The 2011 Mavericks were one of the greatest teams of all time, and they proved that in the playoffs. They struggled a bit with a scrappy Trail Blazers team in the first round, a bad match up for them, but announced themselves by demolishing, in four games, a Lakers team that had won the last two championships and won just as many games that year as the year before, 57. They walked through a Thunder team, in five games, then near the height of their powers. If the young Thunder still needed some seasoning – James Harden and Russell Westbrook were just 21, Kevin Durant just 22 – still they won 55 games, destroyed Carmelo Anthony’s Nuggets in five and made it past the profoundly dangerous Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay and Mike Conley, Tony Allen Grizzlies.
Then, of course, they rebounded from a tough game one and nearly all of game two to beat perhaps one of top three or four collections of talent ever assembled, the first year of the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Heat. The Heat won 58 games that year, would win the title the next two years, and lose again in the NBA Finals the next to another of the greatest squads of all-time – the incredible 2014 Spurs. Their dominance would be brought to an end only when LeBron left the next year, and they were every bit as good in 2011, despite what people say. They didn’t need seasoning, they were veterans – LeBron and Bosh were 26, Wade was 29 – and they were already burning up the league. Between November 29th and January 9th they lost two games, both to – you guessed it – the Dallas Mavericks. They ended the season, from March 10th on, on a 15-3 run, then played all of fifteen playoff games before reaching the Finals, just as few as the Mavericks themselves.
Unlike those Heat, however – unlike the Spurs, unlike the Lakers whose dynasty the Mavericks ended with their sweep – few people outside of Dallas number that 2011 team among the historically great. The reason is simple: it looks like a fluke. Obviously, in general, people know that the Mavericks were an excellent franchise. If it weren’t for the Spurs, their longevity would be truly unbelievable. In the Dirk years, they won their first ever playoff series against the Stockton and Malone Jazz, in 2001, for all that both men were in their late 30s. They played their second to last, in 2015, against the James Harden Rockets.
In between, they won 50+ games eleven years in a row, then, after the strike, 41, then 49, then 50 again, then 42. But in 2011, they were coming off four years of first and second round exists, and after 2011, they never again won a playoff series. It’s hard to blame people who think this was a team that was pretty good but just got hot at the right time, then found its level again. That’s what it looks like on paper. Except – that isn’t what happened at all.
Here’s the thing about the 2011 Mavericks that somehow keeps getting missed – again, outside of Dallas – what happened to them in 2011 is the farthest thing from weird, or inexplicable. It is in fact completely, unutterably explicable – even normal. If you put it in words, you would feel like you said the most obvious thing in the world, and you would no longer have any idea why so many people have such a hard time understanding how good that team was. Literally all that happened is this: in the off-season, that year, the Mavericks added the perfect complement to Dirk to a team that was already good. Tyson Chandler did everything Dirk Nowitzki didn’t – a DPOY candidate who was a monster on the boards, whose screens could kill a man, and who shot 70 percent at the rim. It freed Dirk up to concentrate on offense and even made defenses sag off him a little.
The Mavericks, having found the piece that had been missing all along, took a leap – much as the Raptors, who had also been very good all along, took a leap when Kawhi Leonard joined them. They played like it, and in the end they won their championship because that year, they were the best team in the league, and one of the best of all-time. They played incredible defense, especially before Caron Butler got hurt, and they had veteran savvy beyond just about any team that ever lived.
I’ve often described them as the revenge of the 00s – with Jason Kidd from those Nets teams, Shawn Marion from those Suns teams, Dirk and Jason Terry themselves, and even Peja Stojakovic from those Kings teams, a quintuple of basketball geniuses, nobody could have been more hungry to break through at last. By 2012, Chandler and Kidd were gone, and by 2013 so was Jason Terry. They didn’t win any more because they weren’t as good any more. It wasn’t a fluke, it was a completely explicable sequence of events. This veteran savvy, by the way, is why some of their other statistics don’t jump off the page. They played a lot of close games over the course of the season, but they dominated fourth quarters when it was time to win.
