The Thanksgiving holiday marks what is more or less the one month anniversary of the beginning of the season. A little over a month from now, the Christmas day games will pit last year’s playoff adversaries and rivals against each other, a time when the a greater portion of the general populace will start to take notice of the sport again as football’s dominance of SportsCenter fades. This first month has provided insight into the how the season may play out for many teams — proof that Tim Duncan still hasn’t gotten too old, that adding superstars doesn’t guarantee wins until they have jelled, that James Harden’s beard is better than yours whether his uniform is blue or red. But many questions remain across all teams, perhaps the Dallas Mavericks more than most.
As much as Shawn Marion was critical to the Mavericks championship, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, and Jason Kidd were the heart, soul, and mind of that squad. The team revolved around the German and the JET’s fearlessness, and Kidd’s savvy allowed Dirk to carry that weight. While it would be foolish to dismiss the skills or effort of every contributing member of that squad, from Tyson Chandler to DeShawn Stevenson, the aforementioned trio provided the resilience and perseverance that got them all a ring. Two of them have moved on to different, if not greener, pastures, and Nowitzki’s return is still a few weeks away. Now Marion is left as the only player of any considerable role from that championship season healthy enough to take the floor. There’s a certain lack of calming presence, a loss of the unshaken belief that the victory will be taken out of the hand of a would-be usurper. Taking the roster turnover into consideration, it is hard to tell what can be gleaned from following the Mavericks so far this season, hard to tell where the problems are with form or with function, or where the issue is ability or understanding.
In the first week of the season I was excited to see the new faces, and ready to see how the rebuilt machine would run. I foresaw my own excitement as I was going to watch the athleticism, speed, and youth of the recent acquisitions mesh with the skill and will of some of the Mavericks best. I dreamt of a functional lineup once some of the vets sat, with Collison, Mayo, Crowder, Wright, and James, blazing past the opposition on offense and using physical prowess to get stops on defense.
On Wednesday night, a throwback Vince Carter and some of what hopefully represents the everyday O.J. Mayo helped the Mavericks to pull out a close win in their rematch with the New York Knicks and go into the holiday on a winning note. Not shabby for a matchup with a team that many other TrueHoop Network writers believe to be the best in the Eastern Conference. But a good performance against a good team has been a rare affair. Every high this season has had its corresponding low; Wednesday’s success must be tempered with the early season drop to the Bobcats. Though Charlotte has proven they have a roster that can win games this season, there is no reason that those wins should come at the Mavericks’ expense, and that’s a feeling I’ve had about more than one matchup.
Down early in Wednesday’s Knicks game, Darren Collison lead the third quarter comeback to get the Mavericks back in the game. While Collison is scoring nearly 10 points more on average than Jason Kidd did last year and averaging nearly an assist more than the NBA’s number two all-time assist leader did in the same role, it was startling to watch Collison fail over and over to make a valid play in the pick and roll against Raymond Felton. Time and again Dallas’ momentum was stolen by an open dunk, as Felton drew the attention of all Mavericks defenders after blowing right past Collison.
Watching a healthy Kaman score with his left or right hand around the basket is a thing of beauty without analogue in Mavericks history. Yet in the Golden State game where Kaman put up 18 points and 17 rebounds — a dream stat-line for a Mavs center — Dallas was outrebounded by 19 boards. And Kaman’s generally solid field goal percentage can suddenly take a turn for the worse as he jacks up Dirk-esque turnaround fadeaways.
Even the brightest spots are sullied in the current atmosphere. O.J. Mayo is currently the league’s eighth leading scorer in points per game and shooting at a better clip than anyone in the top 10 not named LeBron or Kobe. But the shine on Mayo’s performance is dulled by the fear he’ll leave the team that finally gave him his showcase, a fact recognized by Cuban already.
When not referring to the new blood that will start with Dirk whenever his return may be, the same sorts of ups and downs apply to the rest of the Mavericks as well. Always reliable for excellent defense, Marion recently recorded his personal worst for rebounds in a game for his career with a meager one-board showing. Brandon Wright looked like he’d made real progress in the offseason in the first week’s games, but on Wednesday he received a DNP-CD. While no one could deny the effort of rookies Crowder or James, the need to win to stay relevant in what will be a hotly contested Western Conference playoff race has necessitated playing veterans to get wins, resulting in DNP’s for both.
The issues at hand are not lost on their coach: Carlisle’s frustration can be easily read on his face as rebounds slip through his player’s hands and defensive lapses lead to easy buckets. The rotation seems to change wildly from day to day, a chess-master trying to adapt new strategies. And hopefully soon than later, they’ll all have to be modified again when Nowitzki returns from his injury hiatus. If the highs can be maintained and the lows mitigated, if the synergies can be found amongst the players, there are many months ahead for the Mavericks to improve upon their mediocre record.
The NBA gives their employees Thanksgiving off. And though that’s but a brief respite from a hectic season, hopefully the Mavericks players are enjoying this holiday, and taking the time to be thankful for what they have: a great job and a GM, coach, and owner all willing to do what it takes to win. As a Mavericks fan, I’m thankful for my team, but as of now, I’m not really sure what that means. Here is to hoping that my early Christmas gift will be it all coming together like I believe it can.
Shay Christian Vance is getting his feet wet in writing here at The Two Man Game. Follow Shay on Twitter at @shayseph.