Thermodynamics: The 2012-2013 Season

Posted by Travis Wimberly on April 21, 2013 under Commentary, Recaps | Be the First to Comment

Black hole

Thermodynamics (n.) – the science concerned with the relations between heat and mechanical energy

And with that, the 2012-2013 Dallas Mavericks will ride off into the sunset.

Sixteen NBA teams will play on, but the Mavs’ season is over. It wasn’t exactly a ceremonious ending, but it could have been worse. The Mavs closed out the year exactly at .500 (41-41), tallying their final win ever against the New Orleans Hornets Pelicans.  In the process, they became the first Western Conference team in over three decades to finish at .500 or better after being 10-plus games below that mark at any point during the season. That says something (although I’m not sure exactly what).

In honor of the season’s end and the final 2012-2013 installment of Thermodynamics, this week’s column will be a little different. Instead of the usual “weekly recap” approach, this one will address the three hottest and coldest performances for the entire season. For each item on the list, I’ll include one of the first things I wrote about that player from early in the year, and we can see how those initial impressions line up with the player’s season-long outlook.

Off we go…

FIRE

1) Brandan Wright

“Last season [2011-2012], Brandan Wright was a very serviceable rotation-caliber big man. This year, he will move well above that status, if the first two games are any indication.” – Thermodynamics: Week 1 (Nov. 1, 2012)

Those first two games were an indication, indeed.

Like countless Mavs observers, I spent the early part of this season perplexed by Rick Carlisle’s handling of Wright. Even accounting for Wright’s weaknesses, there was never any real justification for him to ride the pine for long stretches in favor of 2012 Troy Murphy. Yet as the year went on, Carlisle grew more and more comfortable with Wright. The 25-year-old big man began to rebound and defend better (although he still has significant room for improvement), all while the Mavs’ mounting playoff desperation necessitated Carlisle’s compromise.

As many of us suspected, Wright turned to be one of the Mavs’ most efficient and productive players, effectively showcasing his potential as a long-term piece for the Mavs. He also drove up his free-agent asking price in the process, but Dallas has cap room aplenty, which if nothing else will give Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson room to mull over a competitive offer. I consider him a top priority for this offseason. It would be foolish to let him walk unless another team wants to drastically overpay him (which isn’t completely outside the realm of possibility). Wright is already a highly efficient offensive player, and he has plenty of upside to boot. It’s hard to ask for more.

2) Vince Carter

“Vince Carter did some good things this week. But if anything can be clear from a two-game sample size, it’s clear that Carter could stand to work more diligently for better shots.” – Thermodynamics: Week 1 (Nov. 1, 2012) 

That criticism of Carter from the very first week remains my single biggest criticism of his play. It’s terrific that he’s become a fairly efficient three-point shooter, but he could be even more efficient if he didn’t have this unwavering desire to pull up and shoot immediately — from any distance — upon glimpsing the slightest sign of airspace.

Other than that, though, Carter was a gem for the Mavs this season. All season long, he was productive, gritty, and a stabilizing presence. A good friend recently said to me that he thought Carter has the best talent-salary ratio in the league. Excepting a couple guys who are still on their rookie deals (Damian Lillard and Kawhi Leonard come to mind), I think he’s right.  NBA players who can legitimately create offense for themselves don’t grow on trees, and those who can do that at $3M a year are even less common. Carter can. If the Mavs can add enough talent next year to alleviate the overuse of Carter during end-of-game possessions, he’ll be exactly the sixth man the Mavs need.

3) The Title Two-some

“As Dirk gets back into game shape, the Mavs will start looking like a much different team than they have for the past two months”. – Thermodynamics: Week 9 (Dec. 28, 2012)

“It doesn’t always look pretty–in fact, it rarely does–but Marion sent a message this week that he can be a fairly productive scorer on a team desperately seeking its offensive identity.” – Thermodynamics: Week 5 (Nov. 29, 2012)

Less than two years ago, the Mavs won a championship with a roster of 15 players. Only three of those players are left, and only two of them actually played during the title run: Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion. Given their talent, championship pedigree, and combined 29 years’ of NBA experience, you’d naturally expect that these two players would show immense grit and tenacity during a tough season.

And that’s exactly what they did. Dirk hardly had his greatest statistical year, but he showed tremendous work ethic in coming back from a fairly major knee procedure just so he could shoulder the load for a team whose playoff aspirations were already nearly dead by early January. Not that anyone should be surprised, but Nowitzki never used his injury or the team’s place in the standings as an excuse to sit out games or to check out mentally. If anything, Dirk grew frustrated this year at being too little involved in the Mavs’ offense — a recurring problem in large part due to the deficiencies of the Mavs’ point guard rotation.

