Escaping the Basement

Posted by Brian Rubaie on March 7, 2013 under Commentary | 3 Comments to Read

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Playing basketball in the NBA’s Southwest Division is not for the faint of heart. The division is less than a decade old, born in 2004 after the dissolution of the Midwest division, but has successfully produced three NBA champions in the nine seasons since, and accounted for half of the Western Conference playoff field on four separate occasions.

This season marks the first time Dallas has posted a losing (4-7) record within the division, one of countless other unsettling and unusual occurrences. Fans struggling to cope with the new reality hope this season represents an anomaly, a rare transition year providing an opportunity for hungry and promising free agents to earn a spot on next season’s squad, a unit which aims to return to the top of the division standings with a healthy Dirk Nowitzki and the expansive cap room necessary to facilitate a big-ticket free agent signing.

That outlook is far too rosy. While the 2013-2014 Mavericks will possess a former MVP, a great coach and the hope of a big addition, their division opponents will be equal to any challenge they’ve previously encountered. Other divisional foes have only improved in recent years and show no signs of letting up. Dallas, meanwhile, will confront several obstacles that make a return to the top half of the division much more difficult to foresee.

The prospective 2013-2014 Southwest division champion remains the rival San Antonio Spurs, a team which is on its way to its sixth division title in nine years and fourth in the last five. The Spurs, somehow still flying under the radar, possess the best winning percentage in the NBA, the best division record in basketball and are winning games by a remarkable average of 9.1 points per game.

Dallas fans often hope that Father Time will catch up to the Spurs, a paradoxical wish for a visitor given that it could damage the Mavs as much as any other team. Despite injuries of varying durations to each of the big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, the Spurs have managed to remain the class of the NBA while carefully taking care of their stars’ futures. Kawhi Leonard has logged more minutes per game than Tim Duncan and Danny Green has logged more than Manu Ginobli. The Spurs’ decline, whenever it does hit, is sure to be expertly managed and may still be several years away.

Much of the faith in the Spurs future arises from the remarkable performance of point guard Tony Parker, who has played his best basketball this season. His play has been so magnificent, in fact, that Parker is attracting attention as a potential runner-up in LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s race for the league’s MVP honors. Charles Barkley, as quoted by Dan Devine of Ball Don’t Lie, remarked that he thought Parker should be the league’s MVP and had now surpassed Chris Paul as the league’s best point guard:

During halftime of Thursday’s Spurs/Clippers game, TNT analyst (and “The Price is Right” enthusiast) Charles Barkley called Parker, not Paul, the “best point guard in the NBA,” and his colleague Kenny Smith agreed. Barkley then, as he so often does, took things one step further.

“This guy — first of all, he should be the MVP,” Barkley said. “Listen, LeBron [James] is the best player. Kevin Durant’s probably a better player. But when we’ve been voting on the MVP the last 25 years, we gave it to the guy who had the best record on the best team. Tony Parker should be the MVP. [...] If they finish with the best record — because you think of all the time that [Tim] Duncan and my man [Manu] Ginobili have missed — this guy’s unbelievable. And just because he’s down in San Antonio with all those big old women, he don’t get the credit and respect he deserves.”

In fairness to James and Paul, Barkley possesses a well-known flair for the theatrical and his views on both accounts aren’t widely shared. That’s why it was especially telling to see Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, a man who rarely sings false praises for his players, challenge that same bit of the NBA power structure. From an interview with Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports:

“With such a long experience of playing so well year after year after year and winning championships, you’d think he’d be in conversations as one of the better point guards in the league,” Popovich said. “It’s funny. It’s taken all these years until now for him to get into these conversations. Name me a point guard who’s had a better season? I can’t think of one. I don’t know who has had a better season than him.”

It is also difficult to name a coach better than Gregg Popovich, who seems likely to replace Coach Mike Krzyzewski as the coach of the U.S. Men’s Olympic Basketball team. As Dallas searches for answers at the point guard position in Dallas, Gregg Popovich has found a way to simultaneously ease the reins while elevating Parker’s play to new levels.

San Antonio’s dominance is familiar to Dallas fans. Less predictable, though equally troubling, is the rise of the rest of the division. Both the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies have very promising outlooks for next season that will be difficult for Dallas to match.

The Houston Rockets, a team threatening to steal the sixth seed in the Western Conference from the Golden State Warriors, have developed a very strong young core that is scoring at a mind-boggling clip of 110.6 points per 100 possessions. The team has been led by the inspired play of James Harden, who has become the NBA’s fifth-leading scorer and a budding superstar, but Houston’s success goes far deeper than the play of any one player. Houston general manager Daryl Morey recently pulled off a heist by acquiring Thomas Robinson, the fifth pick in last year’s draft and runner-up in the college national player of the year race to Anthony Davis. While the move depleted Houston’s depth at power forward, their frontcourt remains formidable. Robinson joins Omer Asik, who is averaging a double-double as the NBA’s third-best rebounder, and upstart big man Donatas Motiejunas, who has played well since getting regular minutes, to complete a productive rotation of bigs.

Houston’s backcourt is also very promising. After struggling at the outset, Jeremy Lin is rounding into form by playing very strongly since the All-Star break. The focus on Lin and Harden often overlooks several other talented players who have played well for Houston this season, headlined by the steady Chandler Parsons and the versatile Carlos Delfino. Concerns remain in Houston as its great offense is balanced by the NBA’s 23rd-ranked defense, but such is to be expected from a roster so young and with so little experience together.

