Believe it or not, the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks season is here.
With all the ink currently being spilled on the mind-blowing playoff run of the Texas Rangers and the illimitably frustrating turd that the Dallas Cowboys have become, the Mavericks – far and away the most successful Dallas sports franchise over the past decade – are flying far under the radar. Hey, at least they're not the Dallas Stars, who despite starting their season 4-0 have barely registered a blip.
The 2009-10 regular season was a rousing success. The squad won 50+ games for the 10th straight season – only the Spurs currently possess such a streak, they have 11 straight seasons – and won the Southwest Division and were the second seed in the Western Conference. They had home-court advantage over everyone but the Lakers in the West and looked like they would put their playoff demons to rest with a deep run.
Nope. One and done again.
The Mavericks' disappointing flop against the San Antonio Spurs in 6 games became yet another chapter in the lengthy tome of playoff disappointments. Head coach Rick Carlisle was roundly criticized during and after the series for some of his decisions, particularly his benching of Caron Butler in the second half of game 3 and his reluctance to throw rookie guard Roddy Beaubois in to the fray until game 6. The young Frenchman erupted for 16 quick points and was a key in erasing a 21-point deficit, but Carlisle sat him again for most of the fourth quarter and by then, the game and season were lost.
Entering the new season, there is reason for optimism and many NBA pundits are picking the Mavericks to win their division again over Houston (with Yao back) and the Spurs. While another division banner hanging from the rafters in the American Airlines Center would be nice, the Mavericks are judged solely by how they do in the post-season. Another first-round exit might spell doom for just about everyone involved as Mark Cuban would be forced to make sweeping changes.
With the climate now set, let's look at how this year's club sets up.
The Dallas front court begins and ends with superstar Dirk Nowitzki. The 32-year-old power forward is as reliable a scorer and rebounder as there is in the league and last year averaged 25.0 ppg and 7.7 rpg. He is a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches and when he's on, is as close to unstoppable as they come, and well worth every penny of his recently-inked four-year $80 million contract. There has been one constant in the Mavericks' 10-year, 50+ wins streak, and that is Nowitzki. He practically never misses a game and unlike most of his Dallas teammates, Dirk takes his game to another level in the playoffs. His career playoff averages of 25.5 ppg and 11 rpg make him one of only three players in NBA history – the others being Elgin Baylor and Bob Pettite – to post 25/11's for their playoff careers. And Dirk will join them in the Hall of Fame as soon as he is eligible.
Shawn Marion, while maddening on the offensive end at times with his frequent point-blank misses, put up respectable numbers last year of 12.0 ppg and 6.4 rpg and is most effective when running the court with Jason Kidd. He's somewhat of a Swiss Army knife on defense as his size and athleticism allow him to guard anyone from point guards to power forwards. Veterans Brian Cardinal and Steve Novak will add toughness and outside shooting in limited minutes as the Mavs will most likely utilize guard Caron Butler at the three when Marion is out.
We've heard it repeatedly going in to this season: Caron Butler is the key to the Mavs' success this campaign. His arrival last season provided Dallas with what it hoped would be a highly talented sidekick to Nowitzki and a matchup problem for other teams due to his size, strength and ability to drive to the hoop. Instead, Butler settled for too many jumpers and averaged just 15.2 ppg as a Mav while shooting 44%. This is a contract year for Butler and he has slimmed down over the summer to make himself more explosive.
The seemingly ageless Jason Kidd is best known as one of the premier assist men in NBA history, yet he has quietly become one of the league's all-time great three-point shooters as well. He nailed a career-best 42.3% clip last year and was often called on to make big shots. Jason Terry had his worst season in a Dallas uniform, averaging 16.6 ppg on .438 shooting and .365 from three. While he is looking to reclaim his 2009 crown as NBA Sixth Man of the Year, it's likely that his minutes will be cut in to by Caron Butler (16.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg) seeing more time at two-guard when the Mavs go big, and predominantly by the young duo of Roddy Beaubois and rookie Dominique Jones. Both Beaubois and Jones have the athleticism and shot-creating abilities that the Mavericks have been looking for for years. While Beaubois won't be ready for the start of the season after suffering a broken foot at the World Championships last summer, all Dallas fans are eager to see if he can build on his memorable performance in last year's limited playoff minutes. Beaubois is the key to the season – if he can become a dependable scorer, the Mavs will excel.
Jose Juan Barea has carved out a useful niche as Dallas' backup point guard and at times ignites the team offensively. It's on the defensive end though where he gets victimized nightly by bigger opponents. Ideally, his minutes will decrease this season as Carlisle gains confidence in Beaubois. DeShawn Stevenson had a dreadful season in 09-10 and will likely be nothing more than a garbage-time minute eater.
Longtime fixture – literally and figuratively – Erick Dampier is finally gone. After Mavericks' tag team duo of Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler, acquired in the off-season from the Charlotte Bobcats, give the Mavs 14 feet of athleticism that few teams outside of the Lakers can match up with. Haywood's arrival in a mid-season trade last season was one of the factors in a 13-game winning streak as his improved offensive abilities (9.1 ppg, 9.3 rpg) over Dampier allowed Jason Kidd to actually look to the post from time-to-time and opposing defenses had to pay more attention to the paint. Here's a surprise stat for you: Haywood was actually second in the entire league in “and-one” bucket percentage; 6.9% of his attempts ended in a hoop and a free throw. Only Orlando's Dwight Howard had a higher frequency.
Haywood was an upgrade defensively as well, averaging 2.1 blocks per game. Throw in Chandler's average output of 6.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 1.1 bpg, and the Mavericks have their most promising pivot duo ever.
Health is a concern as Chandler has missed an average of 34 games the past two seasons so newcomer Ian Mahinmi, a 23-year-old from France, may get some burn.
Head coach Rick Carlisle is regarded as a brilliant basketball mind and a coach who demands accountability from his players. In Carlisle's two years here, the team has a .640 winning percentage in the regular season, but that dips to just .438 in the playoffs. In his eight years as a head coach, Carlisle has won 50+ games five times, which is impressive, yet none of his teams have made it to the Finals. Still, he is one of the top coaches in the league and hopefully his recent collapse during practice isn't a metaphor for the Mavs' season.
It is brought up ad nauseam that the Mavericks are one of the oldest teams in the NBA, yet with the potential emergence of Beaubois and Jones, and the arrival of Chandler, Dallas could dramatically decrease the average age of its rotation. The Dallas bench is regarded as one of the strongest in the league and they will have to use depth to overwhelm opponents. Bottom line, you know what you're going to get from Nowitzki, but in order for the Mavericks to make any serious noise this season – and that means success in the playoffs – Butler and Beaubois will have to contribute heavily.
I see them holding off San Antonio to win the Southwest division, gain the second seed in the playoffs again and making a run to the Western conference finals, eventually losing to the Lakers.