The lockout hasn’t even reached its official end, and yet all eyes are fixed on the summer of 2012. Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, and Deron Williams have dominated media outlets with their rumored gravity toward various teams and markets, and though basketball fans are likely queasy already from the trade rumor overload, the hype is legitimate. Those three superstars are hugely impactful players, and while the NBA world would be a better place without the rumor mill’s nonstop churning, to ignore teams’ awareness of next year’s free agent class would be naive. Franchises around the league are working hard to be in a position to take part in the free agent fun, and the Mavs are no exception.
In a surprise development on the first day that NBA teams and agents could start talking about new contracts, Tyson Chandler came away convinced that his time with the Dallas Mavericks is coming to an end.
“I really think I’m going to be on a new team come training camp,” Chandler told ESPN.com in a telephone interview Wednesday night. “I’m really taking a hard look at all of my options, trying to see what best suits me.”
…Chandler maintains that staying in Dallas has always been his first choice, but he expressed disappointment that the communication between the sides was minimal from the end of the NBA Finals in mid-June and the June 30 deadline for extensions. On Wednesday, when teams and agents were allowed to commence free-agent negotiations, NBA front office sources listed New Jersey, Golden State, Houston and Toronto as the teams chasing Chandler hardest.
I was honored to join Rahat Huq (of Red 94) and Tim Varner (of 48 Minutes of Hell) for what we’re hoping will be a bit of a recurring feature: a three-man panel dealing with pertinent, Texas-centric NBA questions. Like it or not, the competitive dynamic between fans of the three Texas teams is very real. The rivalry between the Mavs and Spurs is undeniable, and though the Rockets haven’t butted heads with the Mavs in any kind of formal fashion since 2005, geography alone makes competitive run-ins — among fans and among the two teams — a frequent occurrence.
To have a little fun on that theme, Huq, Varner and myself voiced our picks for the best Texas ballplayer of the last 20 years, the most significant event in Texas basketball over that same timeframe, and the Texas team with the brightest future. Even with the Mavs’ core seemingly on their last legs, the answers to that final question may surprise you:
1. Tim Varner: Dallas. Mark Cuban has the means and the vision to field a competitive team on an annual basis. Cuban is an innovator whose dedication to winning finally brought home a trophy last season. I see that continuing, even after Dirk Nowitzki retires.
2. Rob Mahoney: None of the Texas teams are particularly primed for the long haul, but I’ll go with Dallas. Dirk Nowitzki could contribute in the NBA until he’s 50 if that’s his aim, and the Mavericks have the infrastructure to reboot with relative ease. Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson, and Rick Carlisle give Dallas the means and savvy to transition quickly, and it doesn’t hurt that the Mavs also have a few young pieces (Rodrigue Beaubois, Dominique Jones, Corey Brewer) to fiddle around with.
3. Rahat Huq: I’ll say Dallas. You have to get really bad to get good as titles are won through the draft. Mark Cuban is the only boss from any of these teams to have made public acknowledgment on this point (stated last year at the Sloan Analytics Conference) so I trust he’ll tank when it’s time. Meanwhile, the Rockets are on a track to pick 14th every year and we’re not sure what the Spurs are planning.
Donnie Nelson may not have snagged the salesman he had intended to replace Nancy Lieberman as the head coach of the Mavericks’ D-League affiliate in Frisco, but in the process, he landed one hell of a coach.
Bruce Pearl, the Legends’ initial candidate in their coaching search, and Del Harris, who worked as the Legends’ GM last season and will take over the coaching reins, are cut from fundamentally different stylistic cloths. Each is successful in their own way, but the latter brings an unprecedented résumé to the D-League coaching ranks. Harris is an incredibly accomplished coach at virtually every level of competition, and though he’ll still be selling the Legends as a product, his primary function will be in bringing that vast experience to his dual role as head coach and general manager.
Even with that kind of pedigree, Harris will have his work cut out for him. The Legends were stacked with borderline NBA talent last season, but have lost a handful of noteworthy contributors to foreign leagues. With just 15 days remaining until the D-League draft and a bit more than a month left before the Texas Legends’ season opener, Harris took some time to talk with me about how the D-League might be impacted by the NBA lockout, his statistical approach to coaching, and the future of the Legends.
MAHONEY: You’ve been with the Legends in a managerial role before and you’re going to continue in that role next season. Did anything about managing in the D-League surprise you?
HARRIS: No, not really. Everything is a little different in the development league compared to, say, college or the NBA’s principal league itself, but it’s still basically the same work. You try to work together with everybody — the owner, the coaches, and all the various front office entities — try to put together the best team you can. It all kind of comes under the heading of teamwork.”
MAHONEY: It seems like D-League management is pretty unique in that there’s so much roster turnover from year to year. How do you grapple with the fact that in the off-season any number of your players could find jobs overseas or in other leagues? How do you game plan from year to year and maintain any kind of consistency?
HARRIS: Everybody is in the same situation, so it’s not like anybody’s unique in the league itself. It’s not that unlike college or high school — and I have coached at every level that there is to coach — where you’re going to have turnover every year in high school and in college. So this is very akin to that process. Even now in the NBA it’s not uncommon for teams to turn over as many as seven spots, and the Mavericks themselves turned over nine spots one year recently. So with the advent of such ease of free agency in the NBA, that’s not that uncommon these days for a general manager and coach to anticipate having loss.
