Being a Dallas Mavericks fan has certainly been an experience. There’s a way to do things, in the NBA, and then there’s the way the Mavericks do them.
Just as a for instance, there is zero question, I think, that the three pre-eminent basketball teams of the 00s were the Lakers, the Spurs, and the Mavericks. Each was great, nearly every year (except for the Lakers between Shaq and Pau). Each was a high playoff seed each year and made a number of deep runs.
Yet, as we all know, the Spurs and the Lakers each won 4 championships in that decade. The Mavericks won…well, zero.
And then, of course, when they're supposed to be dead and buried they pulled off one of the most inspiring, insane, wonderful title runs in NBA history, sweeping the Lakers, kicking the supposed-to-be-there-already Thunder out 4-1, beating the Superteam that had three stars to their one, an age differential of roughly a thousand, and the best defense in the league.
And now, they’re submitting one of the weirder title defense seasons in history.
You know, looking back, the Lakers, the Spurs, and the Mavs had so much in common. Each had one (or sometimes two) of the top 5 players in the league. They had great coaches: Although Nellie never had quite the status of Pop or Phil, nevertheless he won more games than both. Although Avery was secretly terrible, he did start out his career with the best winning percentage by a rookie coach in history. They played nearly the same, they had great years, veteran consistency, guys who knew their role.
The difference is that the Mavs, alone of those three, couldn’t catch a break for a decade. They couldn't even get better. While the Spurs found guys like George Hill, when it mattered, or reached into their magic box and pulled out Steve Kerr, the Mavs traded for guys like Antoine Walker, my least favorite player of all time, and drafted, well, nobdy.
The craziest part about this is that the Mavs playoff record actually more or LESS stacks up to anybody. They were one Dirk knee injury from very probably making the Finals in 2003, they made it in 2006 and had it literally stolen from them, and they won it in 2011. Regardless of rings, that's three Western Conference Finals appearances, two Finals appearances, one ring that should have been two in 8 years.
But in the world of the NBA, the Spurs and the Lakers are the Lady and the Mavs are the tramp. Mostly, that was bad luck and weird officiating. That's the Mavericks for you.
As time went on, it looked worse. While the Lakers made sweetheart trades to get Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, and a draft pick that became Andrew Bynum and the Celtics surged to relevance by nabbing Ray Allen and KG in the same offseason, the Mavs—well, the Mavs stayed the same. Just as good, maybe. But no better.
Then, suddenly, they did get better. A lot better They got Tyson Chandler for Erick Dampier. DeShawn Stevenson, who they’d had for a year, suddenly started hitting three-pointers again and moved from the back of the bench to the starting lineup. JJ Barea, known mostly as a change-of-pace guard of at best marginal effectiveness, became not only a playoff hero but a capable backup point guard.
Shawn Marion, who’d had a bit of trouble fitting in at first, had a renaissance. And Dirk, always an efficient player, did something I’ve never seen anyone do in my years as a basketball fan. He shot 50% from all over the court. He turned into a robot, a computer. He knew exactly what shot he wanted to take, every time, he knew how to get it, and he hit it.
When they finally did it, it was in a way so amazing it could stop your heart. They swept the Lakers. They sent the Thunder packing. Then they beat the world’s first superteam—the exact team that had legit stolen what should have been their first title, but much, much better this time.
There was no reason for it, other than the fact that the Universe must have known we were owed. And I’ll tell you, no team that won the title in the last 12 years had to beat better teams to do it.
Just to take a random year, the 2007 Spurs had to beat the Denver Nuggets, who started Carmelo, a 400 year old Allen Iverson, Nene AND Camby, and Steve Blake—and whose key reserves were Linas Kleiza and Eddy Najera. They then moved on to the Phoenix Suns, always a fine team, and probably should have lost except for those suspensions and other weirdnesses that you recall, meaning that a crucial game 5 was played against Nash, Marion, Raja Bell, Kurt Thomas and Leandro Barbosa.
They then, somehow, had to beat a Utah Jazz team starting Deron Williams, Derek fisher, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko, and finish it off against the Cleveland Cavaliers who, in those days, were LIKE the 2010-2011 Miami Heat, except without Wade or Bosh.
The Kobe-Bynum-Gasol-Odom-Artest Lakers never had to play themselves. The currently 12-3 Thunder haven’t changed any parts from last year’s team. In fact, they’ve lost something: about 100 pounds of Kendrick Perkins. Nobody else has beaten the super-Miami-Heat in a playoff series, and we'll see if anybody will.
In short, they did it, finally, with style, panache, closed the circle, and brought more joy to the lives of Mavericks fans than I can ever imagine feeling for any other team in any other circumstances whatsoever. They finally did what everyone like them had done.
Then what happens?
