We love to talk Dallas Mavericks. It's a combination of avocation and occupation (mostly avocation, as Fish does not pay us well.) You can't talk Mavs without addressing Dallas’ problems this season, and indeed they are many. From Dirk’s injury, to lineup inconsistencies, rebounding woes, locker room leadership, defensive impotence, there seems to be a new issue every week that sinks this team’s chances of winning games.
We decided to keep a big-picture view instead of getting into the nitty-gritty and focused on three key areas: the point guard position, the mood of the locker room in the Plan Powder Era, and the “Tanking vs Clawing” debate.
The Point Guard Position
After the steady leadership of Jason Kidd, the Dallas point guard position has been a mess this year, a reflection of the team as a whole, really. Delonte West, Darren Collison, Derek Fisher, Roddy Beaubois, Dominique Jones, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and even Vince Carter for stretches have taken turns trying to initiate this sputtering offense with little results. With that many options on board, it’s clear that Rick Carlisle and/or Donnie Nelson/Mark Cuban believe that none are bringing exactly the right mix of production, leadership and facilitation that the offense requires.
Collison has been just short of a revelation of late, scoring and defending his position with aplomb while limiting the inconsistencies that earlier drove Rick Carlisle nuts. However, he seems to be turning into a rich-man’s Devin Harris – blazing speed that produces numbers but not yet making his teammates’ lives easier on the court. Further, his shortcomings seem to be magnified at crunch time, where other teams are pulling away from Dallas with frightening regularity.
Mike, what do you make of this mess and are any of these guys around next year?
Piellucci: This is as good a place as any to start with examining how this team is trying to serve two masters.
On one hand, this year is all about evaluating the assets on this roster and determining their viability for the long haul, something that's of particular urgency when all three of Collison, Roddy, and DoJo are on expiring deals. Yet this team is still, ostensibly, is trying to make the playoffs and so they made the short-sighted move of bringing in 38-year-old Derek Fisher. Rick Carlisle is on record as saying this team is in rebuilding mode, and yet, here they are bringing in 37-year-old Mike James to sap minutes from their trio of 20-somethings.
The search for equilibrium has become a pendulum, swinging back and forth between today and tomorrow but refusing to settle in between. That's troubling, and more than a little curious given that this team's owner is of the mindset that being stuck in the middle in today's NBA is a bad thing.
Let's be honest: this team's chances at sneaking into the playoffs vacillate between slim and none, and slim is thisclose to booking a ticket out of town. The priority, as I said going into the year, is about identifying some young assets that could be potential core pieces moving forward. They have that in spades at shooting guard in OJ Mayo, and Jae Crowder is at worst a cheap rotation guy. Bernard James may very well be, too, but we don't have a large enough sample size to know one way or the other at this point.
But no one - not the front office, not Carlisle, not you or I - have any idea what they have in their point guards and they need to find out. All of them are flawed, of course. Collison has the skill set of an impact point guard but his game has the subtlety of a blunderbuss, too often relying on burst in place on brains. Dom Jones is learning the position on the fly, which has predictably come with ups and downs; I can't decide whether him not looking all that much better or worse than Roddy says more about Jones' work ethic or Beaubois' flightiness after four years in the league.
In an ideal world, Collison will continue to get the lion's share of the minutes as the starter with both Jones and Beaubois splitting the time as the backup. Whether that actually happens with James in the mix remains to be seen. But Dallas needs to find out over the next four months which, if any, of these guys are back for next season or perhaps longer. Remarkably enough, I wouldn't be shocked Jones, who far and away was the least likely to be here next season at the start of this year, is now the most likely to return given his low price tag and demonstrated willingness to play whatever role he's needed.
The Mood in the Locker Room
Perry: Speaking of next season, many, if not most, of this roster will likely not be back next season and they know it. Many have hinted at this notion to the media. Dirk came out recently wish some frustration on the high turnover around him these past two seasons. Though the move towards financial flexibility in pursuit of a superstar makes complete sense on paper, the rub comes when you consider the pawns of this strategy – the players holding the roster spots and salaries of the sought-for superstars – are real people too.
They are players with their own agendas, ones that include the desire for certainty both in terms of salary and in terms of location. While all of these players are clearly professionals, and know the business of basketball often runs counter to their own goals, do you think the realization that many will soon be elsewhere precludes some on this roster from fully selling-out for the team concept?
Piellucci: I get why this could be an issue in theory, given how many of these guys are working for their next or, in some cases, last contract. But is this circumstance bad for, say, OJ, or good for OJ? And which way is he reacting?
But I really don't think it's that much of an issue in practice, for a few reasons. I've done a lot of coverage on USC since being back in LA and some of that is spent with the basketball team, who have a whopping 10 transfer players on their roster, all of whom have one or two years of eligibility remaining. That situation, and the motivations of players behind it, closely mirrors the Mavs', with one major exception; as USC coach Kevin O'Neill (who has coached in both college and the NBA) told me, college players are trying to break into the league while NBA players are simply looking to stay there. And, yet, after talking to almost every one of those transfers, every one of them understands the need to curtail selfishness for the sake of team goals because, if any of them gets tagged as a me-first guy on a bad team, then it might as well be the kiss of death for their draft stock.
