scoring at an efficient rate…and then that they keep doing exactly that once Dirk Nowitzki returns.

Is that too much to ask?

Mavericks Still Have Plenty To Learn

Even veteran teams never stop learning lessons.

In what I am deeming as divine action rather than a simple coincidence, the pilot episode of FX’s ‘Sons of Anarchy’ appeared on my DVR the night before the Dallas Mavericks would see their season come to a crashing end by losing Game Four against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Allow me to explain.

In the first scene of that pilot episode, Sons of Anarchy main characters Jax Teller and Clay Morrow are in a discussion on how to “clean up” an accident that took place in the town their Motorcycle Club essentially runs. During that chat, the following interaction takes place:

Teller: “It ain’t easy being king.”
Morrow: “You remember that.”

During the 2012 NBA season, the Dallas Mavericks found out exactly how difficult it is to be “king.” After going through everything they had throughout their careers, long-in-the-tooth NBA veterans Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, and Shawn Marion had supposedly finally seen it all by winning their first championship last season.

Apparently, there was still one more lesson the basketball Gods had in store for them: “It ain’t easy being king.”

That wasn’t quite how the organization pictured it. Though it shouldn’t be used as a complete scapegoat for the season, the biggest cloud of negativity hanging over this disastrous year was caused by everything Lamar Odom did, or didn’t do, during his time in Dallas. Though no Mavericks still on the roster from 2011 had any experience in defending a championship, Odom did. Twice. He had experienced both successfully and unsuccessfully defending a championship and was supposed to be a source for the Mavericks to go to in order to know if they were on the right track throughout the season, all while utilizing his unique skill-set.

Instead, the Odom experiment went about as poorly as it could. Amongst the many things that took a negative turn this season, the failure of the Odom experiment was an absolute catastrophe.

Needless to say, the season didn’t exactly go how the Dallas Mavericks had hoped. A massive roster shake up is one thing, but dealing with it during a year in which a championship is to be defended slowly became unacceptable for most Mavs watchers. It’s easy to overreact now, but hold out judgment on the decision to jettison players from the championship team. Time and what the Mavericks’ front office does with the additional salary cap room will ultimately tell us if it was the right or wrong call. Still, winning is expected in Dallas now and things turned sour for the fans as it became more and more clear that 2012 wouldn’t end that way.

That was the case for Mavs’ coach Rick Carlisle as well.

“As great as the championship run was, there always comes a time when you have to look forward,” Carlisle said. “That’s where things are at now.”

Expectations are built when championships are won. Though it can be debated whether or not Carlisle, Nowitzki, and the rest were given a fair shake to mount their defense, a team must face the music upon failing to meet those newfound expectations. Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder made sure to promptly haul through Maverick expectations like I used to speed through the middle school parking lot next to my high school (before the speed bumps). As is the case when the Nowitzki-era Mavericks fall short in the postseason, there is now a ton of second guessing and additional questions that need answering.

Will Deron Williams sign with the Mavericks, as essentially promised by the Mavs when dismissing much of the 2011 roster? What is going to happen with Terry and Kidd? Will the amnesty be utilized? If it is, will it be used on Marion, Brendan Haywood, or another? Will Rick Carlisle be back? What is ‘Plan B’ and ‘Plan C’ if Williams opts for another NBA route?

There aren’t answers to any of those questions right now, but there soon will be as the playoffs end and the offseason progresses. One thing the Mavs won’t have to worry about, however, is repeating. That burden will fall on someone else, perhaps even on the same Thunder who kicked the Mavs so easily to the curb. Then it will be their turn to learn the lesson the Mavericks now know.

It’s not so easy living large the top.

Mavericks Falter In Cliché Must-Win Game

The Dallas Mavericks faced quite a few issues with the Oklahoma City Thunder during the first two games of their playoff series, both of which they lost.

Surprisingly, one of those issues was not Kevin Durant. Durant still scored 25.5 points per game, but all of that came on 34% shooting. Superstar caliber players like Durant will always get their points, but it’s just a matter of making them work for it and Shawn Marion was making him do just that.

For the Mavericks, the frightening part about Durant’s sluggish start was that the Thunder were still able to win both games in Oklahoma City.

With an already tough task in front of them, the Mavs were hoping to keep Durant in his mini-slump just to make their series deficit surmountable.

Fat chance.

Not that the Thunder are unbeatable when Durant plays up to his normally high standards, but his 15 quick points in the first quarter shocked the Mavs who found themselves back on their heels in the blink of an eye. Going into the series, the Mavericks actually expected these vintage Durant performances while hoping to keep talented, but easily frustrated point guard Russell Westbrook’s scoring down. Their plan could not have been more opposite as Westbrook was the one with the hot hand coming into Thursday night averaging 28.0 points per game with a sterling 50% shooting percentage.

If both Durant and Westbrook are performing at a high rate, their opponent faces quite a climb no matter who they are.

