It’s hard to remember 2008-2009, now. Expectations for that season were about as low as they’d ever been in the Dirk era and the team, to put it mildly, wasn’t exactly the strongest of the Cuban-Donnie years. Behind Dirk, Kidd, and Terry, and an emerging JJ Barea, the Mavs rolled out a Dampier-Diop center formation, the decaying corpses of Josh Howard and Jerry Stackhouse and such luminaries as Matt Carroll, Gerald Green, James Singleton, Ryan Hollins, Antoine Wright and the immortal Devean George. Barea and Brandon Bass were the sole bright points to emerge from the dark cloud that hung over the franchise.
Nor, not surprisingly, was morale particularly high. Coming off the crushing loss to the Warriors in the first round in 2007, (p.s. anyone who wants to tell me how the Mavs won a zillion games in ’06-’07 with Dirk, Terry, Stack, Howard, Buckner, Anthony Johnson, Diop, Damp, etc., earns a free life time subscription to "I can explain the inexplicable" magazine), the Mavericks dropped a more expected series in the first round, in ’08, to the Chris Paul-David West Hornets. They would go on to lose in the first round in ’09-’10. It was (so far), the nadir of the Dirk years, a fast fall from the dizzying heights of ’05-’06 (sound familiar?).
So, in retrospect, the unexpected victory against the San Antonio Spurs in the first round in ’08-’09 seems like even more of a blip on the radar than the three first round exits that surround it. The Mavericks certainly were not favored, and that’s not even taking into account the media’s knee-jerk dismissal of the Mavericks as a contender since 2007. They won 50 games that year, finishing 6th in the West and 3rd in their own division. The Spurs were hardly a juggernaut, but they did win the division.
One unexpected series win. The first in some time, true, but in the long run, hardly even an important Mavs footnote. They lost in the second round to the Nuggets in five games, and it’s obvious enough that this one series victory was hardly even an important Mavericks footnote, in the grand scheme of things.
But it saved the Mavericks. It did. Because we all know Mark Cuban is not, could never be, a man to sit quietly through four first round exits in a row. And on the horns of that dilemma, much as now, Cuban had a decision to make---whether to re-invest in this team or try to make a new one. And in 2008-2009, the Mavericks showed Cubes that there was still something worth investing in here. By hook or by crook, by fortuitous accident or fortuitous matchups, the Mavericks showed Cuban that Kidd-Terry-Dirk was not a done deal. That it was not time to throw out the old guys and start fresh.
So instead of throwing it out, Mark doubled down. That offseason he signed Shawn Marion to a five year, 39 million dollar contract (or signed and traded, anyway). He offered Marcin Gortat a five year 34 million dollar deal that the Magic, for some reason, matched. That season, he and Donnie swung Josh Howard, Drew Gooden, James Singleton and Quinton Ross for Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson.
In the long run, only Marion and DeShawn made a real impact as Mavericks, and only Marion really. Not the point. The point is the Mavericks could have given up, or at the very least, tried to reload with young players, and they did neither. They kept their veteran core and they added veterans. And, a year later, when they swung Dampier for Chandler, their title team was complete.
We’ve gotten so hyper-smart about sports these days, some would say over-smart, that some of you may regret that all that happened. You might say, wouldn’t the Mavericks be in better shape if they’d just taken the high draft picks that come with sucking, gotten some young talent instead of Hay, DeShawn etc., and just kept Shawn Marion’s contract off the books? I doubt anyone would trade the Mavs’ title for anything, but I have no doubt that some suppose we could have won two or three if we’d started rebuilding earlier. I know that, because of the number of people around here for whom rebuilding seems to be such a matter of process alone that it’s not even worth worrying about how it might turn out.
But, to me, the lessons of 2009 are two-fold. The first is that you never know how close you are; you never know how little you need. For the Mavericks, a team that was one surprising win from losing in four first rounds in a row, was exactly a Shawn Marion, a Tyson Chandler, a DeShawn Stevenson and a Peja Stojakovic from a championship against much more difficult competition than was current in 2009.
The second lesson, for me, is that we read so much into how the ball bounces, and sometimes it’s truly absurd. The Denver series reminded me a lot of the Thunder series from last year. Neither was a close series, neither was likely to be a close series—but neither was nearly as far apart as the final series count made it appear.
Although the Nuggets ripped off the first two wins, convincingly, in 2009, the Mavericks were done in during game three by an all-time terrible call, the failure to call a foul on Antoine Wright, who was desperately trying to mug Carmelo Anthony before he could shoot (and make) a three-pointer with one second left. They won the next game behind an all-time great performance from Dirk (44 points on 25 shots, 16-17 from the line, 13 rebounds), and had it been 2-2 rather than 3-1 at that point, it would have felt more like a series and less like a statement. The 2012 Mavericks, too, bad as they were, were one crazy Dirk shot bouncing in, one crazy Durant shot bouncing out, from going up 2-0 on OKC, in OKC, against a team that made it all the way to the Finals. Who knows what might have happened, then?
The beauty of sports, my friends, is that you never know. Around here, we make a habit of knowing. We know old teams don’t have any legs left, we know we’ll make the right free agent moves if only we have cap space and the right draft picks if only they’re high enough. It’s a matter, we say, of the right process—just like LeBron James, we’re not satisfied unless a championship seems partially guaranteed.
But let us remember, just this one time, that it can take--sometimes it does take-- a series you shouldn’t have won, a surprise performance you didn’t expect, to show a future you couldn’t imagine. I remember the Tyson Chandler trade, and I think I remember it as well as anyone here. What I remember is that my column about the trade was one of the most favorable ones I read that day---and that I wrote "People are upset about the fate of Erick Dampier’s contract, now gone for the much-maligned, but very solid Tyson Chandler." The same is obviously true of Shawn Marion whom many assumed, after his days in Toronto, was done. The same is true of Peja Stojakovic, who shot the Mavericks past the Lakers.
Sometimes, you get to draft Durant, Westbrook and Harden in succession—sometimes you draft Greg Oden first, a decade and a half after drafting Sam Bowie first. Sometimes, you get to trade Marc Gasol for Pau—sometimes you do a blockbuster trade in which DeShawn Stevenson ends up having the most effect, for either team. Although I still maintain that the best Mavs team I ever saw was one which had a healthy Caron Butler.
But do remember this, you out there who think the next championship is just a matter of process, not tremendous luck, tremendous strange turnings of the wheel—the Mavericks shouldn’t have won in 2008-2009. They had a bad team, they played a much better one, one that got past them without difficulty the next year. Their win meant keeping the core of Dirk-Kidd-Terry intact, their losing would have meant splitting it up—but there would be one more first round loss before the triumphant championship season. I wonder if Cuban felt he'd made a bigger mistake at the end of 2010, or at the end of this most recent offseason, and I rather suspect 2010.
The thing is, we all know as a matter of course how to win a championship-- but always, always, it turns out, we think we know so much, we find we know so little. So here I give thanks to the unexpected, to the unlikely, to the chain of events that insured that no matter how Dirk's last seasons are handled, he will not retire without the championship he so richly deserves---and for the little-remembered series that made the front office think it was possible.