As things stand now, in the hours after a whirlwind Game 4 where the Mavs so nearly came back from a 20 point deficit to steal another game, the Mavericks are battling the number 1 seed San Antonio Spurs to a draw in a series that has been far more entertaining than anyone could have predicted. Almost the entirety of the basketball punditry had written off the team from Dallas, as over 85 percent of ESPN’s expert Forecast Panel picked the Spurs to win, with most predicting an uncompetitive series of four or five games.
I do not know how the rest of the series will play out, none of us do. This series has defied predictions, if it has proven anything besides entertaining; it’s that predictions of this nature are futile when it comes to these two teams.
Instead of trying to make another prediction based on the uncertain future, I will instead make a claim based on the past: in many of the most meaningful ways, this year’s Dallas Mavericks have already won.
This is in no way to say that they cannot win this series, or that they should content themselves with moral victories at this point. If Dejaun Blair hadn’t been ejected last night, or if they hadn’t given the lead away in Game 1, it’s possible they could have pulled of one of the more surprising sweeps in NBA history.
The rest of the series aside, they have already won because by almost every metric, this season has been a dramatic improvement over last year. For the firth time since the championship season that has at times seemed so long ago, it feels like they are back.
Back winning games in the playoffs, back in another great series in the rivalry with their perennial foes the spurs, back to having an identity, back to being themselves. Back.
Last season was an endless series of frustrations. It began with free agency, when the Mavs missed out on all of their top tier free-agent targets. The championship team had been allowed to disband, and the front office, obviously given a large degree of goodwill after that improbable championship run, had held out the possibility of s superstar signing as consolation to a fan base disappointed that their championship squad would not be able to defend their crown. After missing out on the most coveted free agents, the front office signed a bevy of cast-offs to one year deals, cobbling together a roster ad hoc, with the thinking that the following year they would take another shot at a second superstar.
As anyone who put themselves through the turmoil of watching last season knows, these signings did not really work out, to put it mildly. Darren Collison seemed overwhelmed after the first half dozen games, and Carlisle could never put his trust in the young point guard. OJ Mayo showed an initial flash of promise in the early days, giving us all the hope we had finally found a sidekick for Dirk, but he faded badly down the stretch, often fizzling in the clutch or close games when he was needed most. Chris Kaman, at one point touted as the "most offensively gifted center" to ever play with Dirk, quickly proved to be a poor fit for the team in almost every way. Mavs fans are surely familiar with the feeling of dread when the ball was thrown into the black hole that was Kaman in the post, he was going to put a shot up even if Dirk was wide open at the elbow. Unsurprisingly, he also fell out of favor with Carlisle, and he made no secret of his displeasure with his reduced role on the team, going so far this year as to condemn Carlisle for playing "mind games."
For the past decade and more, the sun for this franchise has risen and set with its Teutonic talisman. Last season began with the news that Dirk would need knee surgery, forcing him to miss a significant amount of time for a team that was already looking shaky. This was especially troubling after a less than stellar (by his standards) showing in the preceding lockout-shortened season. The sharks began to circle, and even for the most steadfast MFFL, doubt began to creep in: maybe Father Time was finally coming for the Big German. Even Dirk expressed some disappointment with the way things seemed to be turning out, saying he "tried to make the best out of it the last two years, and then I had some injury problems... but looking back, I think it was sad."
Mavericks fans began to be worried. That Dirk could possibly finish his career anywhere besides Dallas was unthinkable, and given the mutual loyalty between Dirk and Mark Cuban, it didn’t seem very likely even in the bleakest days. What seemed more likely at the time, and in some ways sadder, was the Mavs would be unable to build a fun competitive team around their aging superstar, and he would be forced to play out his final years on a team wavering in and out of the playoffs, beset by a series of frustrations that could push him to retire while he could still perform physically.
Even the prospect of a rebuild was dreary. Recent draft picks in Roddy B. (never forget!) and DoJo never really panned out, and watching them continue to struggle years in eventually gave us a sense of vicarious embarrassment. The fans were so ready to surge behind one of these young players, a potential star of the future, but they never even came close. Carlisle was forced to turn to ‘veteran leader’ Derek Fisher and, after he quickly abandoned ship, the inimitable Mike James to fill the gaping hole at point guard. Nor did the Mavericks have any lottery picks coming their way, the disastrous Lamar Odom adventure meant a pick was being shipped out in the future, and the 2013 draft class was one of the weakest in years.
After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2000, the Mavericks again failed to lure a prime free agent in the offseason, raising fears that we would all have to go through the ordeal of last season all over again, but it was not meant to be.
The front office wisely jettisoned the plan continue waiting for a superstar savior, and signed good players to longer term contracts. This sounds very simple, but given the current NBA climate with many teams tanking hard for a shot at the lottery in the loaded draft class, or convinced of the need for multiple superstars to compete in the playoffs, this was actually a welcome surprise. None of the signings were immediately hailed as revolutionary: a reasonable, low risk contract for journeyman center Dalembert, a discount for mercurial and out of favor guard Monta Ellis, a long term contract for heady veteran point guard Calderon injected some talent into the team, along with savvy pickups Devin Harris and Dejuan Blair. All of these signings had some caveats, whether it was concerns about durability, or age, or lack of defense.
These new pieces have gelled together better than could have been hoped. They fit together pretty seamlessly on the offensive end, often generating some of the most aesthetically pleasing basketball in the entire league. The team also seemed to recapture the selfless, free flowing identity that characterized the Mavs for the best years of their recent playoff run. Calderon and Harris, two veteran guards who could start on many teams, have taken pains to make explicit that they put team success first and who starts or finishes games does not matter to them. The same holds for PER superstar Brandan Wright and human adrenaline shot Dejuan Blair. Columns upon columns have been filled this season with the transformation of Monta Ellis, regarded as a selfish, shoot first guard who could not buy into the team concept, so there is no need to go into further detail here. Suffice to say, that this team truly plays together, and they have completely bought into the team philosophy Carlisle is preaching. Just as importantly, these players will continue to be here after this season, giving us something to actually invest in, and taking us off the tiring roster carousel we have been stuck on the past few seasons. We can now see the framework for a potential transition period for Dirk, something that was hard to see as recently as a year ago.
And not to forget that sports at some base level are about entertainment, this team has already been wildly entertaining. The regular season had its peaks and valleys, and the one annoying quirk from last season the Mavericks are seemingly unable to shake is their proclivity for giving away late leads and losing close games. While still frustrating this season, when these were preventing the team from making the playoffs, they were infinitely worse. There was essentially a playoff round robin with the Grizzlies and Suns, two of the most exciting games of the season with important playoff ramifications. These two games were already more enjoyable than the entirety of last season, here was meaningful basketball at the end of the season and .500 beards were no longer the most interesting story about the team. The team was seemingly unfortunate to end up paired against the league-leading Spurs in the first round, a team that had dominated them in recent times, in what was largely viewed as a likely sweep as the inexorable basketball machine from San Antonio rolled over the feel-good story Mavs.
As we now know, this has not been the case. Every game aside from the Game 2 beating the Mavericks gave them has pretty much come down to the wire. The Vince Carter last second shot in Game 3 was one of the most exciting sports moments I have had the privilege of watching, and they followed this up with Monta Ellis having a good look at a game-tying layup in the waning seconds of Game 4, following a furious rally from 20 points down led in party by Dejuan Blair, who went on a veritable rampage against his former team.
As I said before, I don’t know how the rest of this series is going to play out, no one does. I hope they pull off this upset and ride this wave as far as they can. I do know that this series, and this team are all that sports should be, we are finally back where we belong, and it feels so right.