According to NBA.com, they played 50 regular season games that meet the parameters for “clutch” performance and won 34 of them. While, however, that 68 percent winning percentage was only third in the league, behind the Bulls and the Spurs, they blew everyone away when it comes to the crucial stats. In the clutch:
- Dallas had far and away the best shooting percentage at 48 percent
- They also had the best three point percentage at 40 percent
- Dallas shot 84.2 percent from the free throw line
- The Mavericks committed the fewest fouls
- Finally, the Mavericks possessed the league-best plus minus with +2.3, with the second place Bulls and Thunder sitting at +1.6, the Blazers next with +1.3, and the Hornets and Lakers tied with +1.1
And if you remember that team, you remember precisely that. In the last five minutes of the game, the Mavericks would hit every important shot, make every important stop, and hit every free throw, all season long. When they came back from 15 down to beat the Heat in Game 2 of the Finals – when, for that matter, they came from 15 down, with five minutes left, to beat the Thunder in overtime in Game 4 of that series – they were only doing what they had done all along.
Here, however, is the other thing that people who weren’t paying much attention in those days don’t know, something that has always haunted me because if it did not happen, the 2011 Mavericks might well have gotten the respect they deserve. In the middle of the season, Dirk got hurt. He would go on to miss nine games, but he only played 11 minutes in the one where he was injured, and he only played 14 in the one where he came back. Between December 27 and January 17, the Mavericks would go 3-9, and I just don’t think people have done the math to realize what that means.
Here are some facts. On the day Dirk got injured, the Mavericks were 23-5. From January 19, the third game after Dirk’s return, to March 4, the Dallas went 19-2. They achieved that latter number even without Caron Butler, who was injured on January 2 and had, up until then, provided an incredible counterpoint to all the things the Mavericks were doing that year. His 15 points and 4.1 boards on .450/.431/.773 shooting only tells part of the story. But the main point is that up to the moment of Dirk’s injury, Dallas had an 82 percent winning percentage through the first third of the season, and an incredible 90 percent over the quarter of games after he returned and took a few to play himself back into shape. The Mavericks would ultimately scuffle a bit over the last month of the season, going 13-9 over March and April. But even that would be just about a 60 percent winning percentage.
Here’s the point: in 2011, Dallas would win 57 games, tied for second in the West, with the Lakers and behind the Spurs, at 61, and fifth overall behind the Heat (58) and the Bulls (62). If, in that stretch where they went 3-9 thanks to Dirk’s injury, they had won half those games, having a healthy Dirk – so 6-6 – that would give them 60 wins. If they’d won 60 percent, as in their worst stretch of the season besides this one, they’d be at 61, tying the Spurs for first in the West. If they’d won 82 percent, as they’d been doing up to that point, they’d have won 10, which would give them 63 wins, good for best in the league. If they’d won 90 percent, as they did when Dirk got right, that might get them all the way to 66, their second most ever, and tied for the sixth most wins all-time in the modern era. Among the seventeen teams that have won 66 or more since 1970, twelve won the Finals, one more made the Finals – the 2015-2016 Warriors, of course – and two more made it to the conference finals.
Of course, other teams had injuries. Of course other teams had struggles, and of course, the difference between winning say 60 games and 63 is probably not meaningful. But in any situation where the Mavericks entered the playoffs with the best record in the league, or tied for it, what actually happened, as opposed to what is usually perceived to have happened, would be much clearer. Dallas, with Tyson Chandler, were simply better than the teams they played that year. They were better than the Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol-Lamar Odom-Andrew Bynum Lakers, they were better than the KD-Russ-Harden Thunder. They were better than the Lebron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Miami Heat, who they actually went 2-0 against during the regular season – for all that the Heat won 58 games, and who won twenty-two in a row around their two Dallas losses.
They were better not because they simply had a hot season, but because they had a better team – and because they had players on that team they did not have in 2010 and would not have in 2012 who made them better. They performed like that team not just in the playoffs, but all season, minus the games that Dirk didn’t play, and they won the championship because they were that team. And of course, any team that was better than all of those other teams is, almost by definition, one of the greatest teams of all time. In the end, the fluke wasn’t that such a team did what we might reasonably expect such a team to do, but the fact that they only had it for one year – a year in which they won the immortality that they deserved, no matter what anyone says.