With no clever introduction, witty quips or gut-busting punch lines, I’ll just say it: I have no idea what to make of the 2012 Dallas Mavericks. One day they look like they should seriously consider rebuilding and the next they do something like beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on the second night of a back-to-back. There is no rhyme or reason to it. After all, it’s not like they’re beating up on the bad teams and losing to the great teams, since they lost to the Timberwolves the night before beating the Thunder.
Could it be a slow start due to having too many new faces and not enough training camp? Did they lose one too many glue guys from that championship team? Is it the dreaded championship hangover?
Let’s take a closer look.
Follow the Leader
You wouldn’t be able to tell it from looking at his numbers, but Dirk Nowitzki has not often been just a little off this season. His averages of 23/5/2 don’t tell the whole story. Watch the games and you’ll notice that, especially early on, the Mavericks appear rather disjointed on offense even with Dirk on the floor. His numbers in games have usually been inflated by one or two exceptional quarters thus far.
Take the Minnesota game for example. In the first half he went 2 for 8 from the floor with just 4 points. Then the 2nd half came and he went 6 for 10 and wound up finishing with 21 points and 4 rebounds. Even though he got to the 20 point marker, he did not appear to have his head in the game the entire time, leading the broadcast crew to query the Mavs if Dirk was hurt, but he wasn’t. They even went so far to wonder if it was a conditioning issue (Which would explain his lack of playing time early on and his lack of energy and hustle on both ends).
While Dirk has never been an elite defender, he’s been at least serviceable; in the past anyway. In Mavericks wins, Dirk has posted an average Defensive Rating of 92 (Outstanding, if not elite.) and a 114 rating (horrendous) in losses. At times, he’s appeared lost and unwillingly to close out on his man once he’s gotten by him. Dirk would have to tell you himself if it’s a conditioning issue, mental issue or something else that can explain the disparity in his performance from game-to-game. At any rate, the Mavericks will need their leader if they intend to mount a proper title defense for the rest of the season, since it all starts from the top.
The title above appears to have been the Mavs’ mantra in the offseason in terms of player moves. Gone were key members of that championship team like spark plug J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stevenson who locked down LeBron, another solid defender in Corey Brewer and their defensive presence and vocal leader, Tyson Chandler. While Delonte West has performed well thus far, the other additions of Vince Carter and Lamar Odom have not. Role players aren’t always interchangeable and now the Mavericks field a team – with Dirk, Odom, Carter, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion – that would be considered the title favorite in 2002, not 2012.
We know the rap on Odom and Carter by now. Odom, a top 6th man in the league in LA, has been prone to attitude and moodiness issues his entire career and, following his exit from the Lakers (whom he took less money to re-sign with years ago), he seems to be in a funk stemming from that move. As for Carter, he is still public enemy no. 1 in Toronto after he “quit” on the Raptors and each stop since has placed him under similar scrutiny up to – but not limited to – faking injuries and being out of shape, making him unreliable to a team with any sort of championship aspirations. Hell, he lost his starting job after opening night.
Really, a guy like Brewer is the Anti-Vince, in that he hustles every time on the floor and gives considerable effort on defense. Even if it’s to a fault, you will never deny that Brewer is giving his all and that his head is in the game. The same cannot be said for Vince, making partially replacing Brewer with him look even more foolish.
While Ian Mahinmi has played very well in this small sample size, the struggles of Brendan Haywood have not yet off-set the loss of Chandler. To be a starting center in the NBA you need to contribute more than 5 and 5 with capable defense. That doesn’t make you a starter; it makes you a nice role player.
Being just 6 games into their season, it’s too early to bury them yet. They haven’t shot the ball particularly well to this point and they could turn it around with 60 games to play if their shots begin to fall. After all, they still have that core of head coach Rick Carlisle, Dirk and Jason Terry intact and can hope to come together by the All-Star break. Perhaps a, “Tyson Chandler isn’t walking through that door!” type speech is the cure for what ails them and wakes them up. All they have to do is to figure out who is going to step up and deliver that speech because, well, that was Chandler’s role.
There is still plenty of time to shake off any championship hangover, sense of entitlement, or satisfaction from last season. I wouldn’t rule out any of the 3 theories listed above. How would you feel if you had been striving for years and years to achieve something and finally reach that goal? You may find it difficult to come out with your guns blazing the next time out. Consider that the Mavs have many players over the age of 30. With that sense of urgency to get that first ring before your time is up gone, is there still that drive to get one more, or are they content with one? To-date, we haven’t seen it if it is there.
It can’t be forgotten that teams will now be gunning for the Mavs as they are the defending champions. Likewise, Dallas will have to get used to playing from this position instead of simply the contender position.
They also have the state of the Western Conference in their favor. With 6 teams currently sitting in a tie for the 8th seed and a plethora of former lottery teams currently over-achieving the Mavs could very well end up in the thick of things come playoff time. They have that experience those other teams don’t have in a Western Conference that is so wide open at this point.
…We Got a Problem
Sure, the Mavericks have their issues, but it’s still too early to deem them “fatal”. There is still plenty of time to turn this around considering the way this Mavs team appears built to win and there are still 60 games to be played for them this season. If they can’t prove by the All-Star break that their roster isn’t just an odd assortment of veterans approaching their declines then they may be forced to cut their losses and slash payroll to initiate the rebuilding process. The wild card in this scenario would obviously be Mark Cuban, who may decide to simply throw more money at the problem and hope it fixes itself instead of blowing up a team one year removed from a title. Nevertheless, it’s too soon for that right now but the red flags have been raised and the warning lights have begun to flash.