The last game of a wild Mavericks season is now less than 24 hours away. Fittingly, uncertainty still looms even as game number 82 approaches; the result of tonight’s contest determines whether Dallas finishes the season as a losing team or achieves the respectable .500 mark they fought so hard to reach. Though that distinction in itself may prove to be of little consequence, the end of a troubling season introduces far more questions an uncertainties with precious few answers to speak of.
While most of Dallas’ future is unknown, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld provided a useful framework for understanding and classifying known and unknown forces. Rumsfeld famously responded to a journalist’s query about uncertainty by putting “knowns and unknowns” into three conceptual categories, explaining:
“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
But, there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.
In the first category, the “known knowns” which represent areas of total certainty, Dallas entered 2012-2013 with none and leaves with a very important one: Dirk’s still got it.
There was no more important question facing these Mavericks than how Dirk would return from injury. Nowitzki stared down Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James in three straight playoff series just a full season and change prior, but surgery represented an entirely new obstacle. It was fair to openly wonder how Dirk would recover because his surgery was completely unfamiliar terrain — an unusual “first” in Nowitzki’s long and storied career.
Appropriately, the recovery was anything but quick, as Dirk had to learn to adjust to the speed of a young man’s game mid-season. He looked tentative and, as a number of uncharacteristic performances mounted, Mavericks fans wondered whether they’d ever see Nowitzki in fine, All-Star-caliber form again. Fortunately, his recent play suggests Dirk has plenty left in the tank, and lends support to the optimistic view that he should perform at a high level for another two to three years.
Nowitzki is Dallas’ lone “known known” on the roster, but there’s none more significant. Aside from setting the tone for Dallas in the locker room and on the floor, Dirk also represents the biggest marketing attraction these Dallas Mavericks have to offer in free agency, a role he has occupied with grace since Y2K and “Gettin Jiggy Wit It” were in vogue. If Dallas wants to attract a legitimate number two to accompany Nowitzki and eventually take the reins, it needs to be able to compellingly market Dirk as a superstar. After this season that case seems far easier to make than it may have been amid all the questions marks of last summer.
The need for a reliable second fiddle is Dallas’ biggest “known unknown.” O.J. Mayo came to Dallas hoping to fulfill the role once occupied by the likes of Josh Howard and Jason Terry. Despite a very strong start to the season, particularly from three-point range, Mayo soon regressed to the mean. He has struggled consistently with turnovers and defensive awareness, and any step forward in those areas is often promptly met with two steps back.
At a time of year when many players hope to cement a role or impress potential off-season suitors, Mayo’s play has been listless. Coach Rick Carlisle, who rarely blasts his players in public, excoriated Mayo to our own Bryan Gutierrez after Monday’s loss to Memphis, saying:
“I just want to see him show up and compete. He didn’t compete tonight. With all the time that we have put into helping him develop and bringing him along, for him, in the biggest game of the year, an opportunity to be a winning team, for him to show up like he did tonight I was shocked. Sometimes guys have bad nights so make sure and put that in there, too.”
Carlisle is right to note that Monday night was an unusually bad one for Mayo but it continues a disturbing trend as the Mavericks cross the finish line. Mayo is having his worst shooting month, converting only 38.9% of his shots from the field, and his turnover average remains stubbornly high. The poor play has worn down Rick Carlisle, as the above quote and other mid-game comments (captured by Kelly Dwyer of Ball Don’t Lie) demonstrate.
There is no shortage of questions residing in that ominous final category of ”unknown unknowns” in Dallas. The Mavericks will enter free agency with more action awaiting them than usual, and next year’s roster may bear only a passing resemblance to the current unit. The aforementioned search for a number two will take place alongside ongoing inquiries for a starting point guard and center among the biggest tasks Dallas has awaiting it.
While the coming offseason offers more questions than answers, it does possess some clear, defining traits. Dirk continues to be Dallas’ “known known” after all these years, still capable of producing at a high-level despite all odds and obstacles, and looks capable of doing so for at least a few more seasons. The silver lining of the team’s many unknown quantities is that they are “known unknowns,” as the need for a change is clear. Despite showing promise, there isn’t much doubt or debate about whether Mayo is cut out to be the team’s number two or whether Brandan Wright and Darren Collison are long-term solutions as starters. These are among the few things Mavericks fans can claim to know with any relative certainty after this season’s wild ride, and can be spared from the growing list of considerations that Dallas’ front office must weigh moving forward.
Brian Rubaie is a high school teacher, debate coach, and full-time Mavericks fan. Follow him on Twitter: @DirksRevenge.