The Mavericks and their fans are no strangers to torment. Between the collapse/shenanigans of the 2006 Finals and the epic 2007 upset at the hands of the world-beating (or at least Maverick-beating) Warriors, this team has endured plenty. Still, Maverick nation is about to confront a startlingly new brand of disappointment: the letdown of mid-season injury.
For most of this decade, the Mavs have lived in a bubble, immune to the dings, strains, and breaks that befall so many other NBA franchises. They have no Greg Oden or Yao Ming, no Tracy McGrady or even Grant Hill. They’ve had Dirk Nowitzki, a picture of health throughout his NBA career, Jason Terry, an iron man in his own right, and a pretty ridiculous run of luck even among “injury-prone” players. The closest thing Dallas has encountered to a catastrophic injury was Josh Howard’s bum ankle, but even that ailment occurred after Howard had regressed and begun to drift out of favor.
Rodrigue Beaubois’ broken foot was a bummer, but there’s never been any particular gloom or finality in his injury, even as we all await his return. Beaubois will come back, he’ll resume his career, and he’ll most likely make an impact for the Mavs this season. It’s a simple story with an upbeat ending, something which Caron Butler isn’t lucky enough to have. Butler will have season-ending surgery to repair his ruptured right patellar tendon, bringing his year — which was on an impressive upward trajectory — to a grinding halt. Butler had been improving. He had grown comfortable playing off of Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki rather than creating for himself, and though he still flirted with the occasional long two-pointer in isolation, those weren’t his main squeeze any longer. Butler was catching on the move, attacking the rim, and spotting up. Gone were the days of a million jab steps, and the boost in Caron’s efficiency was anything but coincidental.
Now take all of Caron’s progress and toss it. It’s of little import now. I haven’t the faintest clue if Butler has any future in Dallas whatsoever, but he’s certainly without one for this season. His next few months are effectively blank, filled with rehab and rest, “just trying to stay positive,” and “supporting [his] teammates.” It’s not fair, but it never is. The only difference between today and yesterday is that on this particular day — this once in a decade day, apparently — it’s the Mavs facing the business end of the fates’ pointy stick. It had to happen sometime, so take relief in the notion that it could certainly be worse; what if it were Butler returning sometime this week and Nowitzki out for the long haul?
It’s a damn shame that the Mavs are at least temporarily retired from the ranks of the contenders, if they ever truly reached that point at all. They have a chance to climb back, but for now the criteria for the re-ascent is too conditional, too possible without being probable. Dallas is still good. Quite good, even. But until proven otherwise, they’re an honorable mention. It’s odd to think that Butler, who was once regarded as a Howard-like nuisance in the Mavs’ offense, has become this vital, but that’s the case. He’s far from an elite player (in fact by most measures, he’s merely average), but in the context of this particular team he means quite a bit. Not enough for Dallas to free fall and pull a quick trigger on a trade, but enough to put them a safe step below the likes of San Antonio.
The Mavs have been long overdue for a substantial injury, and now one has derailed the team despite all promise. Happy New Year.