Nostalgia is a powerful thing, which is probably the biggest "duh" statement a person can make this decade. Nostalgia is so powerful it has become its own industry (superhero movie franchises) and a fear-mongering leather man is using the emotion to stir plenty of Americans into thinking he might be a good president ("Make America Great Again...remember? like the Good Old DaysTM").
I'm not sure how much time needs to pass before something becomes nostalgic, but it's the only emotion that can explain my irrational love and desire for an objectively somewhat better-than-average basketball team that won one whole playoff game. My pining for the 2014-2015 Dallas Mavericks is the equivalent to pining for that pretty good sandwich you had last week. I'm pathetic.
It's probably because those Mavericks were basically two different teams -- Before Rondo and After Rondo. Before Rondo, the Mavericks were a wildly entertaining team that had no real championship aspirations but could run circles around the league's have-nots with blisteringly efficient basketball and loads of depth.
Let's start with the offense -- it was sublime. It was the 2011 offense on steroids. A flurry of ball-screens centered around the greatest shooting big man in NBA history fueled hundreds of alley-oops, dunks and open 3-pointers. Every player in the Before Rondo lineup could do something on offense, centered around the properly used Monta Ellis.
Ellis was the de facto point guard, running a pick and roll with Tyson Chandler or Dirk Nowitzki practically every time up the floor. In Golden State and Millwuakee, Ellis was villainously terrible, jacking shots, being bad while thinking he was good. He had no structure on those teams. Ellis always had great passing and driving skill, but plunked on teams with no direction allowed his bad habits to fester over and block out whatever good basketball quality he had.
Enter Rick Carlisle, who basically was the Amanda Waller to Ellis' Harley Quinn -- on the outside Ellis was chaotic and harmful, but placed within a system with strict (ish) rules, he was allowed to excel in a team environment. Carlisle accentuated Ellis' gifts far more than any other coach Ellis has every played for and Cuban concocted a roster to help Carlisle milk that talent into something real and tangible.
Here's how a Mavericks possession would typically go Before Rondo: Ellis would receive a high-ball screen from either Chandler or Nowitzki. His options were to either pull-up for a mid-range jumper, score at the rim, pass to a diving Chandler or popping Dirk or kick it out to Jameer Nelson or Chandler Parsons spotting up on the strong and weak sides.
Almost every offensive option had merit and the Mavs stretched defenses into making lightening fast decisions. Do they cut Ellis' path off to the rim and potentially leave open a deadly finishing screener, sticking to the outside shooters? Crash down on Chandler and be vulnerable to a kick out? The possibilities were seemingly endless and only helped by the fact that both Nelson and Parsons were not only dynamo spot-up shooters, but could attack a hard close out and keep the engine running for another opportunity.
In the Zach Lowe piece that video originates from, Lowe summed up the deadliness of the Before Rondo Mavs in a few paragraphs:
The ingredients driving that offense are obvious, even if the Mavs surely can't quite sustain this level of dominance. Dallas sports two of the half-dozen best pick-and-roll screeners/dunkers in the league: Chandler and Wright, shooting an absurd 130-of-174 combined. Their presence allows the team to maximize the spacing power of Nowitzki, the greatest shooting big man in history. He can simply watch a Monta Ellis-Chandler pick-and-roll, parking himself behind the 3-point line and sucking his defender too far from the rim to be of any help.
And when Nowitzki sets a ball screen — something he does more than almost any player in the league — he can fade out along the perimeter, leaving the lane open for drives and lobs to the Mavs' Hammer Brothers.
Every player orbiting those big men is a threat to shoot, drive, and pass. The Mavs don't have great 3-point shooting, but everyone among Ellis, Parsons, Jameer Nelson, Devin Harris, and J.J. Barea is good enough once granted the extra airspace that Nowitzki provides. More important: They're all smart enough to understand when they can generate a better look by pump-faking, driving, and moving the ball into the next pick-and-roll.
