Raise your hand if you had the Dallas Mavericks where they're at right now.
Anyone? Anyone at all? Bueller?
Figured as much. Nevertheless, the Mavericks have probably exceeded everyone's expectations, sitting at 30-13 heading into Friday's matchup with the Chicago Bulls after Derrick Rose destroyed the San Antonio Spurs' collective soul.
Speaking of the Spurs, who had Dallas ahead of San Antonio by 3.5 games nearing the All-Star break? This is an odd world we live in.
This is how insane the Western Conference is: Dallas is 17 games above .500, the fourth-best team in the West and a half-game behind the Memphis Grizzlies. The Mavericks just happen to be one of the teams in the middle of the whole thing.
In our roundtable this week, we assess Dallas' positioning half way through this hectic season. Kirk Henderson, Andrew Kreighbaum and Rebecca Lawson are this week's worthy participants. Click on their names to give them a follow on Twitter.
1) How surprised are you that the Mavs are where they're at right now? Have they exceeded your expectations or are they where you thought they'd be?
Kirk: I'm really surprised. It's not that I thought they'd be bad or anything, but 4th-5th was at the high end of my expectations. That the Mavericks have managed to be so good so quickly and with so many new cast members, well, it just proves how great of a coach Rick Carlisle is when given professionals. A lot of where they end up at season's end will depend on health and how other teams in the West do. Winning three out of four (which is about where they are right now) is just so impressive.
Rebecca: They're about where I thought they would be or maybe even a little better. Listen, all our whining at the beginning of the season about Parsons not playing well, defense being an issue, etc. in reality were things that were going to take time to work out with a bunch of new pieces around Monta and Dirk...and then you change the game completely with the Rondo trade, so now you are starting from square one again mid-season. And with all that, they're in the top five in the West! Granted, injuries to OKC and the Spurs as well as a light schedule have helped, but taking those advantages have given them a (very) little bit of breathing room as the second half rolls around.
Andrew: I was actually optimistic before the season started that the Mavs would be in the mix for home court advantage in the first round by the end of the season. This was always a team that had the potential to win a lot of regular season games and they've taken care of business against weaker opponents. So I'm not too surprised that the Mavs are sitting in fourth place as the All Star break gets closer. You could argue that Dallas has benefited from injuries slowing the Thunder and Spurs but it's not as if anyone expected the Warriors and Blazers to be this good this season either. The real question is whether they'll be able to cover their flaws in a playoff run. The team doesn't have a lockdown perimeter defender in the rotation and Devin Harris' early season three point production has lately looked like fools gold. It will be interesting to see how far they can go with a team approach to defense and spreading the floor from outside.
2) Looking back on the first half of the season, what was the game where you can look back and think this team is a legit team? Or have they not reached the point where you think they should be yet?
Kirk: Pre-Rondo, the Chicago game on December 2nd stands out. Of course, that's the game Dirk secretly hurt his back and after that things went wonky for a while. But the Bulls are a top two team in the East and top five in the league. A win like that had me sit up and pay attention. Post-Rondo, the Memphis game just solidified in my mind how versitile this team is. There's still so much time to grow together too.
Rebecca: I'd like to say the 2OT win over Chicago was what did it for me, but really it was the Memphis win on Monday. We don't like to hear it, but the Mavericks really have had a pretty easy schedule. And you also can't really judge anything that happened before the Rondo trade in the larger picture. I wasn't particularly worried about them having "not really beat a contender" because as we saw with the Spurs playoff series last season, one game doesn't define how you attack a series. But I do love about this team that they play unselfishly, everyone stays ready, and everyone fights. If the Chicago game didn't show that, the Memphis game did.
Andrew: Some folks will point to the win in Memphis because the team had yet to get a signature win against a West opponent. But I'm more inclined to pick the Dec. 2 road win against the Bulls. It's hard to argue an early December game as a big win but they went up against a Bulls team at full strength and knocked them off on their court. And the end of that game was pretty much the essence of Monta Ellis. He took a dumb shot and then when the game looked lost he was cold blooded enough to get fouled and sink three free throws to send the game into overtime. As Dirk has acknowledged, Ellis has become the team's go-to guy in the clutch and he never seems to shrink from those moments.
