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How do the Mavericks build a mental edge?

The Heat and Nuggets show culture is king

It’s hard not to watch a postseason your team is missing and try to glean something from it. There are players on each Finals team’s roster that could help the Mavericks, but that’s not the lesson. Denver and Miami are very unique teams. One would be the only team without Shaq and Kobe, or Lebron, to win a title without a top ten defense. The other, Miami, is without precedent — a team with a negative point differential that almost didn’t make it out of the play-in.

It’s easy to roster-gaze at Denver, but they didn’t happen overnight. Miami makes it easy to say “well, my team can go on a miracle run too’’, when in fact they are a rare phenomena. Still, to be institutionally made of the kind of chutzpah that allows such a run? It, too, did not arrive out of thin air.

In a league of parity not seen since the 1970’s, a league growing evermore egalitarian after a new CBA, these finals’ teams exemplify a certain edge. Coaching, continuity, mindset, and that “culture” buzzword that is clearly real and not just hypothetical. Every team that I saw win a playoff series seemed to be the most together, or the most confident, or the most comfortable with themselves. The Warriors had a generational divide. The Grizzlies seemed to crumble under the boisterousness of their own expectations. The Celtics didn’t seem to trust their coach or identity. The Sixers…well, they’re the Sixers, for whom there’s always a question of mentality. The Phoenix Suns played 12 different players, with zero sense of role allocation. In the case of Miami, they aren’t more talented than the Celtics. The Nuggets are more talented than the Lakers, but enough for a sweep? These teams were truly the most mentally strong. Denver hasn’t lost a game by ten points in the playoffs because they don’t quit. Miami is 6-3 in playoff games where they trailed by ten points.

The 2022-2023 Mavericks seemed to be lacking all of these things. Effort, cohesion, drive. We’ve told the story on this website, over and over. So, if only so much roster change can happen in an off-season, what can Dallas adopt?

It starts with coaching, and not only tactics. We’ve seen so many well-regarded coaches fired these playoffs because of a lack of “buy-in”. On the other hand, Mike Malone and Eric Spoelstra are the two longest-tenured coaches outside of Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich. Spoelstra is widely regarded as the best strategic coach in the NBA, but Kidd can learn from Malone. In fact, we all forget that Kidd performed well in the playoffs, but he seemed incapable of handling the swoons of the regular season. He took such a detached attitude toward those swoons, and with the uncertainty of role allocation and rotational consistency in an era of load management. What Kidd can learn is that emotional buy-in has never been more paramount, and that role players are at their best with a real clarity of purpose. It takes a village to have a truly disappointing season, and it seems like the players never lost touch with Kidd and much as they did with the game itself, which is still on him.

I’ve developed a theory that the hustle-fest that was 2021-2022 was a residue of the continuity under Rick Carlisle (aided greatly by Jalen Brunson). These were all vets who had played together enough to play for one another. The core of that team is slowly decaying. Kidd is responsible for rebuilding the identity.

Many quotes have come out about opportunities to trade Jamal Murray or Micheal Porter Jr., many rumors in the past of Mike Malone’s job security. They waited on those two players to heal, took care of their guys, and created a family atmosphere. For non-marquee market teams, going back to our own Dirk-era Mavericks and the Popovich Spurs, this continuity became a must; there was seldom a chance to add the star that puts you over the top. There’s no point in a eulogy for a team that no longer exists. Still, something must be learned by considering what Brunson and Luka could have been.

All that is left for the Mavs is to build continuity anew. The Rick-era team needed changes — too much responsibility was put on players with too little talent, and Rick’s own coldness had run its course — but last year I noticed that I couldn’t say, aesthetically, what the identity of the team was. A friend once said that the 21-22 Mavs were “tough in a stand-up way, just a bunch of blue-collar dudes, the type to hand the ref the football after a touchdown.” I loved that identity. Jalen Brunson exemplified it. What is the next version?

There’s a great chance Dallas trades its draft pick, but whatever this off-season’s additions are, I’d like them to shift the attitude. Denver’s addition of Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gave the team a requisite toughness, as did PJ Tucker on the Sixers. Whatever moves are made must feel like the beginning of something that will solidify in time. The Mavericks are likely looking for an entirely new front court. How much is that frontcourt if they are rentals?

It’s true the regular season and playoffs have never been more different, but the same good habits impact both. The regular season, with its exhibitional quality, has become about focus and professionalism. It’s punching the clock. The Mavericks looked like a team that was enduring work, rather than embracing it. Miami may have had a poor record, but have built their habits from each regular season, one on top of the other; this year, they played the second most clutch games of all time. First in that stat? The 2011 Dallas Mavericks, who pulled more games than any of us remember out of their butts.

There’s an adage that basketball is the most talent-driven of all the sports, and it’s often true. Yet, talented contenders always lose, and other talented contenders prevail — where are the margins? Gambling sharps suggested had the Celtics came back against Miami, they’d have been favored over the Nuggets. What is the bulwark against the talent gaps that oddsmakers see?

It’s Popovich’s famous wine dinners that went late into the night after bad losses. It’s Miami winning Game 7 over the weekend, somehow so much looser than the Celtics after having their hearts ripped out in Game 6. It’s Mike Malone comforting Jamal Murray after an injury which would steal two of his seasons, telling him they won’t trade him. It’s two teams led by stars taken in the second round, a JUCO-transfer walk-on and a pudgy Serb.

It’s the 2011 title team, four starters edging out of their prime, all ringless. Jason Terry getting that tattoo before the season. Deshawn Mother-Effing Stevenson. Next year’s Mavericks can’t emulate that team, nor the Nuggets or Heat. But can they lay the groundwork? Can the things done this off-season, and in the dog-days of January in 2024, feel foundational to something that flowers later? If Luka leaves, can it come only after we said the team we watched gave it their best shot? Because I can live with that, knowing the mentality was there. Who knows, such romantic notions might really be enough — we’ve seen such miracles before.