Mr. Blue Sky

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 21, 2009 under Commentary | 3 Comments to Read

In the spirit of giving the season a full evaluation, I’ve decided to do an extended take on the point-counterpoint formula.  This post will shine the rose-colored spotlight on 2008-2009.

There are countless ways to evaluate a season.  To some, anything short of a trophy is an abject failure.  I am a stark advocate of basketball for basketball’s sake, viewing the means as an end unto themselves.  If you view every season that doesn’t end with a ring as a failure, you’re sadly marginalizing not only a year’s worth of toil and trouble, but also a complex narrative (be it complete or incomplete) rife with elements of macro and micro-level intrigue.  Is there really no beauty in a breakdown?  No silver lining to undeniable failure?  Or, in the case of these Mavericks, no redemption in the season’s smaller victories?  I find that idea not only unsettling, but a bit ridiculous.  The championship validates the season and the effort (and in the most supreme way imaginable; I don’t mean to devalue the almighty trophy), but

The easiest way of finding joy in the Mavs’ playoff defeat is to focus on their blatant defiance in the name of low expectations.  Many projected the Mavs to fall out of the playoff race entirely at the hands of the Shaq-infused Suns.  Neither Dallas nor Phoenix was burdened with particularly lofty hopes for the season, but within the twosome you can see a divergence: the Mavs certainly battled issues with consistency, but adversity was met with important plays and important wins.  The Suns, by contrast, stumbled to the finish line when in need of a dead sprint.  It’s not quite the championship, but it’s certainly a minor victory.  The impacts of a veteran team missing the playoffs can be catastrophic, and are in an entirely different spectrum than a failure to advance beyond round X.  The Mavs’ brass is blessed in a way to have the choice of continuing to tweak or blow up the team, because missing out on the postseason could certainly have forced a few hands.

The only reason that’s possible, and the only reason making the playoffs and beating the Spurs were possible, is because of the offense (5th in offensive efficiency in the regular season, 3rd in the postseason).  It’s easy to lump a complicated variety of factors under that tag, but let’s look at some of the keynotes:

  • Dirk Nowitzki’s effect on the offense cannot be underestimated.  The impact of his scoring was linear, but in providing opportunities for his teammates through improved passing and drawing in the defense.  As the best player on the team, the offensive burden falls on Dirk’s shoulders.  Not only did he succeed with flying colors, but accepted more responsibility without so much as a pip.
  • I don’t know what more we could have asked of Jason Terry offensively.  With the exception of his failures to produce with any kind of consistency in the playoffs, the JET provided a much-needed bench presence and a more than adequate second fiddle.  I don’t think anyone predicted that Terry would eventually come to be the emotional leader of the Mavs when he was acquired for Antoine Walker five seasons ago, but that’s exactly what he has become.  Maybe his gutsy play, his constant jawing, and his showmanship gets under the skin of opponents, but it was exactly the shot in the arm that the Mavs and the fans needed.  That kind of emotional connection with the fanbase is tremendous, especially when trying to use the home court as a rallying point.
  • Jason Kidd deserves credit for proving that old point guards can be taught new tricks, and especially for doing so without abandoning what made him great.  In substantially improving his three-point stroke, Kidd added exactly what the Mavs’ offense called for.  At the same time, his ability to establish his teammates with perfectly placed passes should never be overlooked.  Kidd pulled points out of players like Ryan Hollins and Erick Dampier, which isn’t exactly an easy task at times.
  • J.J. Barea and Brandon Bass really evolved into dependable offensive players late into the season.  Barea’s size and recklessness painted him as a man doomed to fail, but J.J. has reined in his game and transformed from wild card to solid playmaker and effective spurt scorer.  His decision-making has improved by leaps and bounds in the last year, and no attribute is of more import for a backup point guard.  Bass exercised equal discretion, using more selective attempts and possessions based on position and mismatches.  He tries to throw down everything around the rim, and his midrange jumper provides an excellent complement.  Though the Mavs don’t have the best track record when it comes to drafting, both have proven to be welcome additions to Donnie Nelson’s resume when it comes to acquiring “low-level”, low-priced talent in free agency.

Of course, the offense isn’t truly given a chance to shine without Rick Carlisle’s willingness to install his system and let go.  In handing playcalling responsibilities to Jason Kidd, he not only instilled confidence into the team’s core, but also allowed a very capable and talented floor general to control the pace of the game.  The fact that Rick was able to have that kind of faith in his players in his first year as a coach here was tremendous, and the dividends were as obvious as they were impressive.