The Mavericks best play might have also been their simplest -- a dribble hand-off between Dirk and Monta that flummoxed defenses so much Carlisle and the Mavs spammed the play like a 14-year-old playing Madden online or an op gun in Call of Duty. It was so tough because the big man could never leave Dirk once Dirk got the ball to help on Monta because Dirk would just rain an open jumper. If the opposing guard on Monta couldn't keep up it was curtains.
Anytime the Mavs needed a bucket, they'd go to this play, even on consecutive possessions if need be.
Of course, if the defense somehow rotated perfectly enough to contain the play, one of Chandler or Wright would be waiting to throw down a jam. Those two feasted off the Monta-Dirk pick and roll. Considering the jump-shot happy reputation the Mavs have had in the Dirk era, no other team in that era saw so much action around the rim. It was the perfect marriage of power and finesse.
The genius of Chandler and Wright weren't so much that they were tall athletic men who could smash the ball into the hoop -- they were also really smart players capable of reading the floor like a point guard, scanning for the right moment to release a pick and dive into the paint. They knew when to hold onto a screen for a beat longer to let their point guard get around or slip the screen entirely and flash to the rim. A lot more thinking than just stand near hoop, catch ball, dunk ball through hoop.
It was all so much fun to watch. The brilliance extended beyond the starting five, with some sneaky depth hidden on the roster. Al-Farouq Aminu -- now Portland's starting power forward and defensive linchpin -- was like the ninth man on the roster. The Celtics' "untouchable" Jae Crowder was exclusive to garbage time for most of the year. Brandan Wright, one of the most efficient roll men in the league....seriously, was playing for a modest $5 million per year. That's not even counting a useful Richard Jefferson, pre-cigar chomping champion, Devin Harris before his bones were replaced with tissue paper and J.J. Barea as a more than solid third-point guard. This team was sorta stacked! They could legitimately go 10-deep without encountering a garbage-tier NBA player.
Of course, the defense was mostly shit. Nelson was anemic, Ellis was aloof, Dirk was old and Parsons hadn't really put it together yet. The roster really only had two exceptional defenders in Chandler and Aminu and one slightly above average one in Crowder and two of those names came off the bench. While my nostalgia runs wild on all the points they scored, it coincidentally makes me forget that they mostly feasted on below average squads -- the Before Rondo Mavs were 19-8 and only two of those wins were against Western Conference playoff teams and they were both against eighth-seeded New Orleans. Another 11 of those wins were against the Eastern Conference which fielded three playoff teams at .500 records or below. It wasn't exactly a murderer's row schedule the Mavs had blasted through.
Between those stats and the relatively poor play of Nelson, you can see why the Mavs made the Rondo move. It doesn't make it hurt any less. The After Rondo Mavs weren't a tire fire but they felt like one. The team limped into the post-season without the spark of offensive brilliance and a defense that really wasn't much better off. Rondo not only killed the pristine spacing but he also detonated the team's other biggest strength -- depth. Wright and Crowder gone destroyed the Mavs bench, especially the loss of Wright who neutered the second units effectiveness and aged Harris by about 35 years in a single day.
It's kind of crazy to look back and see how successful at one time that Mavs team was generally. Before the After Rondo poison truly took hold, the Mavs were at one point 26-10. Shit, that's really good! That's the pace of a 60-win team pretty much. Consider the Mavericks seasons since the title team: the 42-win season last year, the 41-win year without a healthy Dirk, the 36-win lockout year, then consider all the free agent failures and off-season disappointments and realize that us Mavs fans looked at a team with a 60-win rate and thought "meh, not good enough." Even if it was true, that's just crazy to think about after watching Zaza Pachulia clang layups off the rim last year and having to mutter the phrase "Raymond Felton might be our best playoff player right now." We'd all gladly throw ourselves onto train tracks to get back that Before Rondo team if we knew what was coming.
Nostalgia is a cruel mistress, so it isn't coming back. Instead we have the myth of Harrison Barnes, a 38-year-old superstar and a bunch of young, talented but unproven dudes ready to make an impact. Maybe missing the Before Rondo Mavs isn't as pathetic as I thought.