Editor's Note: Front-paged even though I have differing opinions on some things :)
“That was our dress rehearsal” – Jason Kidd
Come on now, 6 picks and no one’s taken the defending champs?
“Never underestimate the heart of a champion” – Rudy Tomjanovich
-- Me, a month ago
It has now been just over a week since the 2011 NBA Champions were swept unceremoniously out of the first round.
All year, I had been in denial, thinking that when the playoffs came around the veteran Mavericks would ‘flip the switch’ and start playing championship-calibre ball again. How laughable that seems in retrospect, as the Thunder absolutely overwhelmed this squad of old-timers with their athleticism, skill, and most tellingly, their hunger.
I could sit here and talk about chemistry, mental toughness, fight, and all of those intangible qualities that the Mavs lacked this year. They sucked on the road (13-20), they sucked in close games (4-26 when trailing after three quarters and 10-13 in games decided by five points or less), they got off to sluggish starts, and once they fell into a hole they lacked the fight to come back and win (6-22 after trailing in first quarter, including playoffs).
Last year the team was unflappable; they’d gone through so much collective disappointment that nothing phased them. In round one they shrugged off the disastrous Game 4 in Portland where they surrendered a 24 point lead (the biggest collapse in playoff history, at the time). In round two they walked into the defending champs’ house in Game 1 and came back from a 16 point halftime deficit. In round 3 they pulled off a 15 point comeback in just 5 minutes against the same Thunder, with Dirk Nowitzki submitting one of the finest clutch performances in playoff history. And as if one fourth quarter comeback on the road wasn’t enough, they did it again on the biggest stage, coming back from 15 down with 7 minutes left in Game 2 of the NBA finals. Dirk reflected the personality of this team in that series, as injuries, illness, none of it mattered. Every series, they were counted out but their mental toughness kept them in it.
Where did that mental strength come from, and where was it this year? The Mavericks’ 2011 summer transactions tell a large part of the story. Tyson Chandler was the guy everyone credited with being their emotional and spiritual leader last year. This year he was replaced by a guy who came in out of shape and unmotivated last year because they brought in competition at his position.
Deshawn Stevenson is kind of a terrible player (and depending on your point of view, a terrible person). But the trio of him, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion are three of the most (somewhat irrationally) confident guys in the league, and they fed off each other’s energy, which crescendoed into one big wall of supreme confidence which protected the team from moments of self doubt. After the Heat absolutely smothered them defensively for the first 4 games, not allowing the Mavs to get any clean looks all series, and with Wade and Lebron looking overpowering and downright unstoppable at times, Jason Terry confidently stepped up to the podium and challenged Lebron to keep up his defense all series, and that he was sure he would get the upper hand eventually. Deshawn Stevenson claimed he was getting under Lebron’s skin and started calling him out for choking. Shawn Marion just straight up called him a bitch. They were replaced by one of the finest female basketball players of all time – Vince “Half man half woman” Carter.
Going on down the roster, JJ Barea was their game changer and spark plug off the bench (the Mavs’ third greatest asset last year after Dirk and their flummoxing zone defensive schemes). He was probably pound for pound the toughest guy on the team, a guy with limited talent who I witnessed improve every year from a guy who really shouldn’t have been on an NBA roster to a guy who swung several series with his penetration and fearlessness. He was replaced by a guy with measurables comparable to Rondo and Devin Harris but never showed the toughness or the basketball instincts to put it together on the court.
Peja Stojakovic was a fearless veteran who had seen it all, and if you kicked it out to him for an open look it would be money in the bank. He helped space the floor and this spacing was really what allowed Barea to penetrate at will and what gave Dirk room to operate. Indeed, Carlisle credited him with singlehandedly swinging the Lakers’ series (as well as providing valuable contributions against the Blazers). This year his roster space was taken by Yi Jian Lian, a guy who’s claim to fame is beating a chair in a workout.
Hell, even guys who didn’t actually suit up provided inspiration for the rest of the team, as Caron Butler’s relentless work in rehabbing his dislocated kneecap set the tone for the team during the playoffs. This year he was replaced by Lamar Odom, a guy who moped around so much that the team paid him to stay away from the team. It was that kind of year.