Well, if you’re the Lakers, you get to try the exact same thing again. Maybe switch out Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest. Maybe keep Bynum healthy all year. If you’re the Spurs, you get to try the same thing but this time with George Hill or Dejuan Blair or Antonio McDyess.
Because you’re not the Lakers, you’re the Mavs, instead you get a crippling work stoppage, followed by a preposterously short offseason, followed by an unbelievable number of games in an impossibly short span. Perhaps the most striking thing about the Masv being 9-7 is just that only the Lakers and Bulls have also played 16 games. The Clippers are somehow 8-4. Memphis is 7-6. Cleveland is 6-7, Milwaukee 9-4. You get it.
You also ship out two playoff heroes, two starters (counting DeShawn who, yes, started most playoff games until the Mavs started Barea in Game 4 of the Finals), and changed your bench basically entirely with the exception of Marion and Terry.
As a consequence of all this, instead of watching your best player and your favorite team take on all comers, like everybody else gets to do, here’s what you get:
Your superstar limping around like he’s George Mikan. And not George Mikan when he played, but now. The amazing thing is, this is actually how Dirk should always have played and why so many teams have been burned by picking Dirk look alikes. Over his last 7, he’s actually shooting 48% and averaging 16 points. That’s exactly what a superlative shooter who can’t move very much SHOULD be doing, and don’t underrate this because this is a revelation to me.
The difference between what Dirk should be and what he is that Dirk doesn’t just shoot well. He hits all open shots. He hits most shots when single-covered. He doesn’t shoot well, he shoots insanely well. 16 points on 48% shooting? That’s shooting well.
It looks horrible. That’s what you get.
You get injuries. Dirk’s, sure, whatever it is. And whatever he says, remember that “a knee that won’t bend” isn’t actually a normal medical ailment. That’s not just a thing you get sometimes. “Oh, sorry, would you mind picking that up for me? I’ve got a knee that won’t bend today, ha ha.”
“Oh yeah, I had that last week. That’s a perfectly normal thing that people get a lot of the time. Sometimes your knee just can’t bend.”
You get VC, who is out indefinitely, after popping something shooting a three-pointer. You get Jason Kidd, who went out for four games with a back injury and then came back looking like Father Time had taken the week off to do nothing else but vigorously molest Kidd’s jumper, and late game decision making.
You get weird rotations, Lamar Odom playing slowly better but still having no idea where to be when, Delonte West shooting 80% and getting 15 minutes of playing time, Beaubois taking one bad shot and then being benched for several years, and etc.
You get Jason Terry alternating 50%+ shooting games (Sacramento, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Phoenix, OKC, Toronto, Miami) with sub-40% games (Jazz, Clippers, Lakers, San Antonio, Minnesota, the other OKC game, Denver) with shocking regularity.
You get a 9-7 record, which could have been a lot better (12-4 minus three last second three-pointers! 9-4 even if you just ignore the first three games!) or a lot worse (they got to play basketball teams so bad the Washington Generals are snickering about it!), and get to be, with nearly a quarter of the season behind you, one bad road trip for descending into panic again and one good home stand from feeling like things are going to be fine after all.
You don’t know where your next point is coming from ever, or what anyone should do. You get a team that looks like it can’t score, and usually still does, a defense that looks like it can’t be good and still is, you rarely get to enjoy the games and still mostly get to win (8 of the last 11!) and lose on last-second three-pointers but ONLY last second three-pointers for the last 8 games.
You get the crew of TNT, whom ordinarily I love, have a conversation about the best power forwards in the league MINUTES after the Mavs polished off the Jazz and, again, in your title defense season, without once mentioning Dirk Nowitzki. They even had a conversation about which PF draws the most double teams and settled on Blake Griffin.
You get people ignoring the Mavericks just as much as they did last season, despite the fact that what ails them—Dirk’s play, rotations, consistency—are presumably curable phenomena and their presumed weakness (defense) has turned out to be a strength. And the fact that after an 0-3 start, they’ve actually been fine.
So here it is. Regardless of what TNT or anyone thinks, regardless of how this kind of thing is supposed to look, the Mavs ARE defending their title. In their own, unique way as always. If they can just get Dirk right, there’s zero reason to think this isn’t a great team, given what they’ve been able to do without.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Mavs have some winnable games over the next couple. New Orleans Saturday and Phoenix Monday should not be too bad. They should be more than willing to revenge themselves on the Timberwolves, Wednesday. They get to play Utah at HOME on the 29th, which is a game almost certain to have at least one fight, then the Spurs again, then Phoenix, then OKC. Then, before they enter a really tough stretch, they get to play Indiana and Cleveland.
That’s, to my thinking, when it really starts. Denver, Minnesota, Portland, Clippers, Denver, 76ers, Knicks, Celtics, Lakers. That’s when we’ll see what these guys can really do.
I suppose they wouldn’t have it any other way. Or they wouldn’t get to, even if they would.