3) Who is your pick for first-half team MVP and why?
Kirk: Tyson Chandler nudges out Monta Ellis, but only just so. Monta keeps the offense humming, even when things go to hell, but Tyson is the guy who keeps things together at both ends. He's kept the Mavericks within range of respectable in rebounding and his leadership and defensive structure has given Dallas that special something they've lacked since, well, 2011.
Rebecca: Tyson Chandler. People can talk about Dirk or Monta all day long, and we do, because offense is sexy. But this team was atrocious on defense last season, and Tyson made them slightly less atrocious, and then Rondo came along and hey, now they're decent! Put it this way, think about this team without Dirk or Monta or Parsons for a stretch. That would suck, but the other guys could carry the offense. Now think about if Tyson was out for a stretch....hold on, I'll give you a second....annnnd now you see my point. Tyson being healthy and being good is probably the most important thing for this team, even if it doesn't always grab headlines.
Andrew: I'm really torn about this pick because I think you could legitimately make the case for three different guys being the team MVP. I want to make a case for Ellis because of his abilities to create off the pick-and-roll and because what he does in clutch situations. But I think the answer is Tyson Chandler because he's been the biggest difference maker in elevating the team this season. And with Brandan Wright gone, there is no one on the roster who does what Chandler does on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. He's not the rim protector he was in the past but he still does an excellent job covering up for others' defensive mistakes and almost single-handedly makes the Mavs a decent rebounding team night to night. His ability to catch the ball at the rim has also added an element to the offense that the team lacked last year and his knack for tapping out the ball after missed shots by teammates has a similar value to a defensive rebound at the end of close games. This team just can't replace his leadership and impact on the floor when Chandler is not in the lineup.
4) What is the major storyline for this team in the second half?
Kirk: Probably the Dallas quest to find another back up big man. While we wait for Jermaine O'Neal to make up his mind, Dwight Powell has earned consideration as a permanent part of the rotation. The Mavericks still need another true big with some athleticism, but Powell really fits with what the Mavericks need to do on both ends of the floor. I'm more than a little concerned that a veteran like O'Neal would take minutes from Powell in a way that ends up hurting the Mavs. Other than that, I expect the second half of the season to be quiet, relatively speaking. Dallas is simply not a story-driven team. They play basketball and win more than they lose, which isn't a combination that drives in-season clicks.
Rebecca: Whether Rondo makes them a legitimate title contender. Carlisle said something around the time of the trade, I don't have the exact quote, but it was something like "give it to the All-Star Break before you judge." The narrative about the Mavs the past few seasons has been, in my opinion, "yeah Dirk is good and Monta is fun all but they just can't hang with the top tier West." And despite them in fact hanging quite nicely with the rest of the West this season, that was STILL the narrative until that Memphis win. Lo and behold, we are approaching the All-Star Break and the Mavs just shut up some doubters. The West is The Hunger Games, but post-Rondo trade, the Mavericks are starting to show flashes that they have what it takes. Is it sustainable -- can they build on recent success? Stay tuned.
Andrew: After beating Memphis this past Monday, the Mavs are 1-8 against current playoff teams in the West (not counting the win over depleted San Antonio). We already know they can handle lesser teams in the West and most of the top teams in the East without breaking a sweat. But Dallas will need to earn some more wins against their biggest competition in the conference to be taken seriously heading into the postseason--and to get a shot at home court advantage in the first round. The other potential storyline could be whether the Mavs continue to upgrade their bench to keep race with the rest of the conference. The team has been linked to Jermaine O'Neal for weeks but they may want to adding help on the perimeter as well. Since Dallas acquired Rondo, Houston has added Josh Smith and Corey Brewer, Oklahoma City has added Dion Waiters and Memphis has added Jeff Green. And most of those guys won't even start for their respective teams. The Mavs shouldn't necessarily panic over these moves but it's worth keeping an eye on potential upgrades to their own bench.