The 33-point loss that Dallas suffered to Houston on Sunday wasn’t the only stomach blow delivered to these Mavericks by a division opponent in the last week. Our own Bryan Gutierrez put the recent loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in perspective in this week’s edition of The Rundown by noting that it was fourth-worst meltdown in team history. After trading Rudy Gay on the heels of a salary dump, skeptics predicted that Memphis would slide. Instead, the Grizz have improved their economic outlook while still managing to win nine of their last ten games.

In contrast to the shaky play of Mavericks bigs Chris Kaman, Brandan Wright and Bernard James, Memphis is bolstered by two All-Star caliber rocks in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Gasol and Randolph deserve all the attention they receive (and Gasol arguably deserved an All-Star spot this season) but they have been bolstered in their campaign by a great supporting cast. An ever-improving Mike Conley makes the woeful state of the Mavericks’ point guard spot even more pressing, an issue also exacerbated by the amazing and timeless defensive prowess of Tony Allen.

Even if the success of these teams stays relatively constant — which appears likely given the dynamism and stability of their rosters — it will be very difficult for Dallas to even crack the division’s top three next season. Dallas snuck into the playoffs as the Southwest’s fourth best team in 2007-2008, the lone year when a non-Texas team (Chris Paul’s 56-win New Orleans Hornets) won the division. The team’s ascension that year was aided greatly by the collapsing Memphis Grizzlies, winners of only 22 games in lieu of the departure of Pau Gasol.

Unlike 2007-08, the basement of the Southwest won’t represent a “gimme” victory next season. While the New Orleans Hornets have no shortage of problems and are currently tied with the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference basement with a meager 21 wins, they are a much more formidable opponent than those rebuilding Grizzlies teams of old and improving constantly with a roster of talented players.

The discussion of talented Hornets usually starts and ends with young stars Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis, but this overlooks impressive marks posted by several other capable members of their roster. Ryan Anderson, a player the Orlando Magic must miss dearly, is only a tenth of a point off of Gordon’s per-game scoring average and his 40% shooting from the three-point line is remarkable for a player with his volume of attempts. Greivis Vasquez is distributing the ball masterfully and is currently only a tenth of an assist behind Chris Paul’s mark for the NBA’s third-best assists per game average. All four of those core players, barring injury or an unforeseeable “Space Jam” style diminution of their skills, have their best days ahead of them.

It is not inconceivable that the Mavericks could again make the playoffs next season. Dirk’s recent play suggests he still has a good deal of gas left in the tank and Dallas remains a relatively popular free agent destination, at least when compared with its division rivals. The Atlanta Hawks’ Josh Smith, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Brandon Jennings and several others who have been noted as free agent possibilities would likely improve the team by a significant margin.

The worry is not that the Mavericks won’t again make the postseason, but instead that they are unlikely to surpass the three teams currently ahead of them in their division — especially with another up-and-coming club nipping at their heels. Though that would not make for a terrible existence, Dallas will find it very difficult to secure a home-court advantage in any playoff series while dwelling in the Southwest division basement. Mavericks fans shouldn’t abandon hope in the team’s chances for next season, as the summer will bring a chance for a fresh start and considerable improvements. They should, however, approach these chances realistically, with eyes wide open, and prepare for what may be yet another difficult and unsettling season.

  • Matt Hulme

    First of all, good write-up. Well thought out rundown of a division that has long been the toughest and deepest in the NBA, really, as you stated, since its conception.

    Now, as for this coming offseason, let me ask this:

    Is Dallas still a top free agent destination?

    To that end, has it ever REALLY been one of the top five or so destinations players clamor for in the offseason?

    I totally understand the reasons why it would, could, and should be; great, enthusiastic, and dedicated ownership that puts winning first, a thriving (if not undervalued) metropolis, one of the league’s better fan bases, no state income tax (but this obviously also applies to the Spurs and Rockets, so…), and more than a decade of continuous success relative to playoff contention.

    But do big-time free agents REALLY want to play here? They may say it, and mean it, but when it all boils down to it, DFW is NOT a destination in the eyes of most players, the Mavs are not guaranteed to get spotlight-plugs by ESPN and others, and for as great as the 2006, 2007, and 2011 seasons were, the Mavs are not landing those top guys. Obviously there’s a number of reasons for this (cap space is always a big one)…

    I guess what I’m saying is that if the Mavs don’t make a truly big splash this summer, then it’s time we let that notion of Dallas being a top-flight free agency destination go, and let the reality of the middle-class sink in.

    • Brian Rubaie

      Excellent breakdown Matt!

      I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Dallas will likely be able to attract stars and not superstars. I don’t think Dallas will create any real quandary for Dwight Howard this summer and I don’t think Deron Williams was as close to coming to Dallas as he suggested.

      I do, however, think that we can land (overpay) for players like Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings who can keep us competitive but won’t push us over the top. The best-case scenario for Dallas is that it can replicate a signing on par with James Harden to Houston, though that seems highly unlikely.

      Dallas’ desirability as a free agent destination is thus a close mirror for Dallas’ position as a team: uncertainty fueled by the fear that Dallas is good but not great.

  • FromWayDowntown

    Formidable breakdown. One thing we shouldn’t forget when talking about landing FAs is that most of the other competitors in the division sport great young talent. A thing the Mavs don’t have. So let Jennings come (*cough*) and what have we? Meh!