Let's get this out right away: The Mavs are much better than just about anyone is giving them credit for. While they aren't a lock to win the Southwest Division, let alone the Western Conference, make no mistake about it--they are an elite team. And the reason that people can't see it is due entirely to what I call the "great smokescreen of 2007-2008."
First things first, if you look past the smokescreen of last season you must accept the fact that this team is returning 6 out of its top 7 players from the 67 win team from two seasons ago. This alone should make you think twice about dismissing the Mavericks. And two of the major changes--Rick Carlisle for Avery Johnson and Jason Kidd for Devin Harris--can't be considered out-and-out downgrades.
But let's look to the more recent past--last season. One of the most interesting things I took away from the season personally was the disparity between my view of the team and Mike Fisher's over at DallasBasketball.com. I tend to look at pure performance, while Mike has a more holistic view. In short, I saw a team that--all the rumors aside--was performing at a high level, and Mike saw a team that was falling part. So the question for me was how did I get it wrong?
The answer, I think, speaks volumes about the potential for the Mavericks this season. When you obvjectively look at last season, a lot of the things that you were hoping to see coming into the year actually happened: Assists were up, Dirk's offensive game became a bit more unpredictable, Dirk was rested more, and some of the younger players got more burn. At the same time, the Mavs continued to stick around in the top ten in team defense and offense. With the improvement in teams in the western conference, I even expected the team to have a much tougher time in chalking up wins.
So things looked pretty good on paper, but what happened? Avery Johnson happened, and as Fish and countless others will tell you--all those objective good-looking Hollingeresque number-crunching performance-based assessments of a team doing pretty well were wide of the mark. In no uncertain terms, the Mavs underperformed.
I should have realized this in mid-season. In my mid-season review last year, I wrote: "The ... thing to take from this is that there is a reason for what we're seeing: A drop in overall defensive aggressiveness." For a coach that lives and breathes defense, and a team that showed an ability to perform at quite a high level, a lack of aggressiveness illustrated one thing: The team was tuning out their coach.
In short, while the Mavs generally played a high level, the lost too many games they should have won and generally had a lack of passion throughout the season. ESPN's John Hollinger picks up on this theme in his preview of the Mavericks for this season: "Dallas ... had the point differential of a 56-win team a year ago." Hollinger's point? The Mavericks were better than their record indicated.
What this all means is what Fisher picked up last year, and what I missed when it stared me in the face at mid-season: The team gave up on Avery Johnson. I should have noticed it when I was looking at a team slipping defensively when they should have been getting better. I should have noticed it from all the smoke that Fisher picked up on. But I was blinded by the teams generally good, if not great, performances.
And this leads me directly to my optimism for this year, and why I think the Mavs are being significantly underestimated by practically everyone: The Mavs underperformed last year, but still did well enough, as Hollinger says, to be a 56 win team. If Rick Carlisle can do two things: Keep the offense at close to the level it was last year and improve the team defense, the Mavs will be in the thick of the hunt. If he can do what Avery was unable to do along with those two things--vary the Mavs offense so that it is not only very strong but also difficult to shut down in a seven game series--then there is every reason to think that the Mavs can go far in the playoffs.
Of course the devil is in the details, but the early indications are good. The Mavs defense during the preseason has been tenacious and strong, and the offense has been everything that we were led to believe by Carlisle--free-flowing and full of creative play. The scary thing for the rest of the league is that this is a team that can improve quickly. After all, the core of the team are players that are used to playing together, and the point guard is one of the best playmaking point guards of all time.
So, to my mind, we are looking at a team that is easily between the 67 win team of two seasons ago and the 51 win team of last season. I'm giving the rest of the western conference credit for getting better (even though teams like the Phoenix Suns have gotten worse), so I feel I'm being entirely realistic to peg the Mavs as a 55-57 win team this year.
Which, going back to my original assessment, puts the Mavs as an elite team in the thick of the hunt.