Rick Carlisle’s successes as a coach were exemplified in the series against the Spurs, where he out-coached Gregg Popovich.  Pop is probably my favorite coach of all time (and I know how blasphemous that sounds coming from a Mavs fan), and to see our man Rick win out over one of the best in the biz was a treat.  Carlisle made all the right moves in regard to tinkering with the rotation (notably pulling Barea out of his magic hat) and altering the defense the best he could.  As a result the Mavs picked up the series in only five games, an impressive feat by almost any standard.  However, Carlisle’s regular season adjustments and willingness to compromise were crucial to the Mavs not only securing the 6th seed in a tight playoff race, but even making it into the postseason.  At the season’s dawn, Carlisle planned on running more of a motion offense that would create more ball and player movement.  The goal was to produce easy shots, but the system never clicked.  Rather than shove his agenda down the players’ throats, Rick catered to the team’s strengths and adjusted the offense to include similar concepts and sets from years past, with a strong emphasis on the Dirk-Terry two man game (imagine that).  It was a central reason why the team was able to rebound from its slow start, and exactly the adjustment needed to combat the loss of Josh Howard to injury.  A little familiarity goes a long way.

Donnie Nelson made quite the blunder in inking DeSegana Diop to a midlevel deal this summer, but like Carlisle he was willing to admit to the fault.  Diop’s miserable start to the season signalled to the Mavs to get while the getting’s good almost rock bottom.  Nelson responded by ditching the expensive, appreciating midlevel deal for Matt Carroll’s depreciating one, and netting a surprise addition in Ryan Hollins.  Hollins was a welcome surprise and — at a bargain bin price — an ideal candidate for frontline depth.  I don’t think Hollins will ever be a starting caliber center in the league, but he’s more than capable of bringing energy, shot-blocking, and athleticism in a role similar to the Birdman.  There’s plenty of room for improvement, but right now that sounds pretty good.

James Singleton also proved to be a stellar addition for little risk, and his ability to fill any frontcourt position in a jam was quite valuable.  He also looks like a miniature version of Erick Dampier, which is both weird and kind of cool.  But Singleton’s rebounding and activity were nice additions to the squad, and he’s exactly the kind of situational role player you want to have on your roster.

Though Singleton and Hollins didn’t play prominent roles in the series against the Nuggets, both (in addition to J.J. Barea and Brandon Bass) were indispensible in creating some semblance of a bench.  Jason Terry distorted the Mavs’ bench scoring, which was completely nonexistent early in the season.  But as Carlisle grew more comfortable with his reserves and as they grew into the system and as players, we saw several guys capable of putting their fingerprints on a game.  I still don’t feel like the bench is strong enough in the right places, but I do have a tremendous amount of respect and pride in what the bench was able to accomplish given the limitations.

In a lot of ways, that was the Mavs’ season in a nutshell: success in spite of limitations.  Josh Howard was limited by injury all season long and fittingly, in the playoffs.  But that didn’t stop him from being quite effective against the Spurs, or from competing to the best of his ability against the Nuggets.  The offense was able to thrive despite going the season with essentially two proven scorers.  The team’s pivotal decision-makers were able to adjust their game plans for the better when met with failure.  The Mavs weren’t good enough to continue on the the conference finals and beyond, but they did remedy some of their weaknesses, and improved markedly by the end of the season.  That’s the reason why we saw the Mavs hang tough with the Nuggets in a series of close games before ultimately falling in 5.  The final tally is misleadingly lopsided, but the team that seemed incapable of solid, sustained play just months ago put together a wonderful offensive performance and a significant change in mentality.  The Mavs toughness didn’t really manifest itself in ways that would make Kenyon Martin proud, but the refusal to surrender despite an insurmountable 0-3 hole and the refusal to bow down to the Nuggets’ physicality is certainly an improvement.

Like it or not, the Mavs have changed.  This isn’t the same team that was the cream of the Western crop in ’06 or that won 67 games the following year.  Jason Terry’s role has changed, Devin Harris and Jason Kidd are remarkably different players, there’s a new coach at the helm, and the depth is not what it once was.  Playoff berths and 50 wins are reasonable goals for this squad, but to expect them to repeat past successes because this team shares laundry with its predecessors isn’t quite fair.

The Mavs are still a very good basketball team, and to be honest they’re still finding themselves.  Offensively, I think the Mavs have it figured out.  But they have yet to achieve anything close to their defensive potential.  That might sound like a criticism, and to some extent it is, but it’s also a reason to be optimistic about things to come.  Were the Mavs’ defensive failures this season a product of poor scheming, poor execution, or poor effort?  Likely some combination of the three, which means we’re looking at a perfect time for improvement.  It’s up to Carlisle to reinforce his defensive system and create an environment that rewards playing solid defense.  It’s not that grown men need a “GREAT JOB!” sticker for every accomplishment, but the foundation of the team needs to congratulate effort and execution.  Regimes run by fear and intimidation eventually crumble, but a defensive scheme hinging on mutual respect and team incentive can go far.  Just ask the Spurs.

The buzzword on this blog for the playoffs has been resiliency, and that’s why I don’t feel dirty doling out points for a morally victorious season.  I have no idea whether that mindset will translate into next season, but the very possibility has me excited.  Not necessarily excitement that requires championship validation, but nonetheless excitement for another successful season that keeps the championship dream, however distant, alive.