The same things can (mostly) be said of Marion. Unlike Dirk, he didn’t undergo major surgery this year, but I was just as impressed with his tenacity. He didn’t play well every single game — nobody does — but he played well the vast majority of the time. What’s more, Marion consistently picked up the slack for the less productive Mavericks. His all-around game — including some impressive bouts of scoring, as alluded to in the quote above — helped patch over several deficiencies in the Mavs’ roster. If the Mavs don’t end up needing to dump his salary to make room for a big offseason signing, it will be a pleasure to have Marion back in the blue and white next season.

ICE

1) OJ Mayo

“Mayo’s much-needed punch from the two-guard spot is a big reason why the Mavs are 4-1—and with last night’s Spurs loss, tied for first place in the West—without Dirk Nowitzki.” – Thermodynamics: Week 2 (Nov. 8, 2012)

Unfortunately, Mayo’s early-season “punch” didn’t last. As good as he was in the early part of the season, he has disappointed for much of this calendar year. Once Nowitzki returned to the lineup in late December, Mayo had a difficult time adjusting to the role of second scorer and ball distributor. He certainly had some brilliant moments, but his overall level of play was uneven and often unintelligent. Mayo’s poor late-game execution cost the Mavs a few wins this year, and those wins may well have been the difference between the lottery and the playoffs.

Of course, we can’t blame it all on Mayo. This is a team sport, and Mayo’s a $4M/year player, not LeBron James. Still, I think we all expected more from a player with his talent. Mayo has indicated that he will opt-out of his contract, so it will be interesting to see how aggressively the Mavs pursue him on a new deal. For all his mistakes this season, Mayo would almost certainly be a much better player if paired with a legitimate starting point guard. This would alleviate the need to consistently put the ball in Mayo’s hands as a means of half-court creation, instead allowing him to do what he does best: shoot. If the Mavs were to land, say, Jose Calderon this offseason, I would be far more inclined to bring Mayo back on a reasonable deal. Key word: reasonable.

2) Chris Kaman

“Kaman showed excellent touch from the baseline and the elbow, and demonstrated a nice array of low-post moves while finishing with both hands. His versatility won’t surprise seasoned NBA observers, as his biggest issue has always been health, not talent.” – Thermodynamics: Week 2 (Nov. 8, 2012)

As with Mayo, the early-season returns on Kaman didn’t hold up. He continued to score fairly efficiently, but he didn’t keep up his torrid early-season pace. Far worse, his weaknesses on defense and on the boards often negated his own offensive production. While it’s great to see your center shoot 7-of-8 for 14 points, for instance, it isn’t so great when he’s personally responsible for conceding 30-plus points on the other end. It’s not fair to pin the Mavs’ woeful defense and rebounding entirely on Kaman, but the on-court/off-court stats indicate that Kaman was a huge liability in both areas.

There are several teams in the NBA on which Kaman is probably a good fit. Unfortunately, the Mavs as constructed aren’t one of those teams. Especially in his advanced age, Dirk needs a mobile, athletic, paint-roaming center to cover up his deficiencies on the defensive end. Kaman is pretty much the opposite of that. It’s unlikely he’ll be back next year, and even though he’s a good guy, that’s probably for the best.

3) The Front Office

“The Mavs’ failures of the last seven days were the culmination of two straight disappointing offseasons for Cuban.” – Thermodynamics: Week 23 (Apr. 4, 2013)

Unlike the others, that quote isn’t from early in the year. But I wanted to use it anyway, because I think it’s the single most illustrative thing I wrote about the Mavs’ front office all season.

The miscalculations of the Mavs’ front office don’t boil down to individual players. Are there compelling arguments that the Mavs should have kept Tyson Chandler? Obviously. Are there compelling arguments that the Mavs shouldn’t have counted on acquiring Dwight Howard or Deron Williams (or both)? Absolutely. But forget the granular stuff. Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. Presently speaking, the front office believes its job is to balance winning now with winning in the future. This means maximizing the remainder of Dirk’s “window” while still keeping an eye toward life after Dirk. How, then, should the front office balance these two semi-competing interests on the macro level?

For the past two years, the answer to that question has been a moving target. The front office has oscillated between moves primarily designed to “win now” (e.g., signing Derek Fisher and Mike James) and moves primarily designed to benefit the future (e.g., letting most of a championship roster walk). The two categories aren’t mutually exclusive, but at some point you do have to make a choice. It’s crucial to know where you want to fall on that spectrum. I’m not sure the front office has always had a clear answer to that question.

That’s the issue that needs to be resolved this offseason. If the goal is to make another deep playoff run before Dirk retires, every move should advance that goal. No more hedging, no more sitting the fence. If the front office this offseason can develop and adhere to a consistent top-level strategy, I expect next year will go far better than this one did.

Travis Wimberly lives in Austin, Texas and writes about the Dallas Mavericks on Al Gore’s Internet™. Travis enjoys shenanigans, claptrap, and frivolity. Follow Travis on Twitter @TravisRW.