Now, if a group of 21- and 22-year-old kids who are trying their damndest to get to the NBA understand that, then I have to imagine that guys who have been in the league for years - for some, a decade-plus - get it too. We're not, to cherry pick a pair of random names, dealing with Elton Brand or Vince Carter circa-2006, bonafide stars who had the clout to play prima donna if they so chose because their talent would trump any shortcoming of them on the roster.
Rather, both are on the last legs of their NBA careers simply hoping to hang around for a few more seasons. If this Brand or Carter were to cause trouble in Dallas, other teams would take note and look at younger, cheaper, less volatile players to fill out the roster come July. Case in point, we're within sniffing distance of the All Star break and Delonte West - who is either younger, better, or both than most every expiring deal on this roster - still is out of work after the Mavs axed him for getting a little too antsy over his offseason plans.
If anyone else presents such an issue, chances are the Mavs would have given them their walking papers by now, too.
Perry: An astute observation sir, and one of the key reasons I enjoy bouncing ideas off of you. While certainly that’s possible, I wonder if this issues goes beyond the theoretical realm with the Mavericks.
From the franchise nucleus (Nowitzki) on down to DoJo there have been grumbles that this culture of transience may not be the best way to build a team. While at the professional level, I doubt future contractual uncertainty greatly affects many on a nightly basis, I do wonder if it undercuts the chemistry that so often gives teams the ability to exceed the sum of their parts. Many will agree that Dallas is at a talent disadvantage, relative to the league elite, but Dallas has shown glimpses of being able to play with any team in the NBA for stretches.
I wonder if their crunch time – late 4th quarter and overtime – woes result from something beyond the physical. Whether it is a lack of experience, lack of leadership, or a lack of a deeper desire to “make it work,” with each other because so many will soon be gone, there is clearly something beyond random chance driving this team’s late-game failures.
Tanking vs. a Short Playoff Run
As long as Dallas remains in the “not quite eliminated but still not quite good enough to seem like a post-season difference-maker,” category, there will be debate among Mavs fans whether Dallas would be better off tanking the rest of the season for better odds at landing a top pick in the upcoming draft lottery.
The Tanking - position goes something like this: Dallas likely isn’t going to make any noise in the playoffs, if they even get there, so they might as well try for the highest draft position available in hops of landing a star. It’s almost a Bizarro-world version of Plan Powder.
As you mentioned earlier, it seems this is where Dallas’ pursuit of serving two masters has failed them. A team of players on short contracts around Dirk looks good enough to fight for the playoffs, but may be only first-round fodder for the real contenders.
On the flipside, Dallas has the reputation of being a squad that sees the playoffs as a birthright and this is a selling point with potential free-agent signees. Even if the Mavericks don’t make noise in the post-season, keeping that streak intact is intrinsically important. Even if they got bounced early, there is value in being a playoff team beyond winning a championship.
Where do you fall MikePie?
Piellucci: There's absolutely benefit to it. Dallas, as OJ Mayo intimated when he signed here, has the reputation of a first-class organization within NBA circles and while the treatment the Mavs give their players is a big part of that, garnering a reputation of being a consistent winner, and of making the playoffs for 12 years in a row and counting, is even bigger. Even if the Mavs got bounced again in the opening round, simply being in the postseason continues to further that rep and that's before getting into the way it would help appease a certain German fellow.
But that reputation didn't mean much of anything to Deron Williams and Jason Kidd. Both guys were cognizant of Dallas' merits as an organization this offseason - certainly relative to the mediocrity both the Nets and Knicks had endured for the better part of a decade - and both opted to ply their trade in New York because this Mavs roster is threadbare of assets. The easiest way to acquire one, either to hold onto or to use as trade bait, is to procure a lottery pick that this team hasn't had since Devin Harris.
Moreover, accepting this as a rebuilding year allows the Mavs Brain Trust to shop their bevy of expiring contracts, or perhaps a guy like Shawn Marion, either to contenders who could use an extra piece or perhaps to absorb a contract off a bad team's roster in exchange for cap relief, a transaction that isn't mutually exclusive with trying to get to the playoffs now but would also deal a blow to this year's team chemistry. Then there's the matter of giving young guys like the point guards, Crowder, James, and perhaps even Jared Cunningham valuable minutes that would make them more battle-tested for next season, which would feature a healthy Dirk from the get-go and presumably some more firepower on the roster, too.
So, we should hardly weep if the Mavs do complete a Cinderella comeback to make the playoffs, no matter how little it accomplishes in terms of final record. But, at 16-23, it's also time to recognize the benefits of playing for the long haul.