What was a steely veteran team became a washed up bunch of old guys. All year, I was completely calm while other Mavs fans flipped out because I was so sure that they would flip the switch come playoff time, as defending champs and veteran teams tend to do. This was not so. The Mavs’ sluggishness which I attributed to a championship hangover was no more than an indication that this was a collection of satisfied (Dirk, Kidd, Terry, Haywood), soft (Carter, Beaubois) and lazy (Odom) has-beens. The only guys who brought it all year were Marion (struggled offensively but his effort could not be questioned; he was a top 5 defender in the league this year, and kept the Mavs a top 10 defense), Delonte West (who was out for half the year with injuries) and Ian Mahinmi (who sucks).
I think a lot of these guys, because they had put that long elusive championship on a pedestal for so long, that they thought something would fundamentally change about how they were perceived around the league. But while Dirk had finally cemented his deserved reputation as a closer, the rest of team got little in the way of respect. There were telling comments throughout the season – Marion complained about a lack of respect from pundits who shrugged off the Mavs’ title as a bit of a fluke. Kidd made a completely bonkers comment about how the refs didn’t give them any “champion” whistles. But I think to them, the biggest slap in the face was that their own bosses didn’t believe they could repeat, as evidenced by their unwillingness to keep the team together.
Where last year’s team was hungry and determined, this year’s team was ambivalent at best. Their message to the front office seemed to be “You give up on us, well we’re gonna give up on you”. They responded to it in different ways – Terry threw tantrums, Kidd looked like a guy who was often playing with his mind elsewhere, and Dirk showed up to training camp completely out of shape. At the time we all excused him. He was 33 years old, with over 40,000 minutes on his knees, and to top it off he played for the German national team after playing deep into the playoffs. But looking back, could it have been a message to the front office? “If you’re going to throw this season away, so am I”
Say what you will about Kobe’s leadership (and I have), but every year he comes to camp in the absolute best shape he can be in. He’s a guy who has played similarly heavy minutes throughout his career, deep into the playoffs, and yet it doesn’t matter how banged up he is, he shows up in shape. In 2008 it didn’t matter that he’d played into the finals and then the Olympic gold medal round, he came back in 2009 in killer shape and won the first of back to back titles. Dirk was either too satisfied, or too pissed off at being denied the chance to repeat with the champion squad to bother with this.
Despite Cuban’s public protestations that they’re not throwing the season away, Terry and Nowitzki have publicly acknowledged that the players in the locker room believed that the front office had robbed them of their chance to repeat for the goal of cap space (followed always by that most meaningless of platitudes ‘it is what it is’).
The whole situation was just a terrible, toxic mix, which could not overcome the talent deficit that they already faced before any of this. The pieces, on paper, should have been enough, if they played as the crisp, steel-focused sharp executing team of yesteryear. But they were complacent and demotivated to an extent where they could not mask the individual talent deficit that they faced. And ultimately, this led to what we saw against OKC last week: a younger, more talented, and hungrier team, who would not be denied, and came back from behind to stick the final nail in the coffin of this era of Dallas Mavericks basketball.
So where does this leave us for next year? At the post game presser after Game 4 it was telling that when Dirk was asked what the team needed in the offseason he didn’t hesitate in answering: “Get me another superstar to share the load with”
As has been noted all year, the Mavs do find themselves with a tonne of cap space this offseaon.
They have $41,406,384 in guaranteed money next year between Dirk, Marion, Haywood, Beaubois and Dominique Jones. Carter will surely be waived, and Odom will as well, unless they can flip his insta-expiring for someone in the summer (like how they used the Dampier contract to land Tyson Chandler in 2011). They will likely keep wright as he’s dirt cheap at just 900k, as well as Azubuike, who was signed for the minimum this year with an eye on competing for a spot in next year’s team. This takes us to around $43,346,971 in salary next year. But the worst kept secret in the league is that Brendan Haywood will likely have the ‘Amnesty Clause’ applied and his gigantic contract will be wiped off the books, which takes us to down to $34,997,971 with 6 guys on the roster. The salary cap is expected to remain at around $58m, which gives the Mavs around $24 million in cap space to fill 7-8 roster spots.
