There's something that's missing from the Mavericks these days. Rolando Blackmon, you guess? Well yes, I guess he's nowhere to be found on the roster. Not the answer I'm looking for, though. No, it's something much more widespread.
Let's flashback to the 2011 NBA playoffs. Some Maverick fans probably do it on a daily basis - I know it pops up in my head pretty frequently. "Hey, remember that time where Dirk spun in a left-handed layup to win a game?" I'll say to a friend, interrupting whatever irrelevant thing he was saying at the moment. Even better is when I try to reenact the legendary moment...in a pick-up game, with poor results, to the dismay of my teammates. But I digress.
Exclude Dirk, exclude Marion. They're still on the 2012 team, so while they're important, we'll get to them in a little while.
First and foremost, the mastermind Jason Kidd is orchestrating on the floor. Though his explosiveness is comparable to a turtle and it's been months since his feet have left the ground, his brain has not deserted the man known as one of the greatest passers to ever play the game. His propensity to throw the perfect pass to a player the moment he's ready for it embodies what the Maverick offense was about that year - the right shot taken by the right player. An image of him, swinging a pass right into the hands of a teammate comes easily to mind.
In this case, that imagined pass' recipient is Jason Terry, curling off a down screen to pull up for that 18-foot jumper he loves. What's not to love - Terry ‘s a great mid-range jumper, never rattled and cold-blooded. He did this from the very beginning, starting with his 17 points a game against Portland in the first round. Though there was that quick fling with the three point line while playing Los Angeles (blame the Hollywood hoes) where he hit nine in one game, we all know what his true love is.
Perhaps the person who seduced him into this passionate but short-lived relationship was the Hollywood-loving Peja Stojakovic. From the day Peja was born, he's been a three point shooter. His trashcans are strategically placed 25 feet away from the chairs around his house, so that even off the court his trashketball game bombards from deep (unless you have proof otherwise, I honestly believe this). Against those Lakers, he was smoldering with an absolute barrage of triples, showing was he's one of greatest three point shooters ever.
Another player, 2012 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, can probably make the case that he deserved the award more in 2011. The defensive presence he created on that "soft", "slow" and "unathletic" Dallas Mavericks team was nothing short of phenomenal. He's one of the great defensive players of the league, and his role as the lynchpin to the Mavericks championship runs is still one of the great stories in the past decade.
Notice the trend? Maybe I'll point out the word I keep using: great. It's not a lack of a thesaurus; it's the thing that ties all these players together during this playoff trip. An unconvinced reader should remember the great job J.J. Barea did penetrating the ball seemingly every time he touched it. That doesn't do it? Remember the great defense of DeShawn Stevenson, that for some reason shined in this post-season.
Now we reintroduce Marion, one of the greatest defenders in the league, and Dirk, simply the greatest. See how they fit in perfectly?
Greatness sticks in other areas, fades in others. Dirk Nowitzki and Peja Stojakovic will never be called fleet-footed defenders. Tyson Chandler or Shawn Marion lining up elbow jumpers sounds like the making of an America's Funniest Home Videos. Jason Kidd can't drive and JET can't resist the urge to shoot a lot. These players have all been faulted for holes in their games for years - that's why none of them have won in the playoffs, or so wrote the media.
So now, in 2012, the Mavericks can't be faulted for having one-dimensional players. Brandan Wright, Darren Collison, Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, and Jae Crowder are all new additions who pride themselves in playing on both ends of the court, and it's true - the Mavericks may not be top 5, but they should certainly be above league average on both sides of the ball.
There's not really anyone who takes a talent one level further to great, though. There's no dead-eye shooter off the bench, no incredible passer with a sixth sense for where the ball needs to be, and no lock-down defender who can check Kobe and LeBron without breaking a sweat (ok, so no one can do that, but you get what I mean).
Just Dirk and Marion remain as the "great" players of this team. Brand probably gets a nod for his defense, or maybe Carter's three point shot if he weren't so damn inconsistent. But since 2010, the Mavericks have clearly been trending away from specificity in their players. It's hard to fault a team for going with versatile players, but the Mavericks hardly had anybody who was versatile in 2010, and it worked for them then.
Dallas assembled a good roster this year, but there just isn't enough greatness to feel like there's even a chance at another miracle run. This feels like a team playing with Josh Howard and Jerry Stackhouse, Erick Dampier and Devin Harris, Brandon Bass and Caron Butler. All good players (and I still have lots of love for the Maverick days of the last pair), but nobody great.
I think what happened in 2011 is understood by the Mavericks. Regardless of how you feel about their methods, they tried for great players in Deron and others, and they'll continue to try for great players in off-seasons to come. Maybe they're headed in the right direction, too - it's just three games, but Darren Collison's good point guard skills just seem itching to be called "great", and Jae Crowder good all-around game has nowhere to go but up.
The Mavericks have to be able to call themselves great again before championship becomes a realistic word. When will that time come?
That's a great question.