Despite being down 0-2 and not technically facing an actual elimination game Thursday night, all teams down two games to none in the playoffs essentially face an elimination game considering a team has never come back from that 0-3 hole in the history of the NBA playoffs. That’s a feat that the Mavericks came into tonight having no interest in trying to overcome.

Unluckily for the Mavericks, the Thunder didn’t care.

After Kevin Durant (31 points, 11-of-15 shooting) quickly jumped back into his elite form, Westbrook (20 points, 8-of-19 shooting) followed suit with his highly effective mid-range game and the Mavs had no answer in the crushing 95-79 loss.

They had no answer from Dirk Nowitzki, no answer from Jason Terry, and no answer from anyone else.

The 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder are simply a better team than the 2012 Dallas Mavericks, meaning the Mavs would have to play nearly error free to have a chance of winning the series. Games 1 and 2 followed that pattern even though the Mavericks fell just short, but Game 3 was a pure comedy of errors.

Whether it was the combined 34% shooting, the porous defense of their three-point line, or the inability to force the Thunder to commit any more than six turnovers, the Mavs had plenty of problems tonight that they could point to for their demise. While all of that is true and had a hand in the Mavs falling into an 0-3 hole, the main reason is because the Thunder are simply the more talented team. The series between these rivals last year aren’t even comparable due to the roster turnover and the improvements Oklahoma City’s young stars have made.

There is obviously still the chance of a miracle from the Mavs, who now have the unenviable task of have to win four straight games against the Western Conference’s two-seed in order to take the series. Considering the Mavericks are now an amazing 1-8 against the Thunder this season counting the preseason, it may not be a good bet to make.

Mavs On The Brink Against A Better Team

Queue up Al Pacino’s locker room speech from Any Given Day because this Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder playoff matchup has fully proven the ‘Game of Inches’ theory. The inches went Kevin Durant’s way in Game 1 and didn’t for Dirk Nowitzki in Game 2.

And now the Thunder are up two games to none with full control.

By using the crazy concept of mathematics, this series appears close on many levels. Only separated by four points over two games, the pace and scoring has been nearly identical so far with the Thunder scoring 99 and 102 points and the Mavericks with 98 and 99 points, respectively.

Despite a run last night where the Thunder led by double digits for a short period of time, the first couple of games have been stocked full of ties, lead changes, and play closer than the distance between Dirk Nowitzki’s elbow and Russell Westbrook’s face. That’s what tends to happen in a rivalry of teams who know each other so well and let there be no doubt, this Oklahoma-Texas duo has quickly become a rivalry.

Shocking, I know.

Still, despite the numbers, how close actually are these two teams? There is a reason the Thunder are the two-seed and the Mavericks are the seven: The Oklahoma City Thunder are better than Dallas this year. They’re better than most anyone. The Mavs aren’t underdogs like in so many (all?) of their series in last year’s playoffs, they’re the actual inferior team this time around. There’s nothing wrong with that as upsets happen all the time, but it means their margin for error is extremely slim and they’ll have to work harder for everything they get.

Specifically, the dispersion of scoring causes stress for one team and is a non-issue for the other. On Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant can shoot 5-17 in Game 1 and Russell Westbrook or James Harden can be consistently counted on to contribute in a scoring role. When scoring can be so easily relied upon by a few, good things begin to happen for that team. Guys like Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and, my God, Derek Fisher can get on scoring rolls that makes the opponent feel like their collective sky is falling.

Everything seems to come so easier for the better team who has things rolling. We saw it last year in Dallas.

Right now on the Mavericks, a 5-17 shooting night for Dirk Nowitzki would almost certainly bury Dallas on that night. Jason Terry has proven he can be that additional scorer, but with defenses rolling to him late in the game, it’s Nowitzki or bust so far.

So far, by a few inches, that hasn’t been enough.

Still, we’re not done here. Thanks to Rick Carlisle’s adjustments and overall mastery of anything Thunder coach Scott Brooks is capable of, the Mavericks are a tough matchup for the Thunder who can’t seem to gain consistent separation from their seven-seed counterparts. They’re beating the Mavericks, but Rick Carlisle, along with Nowitzki, deserves massive praise for not allowing this to get out of hand.

It’s not quite smoke and mirrors, but Carlisle certainly isn’t working with the same group he has in 2011. He and the Mavs have had very little margin for error, but coming home for two game on Thursday and Saturday will crack that window open a bit more.

They’ll need it, too. Counting the preseason, playoffs, and regular season, the Mavericks are just 1-7 against the Thunder this year. Considering that, it will be quite a tall order to take four of five games from Oklahoma City over the next few days to win the series. It may feel like the Mavericks barely lost the first two games, but they need to make some drastic adjustments to turn their fortunes around. They can start with a return to their ball movement oriented offense and someone stepping into a consistent scoring role next to Terry and Nowitzki in order to pull off the relative miracle.

And perhaps a center can show up for Dallas, as well.

It starts on Thursday in Dallas where the Mavericks face their first must-win game of the season. The inches, among other things, need to start falling in the favor of the Mavs.