The obvious name, which has been floated all year, is Dallas native Deron Williams. Several factors would appear to give Dallas an advantage in signing him, aside from the hometown ties. His agent is Jeff Schwartz, the famously Mavs-friendly agent who has done deals with the Mavs for Jason Kidd, Devin Harris, Tyson Chandler and Lamar Odom, among others. After what Odom put the Mavs through, Schwartz definitely owes them one. Further, Williams views Kidd as a mentor, and both have expressed a desire to play together next year. A Kidd-Williams package deal makes a lot of sense. The Nets can offer him Brooklyn and $28m more in the total deal (they can offer 5 years $109m, other teams can offer 4 years $81m). That is nothing to sneeze at, but if money was Williams’ biggest motivator he would simply opt in for the final year of his contract this year and sign an even bigger max deal next year. But Williams has expressed a desire to be part of a winning organisation. In light of this, the Mavs have a pretty massive advantage in that they can point to their 12 straight playoff appearances and their streak of 50+ win seasons. Mark Cuban has seen this franchise go through several ‘reloading’ phases, and through it all the Mavs haven’t missed a beat. After making the 2006 Finals they were back there in 5 years with a completely remade roster, with Dirk and Terry as the only holdovers. It’s also not like Deron isn’t in line for another big extension four years later at age 32.
However, while the addition of Deron seems like the obvious move to make, there would still then be some serious holes on the roster. Roster construction for a championship contender these days involves building a top-heavy roster of 3 stars, and filling the rest with minimum or near-minimum salary role players. The Mavericks though would only have 2 stars, and (if we assume they bring back Kidd as well on a minimum type deal as well) just $6 million to fill 7 roster spots. Meanwhile, the team’s biggest weakness last year (center) would still be left completely unaddressed, with just the 220lb beanpole Brandan Wright left as the only C on the roster.
PG: Deron Williams; Kidd/Jones
SG: Beaubois; Kidd
SF: Marion; Azubuike
That’s an awfully thin roster, and it’s difficult to see how it’s that much of a collective improvement over this year’s roster. There is a second star yes, and if done with enough skill the Mavs could land Deron Williams and still leave themselves with enough flexibility to try and land Dwight Howard next year as well. But then that’s 2 years of Dirk’s prime wasted for the sake of financial flexibility. The other top-heavy contenders all have3 star calibre players, which means that at any given point in the game they have at least 1 star on the court, usually 2 (and all 3 together during crunchtime). The Mavs would not have that type of firepower, while sacrificing their depth as well. They essentially lose two of their biggest strengths (experience and depth) just to get one star.
An alternative route would be to break up that 24 mill into smaller pieces – for example throw a 10m offer sheet at Roy Hibbert or Javale McGee, and then another 5-6m spent on guys like Nash or Dragic for the PG position. However, although that’s what those centers should be worth, they will likely be overpaid far above that. There will be an unprecedented number of teams under the cap this season, but precious few top of the line FA available. It shouldn’t be surprising to see some desperate team (Portland?) throw a 15-16 mill offer sheet at a guy like Hibbert or Eric Gordon.
The Mavs could try and trade Shawn Marion (8.6m next year then 9.3m the year after), which could potentially give the Mavs enough cap space to sign both Deron Williams AND a guy like Eric Gordon, dump Beaubois and Jones’ salaries, and fill the rest of the roster with minimum salary guys (around 900k; 1.2m for veterans).
With that, the roster might look a little something like:
PG: Deron Williams; Kidd
SG: Eric Gordon
With about 45 mill committed between the 6 of them. To that we could add someone like Marcus Camby who is 37 years old and would probably be happy to sign on with a contender on a 1 year minimum deal; a guy like Keith Bogans, Anthony Parker or Mickael Pietrus could be brought in on the minimum to play D and shoot 3’s; Anthony Tolliver would be cheap and can bang bodies, grab some boards and shoot the 3; Antawn Jamison is near the end of his career but he still has enough scoring ability to be able to contribute 15-18 minutes off the bench and provide some instant offense for a contender (and for relatively small money as well); and then to top it off, you could have Terry back on around a 5mill a year deal, being able to go over the cap due to his Bird exception. And that’s before we get to the Mavs’ first round draft pick, which should actually be high enough to land an actual contributor this year (names like Sullinger, Zeller and Melo have been floated about).
With those additions you could have a Mavs roster that looks similar to this:
PG Deron Williams; Kidd
SG: Eric Gordon; Terry
SF: Azubuike; Bogans; Parker
PF: Dirk; Jamison; Tolliver
C: Camby; Wright; 1st round draft pick
That’s 3 legit star players, with depth, skilled role players, and a legit veteran center as well. We can see though that this is contingent on the Mavericks being able to unload Marion’s contract, as well as Beaubois and Jones’, without taking any money back. This will be an extremely tall order, and if Mark and Donnie pull it off, kudos to them. But otherwise, despite being in a seemingly envious position, with cap space and the potential ability to land a legit superstar free agent in Deron Williams, this is still a strategy fraught with obstacles.