For Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks, first round playoff exits deem entire seasons failures. Such was the case in 2004 when Don Nelson’s last team was ousted by the Sacramento Kings in five games. The dominant 2007 Mavs will be remembered forever, but on the wrong side of history: they fell after six dramatic games to the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors. And the 2008 and 2010 squads suffered similar fates, as high aspirations led to new questions and offseason changes after they were easily ousted in late April.
But time necessitates altered expectations. 2013-2014 was almost 36 year-old Nowitzki’s 16th season, and he – along with 35 year-old Shawn Marion – is one of just two holdovers from that mold-breaking 2011 title team. That can’t be discounted in assessing the Mavericks’ performance this season, and neither can the amazing strength of the Western Conference or that Dallas took 62-win San Antonio to a decisive Game 7.
Mark Cuban had a clear plan in place when deciding against bringing his championship gang back together for another run or two, and it was one rooted in forward thinking. He and other Dallas executives knew they caught lightning in a bottle with that older, almost makeshift group, and took a measured gamble in deciding future salary cap – and thus roster – flexibility would be the most prudent means to another championship.
Just because Dallas has lost in the three seasons since doesn’t mean it was a bad bet. Everybody chased (the artist formerly known as) Deron Williams in summer 2012 and Dwight Howard last offseason, and the Mavericks were favorites to land both players at certain points in each process. It takes multiple superstars to win a title, a humbling reality that Cuban, Donnie Nelson, and company realize despite existing as a rare exception to that rule in the past. And Nowitzki, unfortunately, can’t play forever. Dallas needs to find his replacement sooner than later to avoid the doldrums that preceded his arrival and development into a Hall-of-Famer.
And after this season, it’s easy to argue its in a better position to do so than ever. Dirk’s incredible renaissance is chief to that belief. You’d have been derided at this point last year for suggesting he’d ever again be a second-tier MVP candidate; now, it seems ridiculous he ranked 14th in the voting and received just seven overall points. Nowitzki wasn’t the all-court force this season that he was in his heyday and won’t be going forward, but only a few players in the league bend defenses with gravitational pull and merit attention the way he does. If Dirk is a team’s second banana, basically, that is going to be one hell of a team. Now, Dallas just needs to find its alpha dog; Nowitzki can play at or near this level for two or three more seasons.
Of course, Monta Ellis’ great season deserves mention here, too. The Mavericks were chastised – even mocked by one Hardwood Paroxysm contributor – for signing the mercurial gunner to a three-year, $25 million contract in July. There was no market for his ‘services’ at the time reports surfaced that Ellis and Dallas had agreed to terms, and the team had just done the same with Jose Calderon a few days prior. Gambling on a natural talent like Ellis isn’t awful by itself; doing so when pairing him with another defensive sieve is something else altogether.
But Rick Carlisle, genius, somehow made it work. Ellis manufactured more points on drives to the basket than any player in basketball this season, and Calderon emerged as the high-volume, high-accuracy (44.9% on 5.2 three-point attempts per game) deep threat he’s always been destined to become. Their individual performance, on-court synergy, and fit with Nowitzki yielded the offense this team had to have to be successful: offensive ratings of 109.0 and 111.1 that ranked third in the league overall and first since the All-Star break.
Defense was the Mavericks’ ‘problem,’ but that’s a relative term in this context. Dallas won 49 games and had basketball’s 10th-best point differential (+2.4) despite residing in one of the most competitive conferences of all time. Its defensive rating of 105.9 ranked 22nd overall, and the floodgates opened even farther – to 107.9 – when Calderon and Ellis shared the floor. The construction of this roster meant such a flaw was inevitable, though. No impact perimeter defenders, an aging, average rim protector (Samuel Dalembert), and a declining all-court chameleon (Marion) is not a recipe for defensive dominance.
The remarkable thing is that Carlisle implemented enough chaos against the infallible Spurs to force a Game 7. Before the Spurs San Antonio exploded for 119 points on 56.8% shooting on Sunday, the Mavs had held them to a 107.5 offensive rating via frequent switching that led to uncharacteristic San Antonio turnovers. This was Carlisle’s genius on full display, a malleable approach similar to the one that helped secure Dallas the 2011 championship when he inserted JJ Barea into the starting lineup mid-series.
If Dirk is Dallas’ heart, Carlisle is its head. And that’s a physical and mental amalgam that is the envy of most every franchise in the NBA.
In a vacuum or otherwise, 2013-2014 was an unmitigated success for the Dallas Mavericks. Dirk is Dirk again, Ellis a suddenly viable foundational piece, and Carlisle reestablished as one of our game’s best coaches. This first round exit isn’t like preceding ones, but that doesn’t mean changes aren’t coming. Marion, Vince Carter, DeJuan Blair, and the recently fantastic Devin Harris are all free agents, and the terms of Nowitzki’s imminent pay-cut will be instrumental to how the team builds going forward. And most humbling is that this summer’s free agency pool likely won’t contain the stars we’ve assumed it would for so long.
But all of that is fodder for when the time comes. One year removed from ultimate turmoil, the Mavericks are back on solid ground. And should the chips finally fall their way sometime soon, they could be contending for another title more quickly than public sentiment anticipates.
*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.
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