It's the eternal question, and anybody who makes it their business to observe empirically how things have happened, how they happen, how they will happen...know the arc of this thing, even if we're often too caught up in the arc to know. New discoveries, in this case advanced stats, bring the lure of making things sound simple. When it turns out, as it always turns out, that things are not so simple, we nevertheless will have learned a lot.
But what makes a good team is and has always been the only question worth asking when you're figuring out who you should draft, trade, sign. What far too few people realize is that you don't get infinite choice when you trade, draft, or sign. It would be great if the Mavericks could have gotten a PG who could play defense last year, but there wasn't one available who help a team nearly as much Calderon and Ellis do, for all their faults. Some people say you should wait until there is one, and some people say that not only is it not inevitable that that's going to happen, it's not even all that likely. There's no create a player feature in the actual NBA. So it goes.
Happily, the recent evidence, at least, suggests that the Mavs' outlook--at least for as long as Dirk is still a great player--isn't as bleak as it has sometimes seemed. Two or three years ago, everybody was sure that you needed 2 young perennial all-stars to win a championship, 3 if you could, and then the Mavs' outlook was very bleak, because that is so hard to do it's only been done once or twice in the last decade. But two developments have changed that outlook.
First of all, the biggest threats to the Heat Threepeat are exactly what they were last year: the Spurs and the Pacers. Duncan, Manu and Parker are great players, George and Hibbert probably better at this point. But they're not, neither of them, LeBron, Wade and Bosh. They're not even Durant and Westbrook. George may be hopping into that class. But they're not.
The Heat big three all score over 16 points a game, something only one Pacer does, and only one Spur. The Heat big three have PERs of 29.2, 22.6, and 20.0, the Pacers have George at 23 and Hibbert at 18. The Spurs have Manu at 20, Duncan at 20 and Parker at 20. The Heat have LeBron. Period.
But this year might as well be called The Revenge of the Good Teams.
Three years after everyone and their mother agreed that the Mavs didn't deserve the one championship they finally won because they didn't have three stars, we're looking at a western conference led by the Portland Trail Blazers, 1st in the league in points, 3rd in rebounds and assists with LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wesley Mathews and Nic Batum. LaMarcus is great, Dame possibly a borderline all-star this year. But where's that coming from?
Dallas is also looking up in the standings at the Phoenix Suns, led by Goran Dragic (whom Mark Cuban explicitly referred to as a non-difference maker last offseason), Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green and the Morris twins. Meanwhile, last year's high-profile Lakers flameout, this years' Nets and Knicks, and the fact that Houston has all of 3 games on the Mavs despite their vaunted Harden-Howard connection--and the continued anemia of the Rubio-Love Wolves--tells you a lot about collecting stars. It obviously can work, and having good players is way better than not having them.
But it's not exactly the end all be all. And that's great news for a team like the Mavericks. There's basically no chance of getting a second All-Star on this team while Dirk is still effective. And realistically, something we haven't talked about very much, there's really no telling if it would have been good if they had. Dwight Howard would probably have been a great pickup for the Mavericks because he's exactly what they need, a great defensive center to make the zone work, but just putting a star of Dwight's caliber on a team wouldn't by itself necessarily do more than it's doing for Rockets, or then it did for the Lakers. As for Deron Williams, at this point it seems pretty unlikely he would have been worth all that money.
The implication of all of this, if we're trusting evidence rather than narrative, is very simple. The Mavs still have a chance. Probably not this year. But they still have a chance because they were right in 2011--the right personnel with ENOUGH talent can beat a team with way more talent in the wrong places. The Mavs don't have enough talent this year, almost certainly. But they do have enough to compete with anybody, and they have. A few offseason moves could make all the difference.
The question is how you build a team. And the last few years has shown, contrary to early reactions to the Heat's collection of talent, that you can still do it, by just putting good players who complement each other in the same jersey, no matter who the other guy has. And that's very good news for a team like the Mavericks that' s just on the outside looking in.