While there have been many surprises in the NBA thus far this season, few are bigger than the Mavericks’ impressive 20-5 start to the year, which has them on the cusp of the best record in basketball.
In years past, a hot streak for Dallas could be disregarded, as the team had a reputation for flakiness during the middle of the decade. As evidenced by Dallas’ 106-91 win over Phoenix, however, this Mavs team has more substance, which ultimately bodes well for a potential deep playoff run.
For starters, this current incarnation of the Mavericks is more sophisticated than Dallas’ mid-decade squads. This is a result of a roster that is both older and more disciplined than what Dallas put together in the middle of the decade.
Instead of Devin Harris’ impulsive drives, defensive mistakes, and inability to run an offense, Jason Kidd‘s and Dallas’ pulse are matched beat-by-beat. He’s a master at putting passes in places his teammates can attack with, registering eight assists in the game at hand, against two turnovers.
His brilliance was perfectly demonstrated at the end of the fourth quarter. Seeing four Phoenix defenders stretched out along the free throw line extended, he slipped a perfectly placed bounce pass just past the outstretched Jason Richardson to a cutting Marion, who caught the pass in stride and completed a layup, count it, and the foul.
If Kidd’s quickness has eroded, he’s still an excellent post player, backing down Goran Dragic twice for a pair of baskets. And though Kidd didn’t shoot particularly well against the Suns, he’s evolved into an accurate three-point shooter who punishes opponents for doubling elsewhere.
Most importantly, because of Kidd’s terrific awareness, his presence and ability to deliver the basketball foster more movement in Dallas’ offense, particularly on secondary fast breaks. In this sense, Kidd has raised the collective IQ of the team exponentially. It took several seasons of excruciating postseason losses (and several other acquisitions) for Kidd to provide a payoff, but last year, and especially this year, we’re seeing Kidd’s full effect on the Mavs.
Also gone is Josh Howard, replaced by Caron Butler. Whereas each is an iso-oriented baseline player, Butler is stronger and more creative around the basket, plus can post up and shoot with range. Defensively, while Howard showed promise as a youngster, all he eventually wanted to do was gamble for steals and blocks. Butler is a smarter individual defender, who spent the majority of the Suns game executing textbook closeouts on perimeter shooters, a huge reason for Phoenix’ sub-40% shooting game.
Finally, while Erick Dampier was sturdy around the hoop as an offensive rebounder and paint protector, Tyson Chandler gives the Mavs defense a lot more range. Back in 2007-2008 with the Hornets, Chandler had evolved into one of the three most complete defensive big men in the game (along with Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett), with the strength and length to neutralize post up threats, the smarts to provide effective weak-side defense, and the athleticism to defend screens while recovering to his own man and perimeter players if his teammates had to switch. Injuries ruined his 2008-2009, while poor play and foul trouble left him as just another guy with the Bobcats last season.
This year however, Chandler is back to his vintage self. His help-side defense resulted in three blocks, and his range as a rebounder allowed him to collect 12 rebounds. Dallas’ gameplan didn’t result in Chandler hedging Phoenix’ screens, but he was able to zone screen/rolls effectively, and when asked to switch onto Goran Dragic, he wasn’t compromised or blown off the dribble.
These upgrades all improve Dallas’ defense, as all three players are improvements as individual defenders, and as veterans, allow the Mavs to play a smart, rangy 2-3/matchup zone that amphibiously can change to man under specific circumstances.
Free from the self-absorbed, loser culture in Washington, DeShawn Stevenson is playing rejuvenated basketball. His jump shot has returned—4-6 FG, 1-2 3FG—and he’s back to playing the aggressive, quick-footed defense that made him a valuable commodity in Washington.
Likewise, Shawn Marion has rediscovered the fountain of youth. He excels with Kidd in transition, and in early offense situations loves to flash to the middle of the paint and drop short floaters before defenses set. He also spaces the floor as a four-man, dropping a pair of baseline jumpers off drive-and-kicks.
Brendan Haywood is a poor screen defender, but he earned his paycheck with five offensive rebounds, and 10 boards total, in 21 minutes of work.
J.J. Barea missed a pair of layups, both his threes, and is too short to offer much resistance along the perimeter, but he can scoot with the best of them, and fits nicely with the up-tempo nature of Dallas’ second unit.
These improved cast of characters make things easier for Dallas’ incumbents. Jason Terry can still shoot-em-up, is a terrific screen/roll player, and made good decisions with the basketball 8-16 FG, 2-3 3FG, 18 PTS.
Dirk Nowitzki dropped 18 points with his usual array of lurching leaners, impossibly-arced fadeaways, and a pair of threes. If Dirk isn’t a good rebounder and isn’t particularly fluid on defense, he didn’t take plays off on defense, and hustled out on perimeter closeouts.
To sum up, the Mavericks have the defensive stability, the offensive firepower, and the collective intelligence to make themselves a legitimate contender for the Western Conference crown. Whether or not that means the Mavs will actually beat the Lakers or Spurs in a playoff series remains to be seen, but at least Dallas shouldn’t produce pathetic postseason performances as they did against the 2006 Heat, the 2007 Warriors, the 2008 Hornets, or the 2009 Nuggets.