Biggest early season surprise for Dallas: The Good, the Bad, and the O.J

Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE

12 games in, coach Rick Carlisle is starting to get a feel for how his players are performing. So are we, the fans, for that matter. Here's a look at three surprise early-season starts.

SB Nation is having another league-wide "theme post" day, after several successful previous entries over the summer, which you may have seen. Today's theme is "Biggest Surprise", and we encourage you to check out the excellent work around the SB Nation community, and, of course, give us your own assessment of what's going on.

Dallas plays lucky(?) game #13 tonight, hoping to prevent the needle from dropping below the .500 mark, where Dallas stands now at 6-6. Surprising, for a team with a 12 season playoff streak going? Not really, given the absence of superstar and face of the franchise, Dirk Nowitzki, as well as some bumps and bruises for a few other members of the team. I think most of us were just hoping for Dallas to keep their collective head above water until Dirk gets back, which they've managed to do so far. Unquestionably, the final analysis for the Mavs includes Dirk, and without him such analysis would be incomplete.

The Mavericks put many new faces on the floor this season. Though the team(and most teams) would undergo small changes every season, I would imagine I'm not alone in thinking that this felt different. This is such a different team than what we're used to, not only in who they are but how they're operating. Since, in truth, I don't think I had a great handle on exactly what the Dallas Mavericks would be in the early going, I could probably find five or ten players to tap as "early season surprises", but in the interest of brevity, I've selected three:

The Good: Bernard James

"Sarge" landed on the map for many Dallas fans on draft night, when he was selected(and was present) to a standing ovation, as appreciative basketball lovers stood and cheered for the Air Force vet. There were more than a few who probably thought that this would be the highlight of Bernard's new career. Few pundits or "experts" thought James was worthy of the 33rd pick in the draft, many thought he would spend most of the year in the D League, and some even called it a mere publicity stunt pulled by noted attention-lover Mark Cuban.

Well, the publicity stunt is still in the NBA, and starting to carve out a legitimately important role in the Dallas rotation. James, somewhat undersized for a center, has been a major relief off the bench for a team that has struggled to control the glass. Bernard's activity and effort has led to effusive praise from Rick Carlisle, who has called James "one of the hardest workers I've ever met", and it has manifested on the court in the form of a team-leading 17.8 rebound rate. James also has 8 blocks in his last 3 games, despite playing just 16, 16 and 18 minutes.

Perhaps most incredible of all, James is playing well enough that some of us are at least entertaining the idea of him leading Dallas' trio of rookies in minutes, which seemed ridiculous after the way Jae Crowder took over in the preseason. Crowder seems somewhat blocked, with the return of Shawn Marion and Rick Carlisle's continuing love affair with Vince Carter, and it can be difficult to unseat a productive veteran on a Carlisle-run team, which serves as a solid segue to the next surprise.

The Bad: Elton Brand

Boy does it hurt me to write this, but Elton Brand has, to this point, been a bust. Now, he's hardly in Lamar Odom territory as a disappointment, since he's actually here, and he actually wants to be here, but we are starting to see the coaching staff's dissatisfaction with Brand illustrated as Brand has played just 25 minutes in the last two games. He still starts, however, so it is conceivable that his playing time will trend upward again at some point, but as Bernard James and the suddenly hot Troy Murphy keep up their level of play, Brand will have competition. And, keep in mind, at some point, Dallas is adding a Hall of Famer to this mix, who plays Brand's position.

What's gone wrong for Brand? Well, the most glaring problems start on offense, where a career 50% shooter is at 35.6% so far. The culprit is two-pronged. Brand is having a tough time converting at the rim, shooting just 52% in the immediate basket area(this is dreadful for a frontcourt player), after having shot 74% there last year and 66% the year before. Brand has also been, and this is the major shocker for me, completely ineffective from midrange, shooting a pathetic 16% on the season from 10-15 feet. He is also attempting fewer of these shots than he has in a long time, which I assume is because he's bricked so many he has tried to find looks elsewhere. For those that don't know, the midrange game used to be his bread and butter. The last three years he took more shots here than the other zones on the court, and was among the league's most efficient there.

So, he's not making shots, but it is also early days yet. I am not ready to accept that Brand has suddenly lost all athletic ability, since he wasn't the most explosive guy anymore anyway, and because his other athletic markers all seem fairly stable. His rate of rebounds, blocks and steals are all in line with his last few seasons, if not better. So, one would think, the shooting inside can improve. As for the midrange game, I don't see how he could keep up such porous shooting for a whole season. He is, afterall, shooting well on his long 2's, hitting 43% from 16-23 feet(exactly the same mark he converted last year). Hopefully, Elton can sort his issues out. Maybe he needs to work on his shooting with the next guy on the surprise list.

The O.J: "Juice" Mayo

The signing of O.J Mayo came with mixed reaction. Some were excited, some unmoved, some curiously became hungry. What we have heard is that Mayo wanted to come to Dallas, to play for Rick Carlisle and with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki. What we also heard is that Mayo was one of the first to report for summer workouts and has put in an impressive amount of time in practice. If the early season returns are any indication, I'll buy that story. O.J Mayo is absolutely blisteringly hot right now, shooting an otherworldly 58% from three and not shy about letting it fly, either.

I recall reading one story that said Mayo's typical offseason workout in the past would consist of him trying to identify weaknesses in his game, and do drills to improve those, thus theoretically making him more well-rounded. This offseason, however, coach Rick Carlisle apparently asked him to instead work on his shot, already a strength, and make it an even greater weapon. I'm sure it wasn't as simple as I'm making it out, but this was exactly the right call. Mayo has one premiere skill, and that is his outside shot. Long billed as "the next LeBron", or "the next Kobe", it became clear early on in his career that his ultimate ceiling would be more in line with a player like Reggie Miller or Ray Allen. So far this year O.J is doing a pretty good Reggie Miller impression. I'm sure most of us are waiting with baited breath to see what he can do alongside Dirk Nowitzki(Dirk, included).

The question now is...can he keep it up? I will gladly give him credit for what was clearly a lot of hard work in the offseason, but in all honesty I still have my doubts. These are the true shooting percentages for O.J Mayo his first four years in the NBA: 54%, 55%, 50%, 51%. Right now his TS% is 65. That is a huge, unprecedented leap. I can't think of another player in recent memory who improved so substantially after four years in the NBA. Certainly not one who played and shot as much as O.J has. To put it bluntly, it screams fluke. Now, while I do assume regression, I will also consider the genuine improvements Mayo has made, both in harnessing his outside shot, and also in playing more unselfishly and within the confines of team basketball. So, it is conceivable that the player Mayo rounds out to be will still be plenty good, and much better than the guy I thought Dallas was getting back in July.

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