Yet, the Mavs are poised to return to the NBA Finals, only five years after their last appearance on basketball’s biggest stage. So how did we get here? How have Dallas and General Manager Donnie Nelson completely transformed their roster—save for Dirk—and still remain ultra competitive? Let’s find out…
June 20, 2006: Dirk Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks watch as Dwyane Wade solidifies his place as an all-time clutch performer, averaging 35 points per game for the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals en route to a championship title and a deserved Finals MVP trophy.
The Mavericks had enjoyed a surprising run that post-season, aided by Nowitzki’s rise to the ranks of the league’s elite (he would go on to be named MVP the following year).
Not that their playoff success was entirely unexpected—Dallas had finished the regular season with 60 wins, yet were only a fourth-seed, in part because the 2005-06 season featured the Seven-Seconds-or-Less Phoenix Suns and the steady hand of the San Antonio Spurs (seeded first and second, respectively).
Outside of Dirk, that Mavericks team relied heavily on production from young, inexperienced players like point guard Devin Harris, forward Josh Howard, and centre Desagna Diop, along with the steady veteran presence of Jason Terry, Jerry Stackhouse, and to a (much) lesser extent, Keith Van Horn. With a solid young nucleus in place and a bona fide star in Nowitzki, the future in Dallas seemed bright.
Or so we thought. The following season, the Mavericks continued right where they left off, earning a number one seed for the 2007 playoffs, before running into a rarely-motivated Baron Davis and the Golden State Warriors.
In six games, the Warriors upset the Mavs in one of the most amazing upsets in NBA history. That summer, Dallas blew it up, discouraged by the team’s lackluster performance.
The first move, and the one with the most impact, was the eight-player trade that saw Harris shipped off to the New Jersey Nets in exchange for Jason Kidd (who was drafted 2nd overall by Dallas in 1992).
Harris was young, sure, but with Nowitzki entering his prime, the thought was that the time to win was now—waiting for Harris to develop wasn’t an option. And besides, the then-35 year old Kidd was in vintage form, coming off of a season in which he averaged 11 points, 10 assists, and nearly 8 boards per game.
Although his production tailed off (only slightly) upon his return to the Big D, Kidd remained a stellar floor leader and became an effective complement to Nowitzki.
Over the next two seasons, Nelson and the Mavs quietly stockpiled the NBA’s deepest rotation of established talent: In the summer of 2009, Dallas was involved in a massive four team, seven player deal involving the Toronto Raptors, in which the Mavs acquired then-beleaguered forward Shawn Marion— an All-Star as a Phoenix Sun, but left toiling on an underwhelming Raptors team.
During that season, the team acquired another All-Star in another seven-player deal, bringing in Caron “Tuff Juice” Butler along with role players Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson. The former, arguably the Mavs second-best player, is injured, while the latter two have had their moments this post-season.
When the Mavs brought in Tyson Chandler from the Charlotte Bobcats for Erick Dampier’s expiring contract last summer, they brought in another perfect complement to Nowitzki—a steady physical low-post defensive presence.
After Dirk, there is no clear hierarchy in this Mavs. Like Nowitzki’s Dorothy Boyd, the rest of the roster completes him, making up for those few areas where he is deficient.
Don’t get me wrong—in his 13th season, Dirk Nowitzki has taken his game to another level and deserves all the credit for the Mavs playoff resurgence. And, with a ton of malleable pieces around him, this may be Dallas’ year. It’s been a long time coming.