The Basketball Diaries
What went wrong during the Dallas Mavericks' lost season
It’s got to be a strange feeling for Dirk Nowitzki and the rest of the Dallas Mavericks. After 12 straight post-season appearances, the club failed to qualify this year, finishing a depressing 41-41 for 10th place in the Western Conference.
The crux of it all was Nowitzki missing the first 27 games of the season due to knee surgery. Then the Mavs went 13-23 after he returned.
The team eventually went on a run, going 28-18 to finish the season. But this squad was not better than the one that got bounced from the first round of the playoffs last year in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
This was a team of one-year mercenaries playing for a second chance while surrounding a core of aging players.
Instead, this was a team of one-year mercenaries playing for a second chance while surrounding a core of aging players.
Some of those rentals proved worthy of sticking around. Shooting guard O.J. Mayo, who basically played his way in to a better contract, is expected to return to Dallas.
But of the nine free agents for the Mavs this summer, surely a handful of them, including Mike James and Anthony Morrow, will be playing for another team. It makes little sense to keep this team intact, even if they did close out the season in good form.
What the Mavs truly need is a dominant defensive presence in the post and a point guard that can orchestrate the offense while providing capable perimeter defense to at least cover up for Mayo’s shortcomings on that end.
Of course, saying that a team needs a big post player and a strong point guard is like saying that a car needs a steering wheel and an engine block.
What’s more, though, is that the Mavs need someone who will also be the best player on the team — or at least a close No. 2 to Nowitzki.
Right now, the Mavs core consists of Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Vince Carter. Although all of them are among the best at their particular skill sets, they will all be at least 35 when next season begins. Carter will turn 37 halfway through the season.
Even if they manage to keep up their production through the year, that trio is not designed for a deep playoff run, even with Mayo at shooting guard and Carter on the bench. Not without some quality around them, at least.
Free agents to the rescue
Obviously, the two biggest free-agent names out there this summer are the Clippers’ Chris Paul and the Lakers’ Dwight Howard. But it’s difficult to see why Paul, the best point guard in the game, would leave Los Angeles’ wealth of young talent, like DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, to facilitate a team of aging jump shooters.
Howard is far more interesting. He’s flirted with the Mavs in the past, and the Lakers have been such an underwhelming mess that he may feel like a change of scenery. But he’s also a head case, and with Kobe Bryant’s retirement looming, he might feel compelled to stick out a season or two before becoming the guy for the Lakers.
Howard or Paul would benefit Dallas. But if neither is available, then there’s always the possibility of going after very capable point guards like Golden State’s backup Jarrett Jack, who averaged 12.9 points and 5.6 assists, or Atlanta’s Jeff Teague, who, at 24 years old, turned the corner this season with 14.6 points and 7.2 assists per game.
Center offers less intriguing options, but there’s still potential. Philadelphia’s Andrew Bynum missed the season after knee surgery, but he’s only 25, knows how to win and would be a force on both ends. Of course, like Howard, he’s a bit of a character, but Nowitzki and Marion's calm leadership could protect Bynum from his eccentricities.
The Spurs’ Tiago Splitter puts up smaller numbers than Howard and Bynum, but he’s increased his point and rebounding totals in the three years since he joined the NBA from Brazil. He’s still raw, even at 28, and has moved into the starting spot with San Antonio nicely this year. Plus, it would be a chance to grab a key piece from a rival.
A 12-year playoff streak is a great accomplishment, and the Mavs also reached two finals and won one championship. It's a covetable stat sheet, but all sports are cyclical. Bad years happen to every team. Case in point: any sports organization ever. The important thing is to minimize the frequency and severity of downtimes.
Nowitzki has led this organization to unprecedented success, but the future has to start now. The Mavs can’t waste the rest of Nowitzki's years — or risk falling back into the pack of fighting for low seeds in the playoffs.