In the days following the the Mavs’ most dominant showing this season, we’re all forced to reconcile the difference between what lies beyond and what lay before perhaps the most enigmatic elite team in the league. Even after their complete dismantling of Golden State on Monday, something still separates Dallas from the likes of L.A., Boston, Chicago, Miami, and perhaps even San Antonio (though Tim Duncan’s injury has managed to muddle up optimal projections for that team’s future); of all the contenders, the Mavs are the only team relying heavily on past — and I mean ancient, really — performance to bolster their championship credentials.
Dallas’ defensive regression may be incremental, but this month their performance on that end of the court has reached startling new lows. Prior to that impressive game against the Warriors, the Mavs played below average defense (by league standards, not merely their own) in eight of the previous 10 games. They allowed potent and limited offenses alike to put up impressive numbers, and lost half of those 10 games in the process. The offense is rolling, but the gains on that end clearly haven’t offset the step back the Mavs have taken defensively.
Is that enough to disqualify the Mavs as contenders? Should anyone still have faith in this team to produce despite the fact that their top-flight defense hasn’t really been there for months? Are things as dire as they seem? Is it really that bad?
If I can channel sirs Kevin Devine and Andy Hull for a moment: If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t have to ask.
We know the Mavs have the potential to be great because we’ve seen it with our own eyes, but it takes a suspension of empirical data to expect that team to suddenly show up over the next few weeks or at the start of the playoffs. It’s not that they’re incapable; clearly Dallas can play elite defense and score at a rate that puts them as one of the best overall clubs in the NBA. Yet trusting the Mavs to do anything other than what they’ve done lately requires a leap of faith that many likely won’t be comfortable taking. Even teams like the Lakers and Celtics, who come with their own warning labels but also the spoils of playoff runs past, hold a significant empirical advantage over the Mavs in terms of their ability to “flip the switch.” At least those teams have made a sudden, noteworthy change in past years to propel themselves toward the title. Dallas has no such precedent on which to reflect and rely, only a body of early-season defensive work that hardly seems relevant at this point.
The Mavs are good, and at this juncture I think it’s still quite likely that they’ll win a first round playoff series against even a pretty formidable lower-seeded foe. But this team has a lot to prove before anyone should believe in their chances beyond that. A title-winning outfit is certainly within Dallas’ range of performance, but that outcome is anything but reliable. Don’t get me wrong: no team is likely to win the championship from a statistical standpoint — even the favorite is merely more likely to win than the opposition, while the field still takes the cake. Still, the Mavs have done so little in the last month to suggest that they have a reserved space on the top shelf. They’re grouped with L.A. and San Antonio as the West’s contenders because of their record and opinion formulated during the first few months of the season, but Dallas hasn’t played like a contender since January. The Mavs may not be quite as mediocre as their recent record suggests, but mere potential doesn’t warrant any benefit of the doubt.