Being relentlessly negative is a challenge for me. In real life, I'm actually calm and generally pretty happy. But I've taken a rather grumpy tone with Dallas since the lockout of 2011. I couldn't (and can't) believe they'd let the only center Dirk actually worked with walk away. 2011-2012 was frustrating, and Lamar Odom was a jerk. The 2012-2013 season was a comedy of errors, really, and the team STILL almost made the playoffs. It's time for me to stop being a grump (for a while, at least).
Sure, this off-season wasn't what any of us wanted, in a perfect world or maybe even in a "reasonable Plan B" world. But what we have on our hands here is the kind of roster a mad scientist like Rick Carlisle thrives on. Of course, it's important to understand going in that this team won't be able to play very good defense and will have some frightening rebounding trouble. Understanding that heading into the season will help swallow some losses. These Mavericks are who they are.
And who they are, potentially, is an offensive juggernaut with a ridiculous number of lineup options. Last season, Carlisle joked about his starting eight, because he'd have to juggle guys based on match-ups and who was healthy, all the while pining for Dirk to return. This season, assuming no massive health concerns, Carlisle could very well have a dozen different starting lineups by mid season.
Jose Calderon and Dirk Nowitzki are locks for starting roles, but past that, the other three spots are up for grabs. Monta Ellis is the presumed starter, but if Devin Harris signs, there's a strong argument to be made to bring him off the bench. It was a role he thrived in in Golden State and his scoring punch off with a fellow playmaker like Vince Carter could be fantastic. If Carlisle believes Ellis should start, Devin Harris is a heck of an option off the bench. Last season, he thrived in situations where he shared primary ball-handling duties, and with the Mavericks' crowded backcourt, he should be able to share the load with Shane Larkin and/or Gal Mekel.
Small forward is where things get very interesting for Dallas. Shawn Marion is the presumed starter, mainly because he's the incumbent. However, I assume he'll be tasked with soaking up backup power forward minutes behind Dirk (which will probably be done by committee), so perhaps bringing Marion off the bench isn't a terrible idea. Jae Crowder is being groomed for small forward (though he's talked about playing 2, 3, or 4) and getting burn with a pass-first point guard and Dirk can only help his development. Vince Carter is also available, but he established an excellent role for himself last season coming off the bench. Marion will still start, I'm sure, but that there are other choices is exciting.
Like the small forward spot, Samuel Dalembert is probably a lock to start a center. He's defensive minded with enough offensive pizzazz to keep defenses honest. I do think Brandan Wright deserves consideration. As his defensive awareness and rebounding effort improved last year, Dallas became really effective on both ends of the floor. Wright can't match up with back down post players, but there are only a handful of guys like that in the league anyway. We all know how efficient he can be on offense, if given the chance. With an offense poised to fly, Wright at center to start could hep them take off.
Look at me, talking about starting. The lineup potential for in-game and end of game situations is ridiculous. Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin, Gal Mekel, Bernard James, and (if he signs) DeJuan Blair will all get chances to aid the Mavericks. Each brings a special skill or talent that will help Dallas put points on the scoreboard.
I think where I got spoiled was during the transition from the run-and-gun Mavericks of my youth to the defensive minded Mavericks of the Avery Johnson era. The early 2000s teams were fun to watch, but ran into some GREAT teams in the playoffs. The 2005-2007 teams were devastatingly effective on offense despite playing at a slow pace (mainly due to Dirk) but were also pretty damn good defensively.
Returning to the early 2000s Mavericks: now those teams were fun. They couldn't defend at all (Nellie Ball!), but they could score, and score they did. The 2002-2003 Mavericks won 60 games! They featured lineups with Steve Nash, Nick Van Exel, Michael Finley, Dirk, and Raef LaFrentz. They hung 80 points on the Sacramento Kings in the FIRST HALF of a playoff game. That team was awesome and I think the offensive potential for the 2013-2014 Mavericks is very similar.
Dallas won't win 60 games, but can we hope for a playoff spot? Yes. I'm finally convinced. If health doesn't become an issue and Dirk starts the season in good shape (which hasn't happened since the title run), then Dallas is a dark horse in the West and could cause some serious trouble given the right breaks. This team could easily be a #LeaguePassAlert team for non-Maverick fans on any given night.
I still don't love the fact that Dirk is expected to carry the team at age 35, but he does have a lot of help. I've been down on the fact that Dirk will (most likely) have to ride out his career on an undercard team; one that makes the playoffs but has enough problems to flame out in the first round. But then I read the latest Bill Simmon's piece and I realized that despite these last two off-seasons working out perfectly, I still get to watch Dirk Nowitzki. Simmons says it well (emphasis mine):
To Cubes, a terrific owner who's been all over the map since winning in 2011. The Mavs threw away the lockout-shortened season hoping to get CP3, Dwight or Deron (didn't work), audibled by stockpiling flawed one-year vets in 2012-13 (didn't work, either), pinned their rebuilding hopes on Dwight (didn't get him), and now they're building around an aging Dirk Nowitzki, Rick Carlisle, Ellis, Jose Calderon (signed for four years, $29 million), Vince Carter, Shawn Marion's expiring contract and about 20 other point guards (won't work).
For every Celtics fan who's bitter that the Celtics traded KG and Pierce, at least we get to watch Dallas's next two inevitable first-round playoff exits and say, "Oh yeah, that's what would have happened to us if we kept Pierce." Still, don't you love that Cuban has Dirk's back until the bitter end? They don't want to deal him and rebuild because they want Dirk to be a Mav for life. They can't bottom out with Dirk and Carlisle aboard, either. So what do you do? Patch some decent pieces around Dirk and keep going. It's not the smart move, just the loyal one...
Some things are bigger than sports.
I think that's why Cuban kept Dirk - because they won together in 2011, and because he couldn't bear the thought of the Best Maverick Ever playing for another team. It might not be the smartest move, but it's certainly more relatable. Human, even.
I know people have been saying this to me in some form or another in the comments for a while now. Some things just take time to sink in. Rebuilding wasn't going to happen; I knew that on a logical level. Seeing Dirk struggle for two years was hard to watch, let alone write about. But this team is different. Dirk is ready to play basketball. This probably won't be a championship year, but it will be a fun one.
And isn't that why we watch? I'm all in.