Just look at the Mavericks right now. I can’t mention any NBA players’ names because I work for the NBA, but there are a number of key free agents for the Mavericks for example this year, and once they can get back into business they have a very similar situation to what we have. In our case we have to replace three of our most key players. Our point guard went to the NBA so I can’t mention his name. Joe Alexander and Sean Williams were two of the top five players in the league and were two of the maybe three best big men in the league. Joe is in Russia and Sean is in Europe — Spain, I think — playing, so we have to replace those three key spots the best way that we can.
MAHONEY: You made Matt Rogers the team’s first ever draft pick last year and recently announced that he’ll be back with the team next year. Walk me through Rogers’ game and your impressions of his first season in the D-League.
HARRIS: Well, Rogers had an up-and-down year, partly because he blew out his ACL at the end of his college career — at which he was nonetheless voted the number one player in Division II basketball. He was a bit hampered, as last year was a rehabilitation year for him, and yet he did alright. We had one of the best teams in the league. We had five guys at one time or another who were first round draft picks when they came out of college on our team. So Matt held up pretty well for a rookie in what is actually a pretty tough league. We’re looking forward to this year for Matt because of his health continuing to get better and [him having] more confidence in his knee. He’s gotten bigger and stronger, and the year of experience will help him.
MAHONEY: The only other official player announcement thus far has been Justin Dentmon, who also had a pretty good rookie year. What kind of role do you see for Dentmon this season, and what improvements do you want to see in his game?
HARRIS: Dentmon had a strong year and again: he’s a key player. We may have to depend on him to play a little bit more point guard than he did last year and that’s something he would have to make some improvements upon, which he should be capable of doing. He is a key guy.
MAHONEY: I’ve heard and read opinions from both sides as to have the NBA lockout might affect the D-League. What impact do you think the ongoing lockout will have on the D-League and the Legends?
HARRIS: Well, the positive thing is that we’re playing, and that people can come and watch high level basketball. That’s part of it, so any negatives after that are relatively inconsequential to the whole process. But from a coaching standpoint, it’s not as good of a situation in terms of getting talent because the best way for us to do that is after the the NBA has had their final cuts. Those players that don’t make it [onto an NBA roster] can choose to go into the D-League draft and that’s where we end up getting some outstanding players. We would have evaluated them during the preseason, so we know who the guys are that are on the bubble and we have a good list of guys in a pecking order that we’d like to take. Well, we don’t have that this year.
The other thing is that there are guys that are going over to Europe — into lesser leagues, even — because they don’t know if the NBA is going to play this year, and the main purpose of playing in the D-League for less money is that this is where you have the best opportunity to get into the NBA this year if you didn’t make it in training camp. So we don’t have that element going for us now because they don’t even know if there’s going to be a league or a schedule — they don’t know one way or another. Second, they don’t know what the process would be as far as training camp if there is an NBA league to go on this year.
So from my standpoint as a coach, I’d say it’s a negative, but as a general manager from a franchise standpoint, it’s actually kind of a good thing.
MAHONEY: The lockout negotiations really aren’t good for anyone involved in the NBA world, but some good things could potentially come out of it. There were some rumors that maybe the NBA would be revisiting the way players are assigned to the D-League, maybe extend the age to which they can be assigned, or allow for injured players to rehabilitate there. What’s your take on the current assignment system, and if there are any improvements that can be made on it?
HARRIS: Well, those things would have been discussed in any event. They are things that were brought up before we knew there would be a lockout, and even though it’s a contract year, these are things that would have been brought up anyway. Obviously we think that it would benefit the NBA itself if there were some expanded opportunities for players to play in the Development League. We think it would help at the top and we think it would help us here at the D-League level, with the caveat that it does increase that volatility of your roster. You could be planning how you’re going to play the next game and then find out that morning that you’ve got two guys coming down from the affiliate team and that kind of changes your program. But all and all, I think it would be a good thing.
MAHONEY: I saw you speak at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference back in March, and you talked about integrating advanced stats into your coaching style. Do you think there’s room for detailed statistical analysis in the D-League, and does it make sense economically and infrastructurally for teams to pursue that information even on a minor league level?
HARRIS: Well, obviously there are a lot of considerations at any level, but particularly so at the Developmental League level. But you don’t have to be overly concerned about costs with most of the metrics that matter most to a coach in the NBA. I’ve been doing metric analyses since the 60s and was the first in a lot of areas in the 80s to implement electronic data systems and things when I was coach and Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Bucks. Then that continued on with the Mavericks in a more elaborate system of metrics. But the basic metrics that I use for coaching a game really only involve basic chart-keeping, so we will be utilizing things that I’ve done for over 40 years to evaluate our points per possession, our pace of the game, our momentum. I can train a guy to do that in 10 minutes.
MAHONEY: We’ve seen — and you have a longstanding relationship with Donnie — Donnie Nelson as a manger, but what kind owner is he, and what is his involvement like with the Legends?
HARRIS: Donnie Nelson is a jack of all trades and a master of most of them. He’s a dynamo and he’s a terrific owner, and just a great public relations guy — he sells the program really well. He’s very supportive of his people, and he lets them operate. He has a good front office here, headed up by Bill Boyce, who also has some excellent people working with him. We have a young fella who has a good future named Malcolm Farmer that does a lot of the heavy lifting. He and the other owners — particularly evan Wyly — are really terrific to work with. He’s great all across the board.
HARRIS: The class is entitled “Team Building” and it’s based on a book I have written but not published that’s basically Team Building: Developing the Point Guard Within You. I teach at Dallas Christian College and it involves basically four elements in team building, starting with purpose (or mission) and then developing leadership skills, and third, enhancing communication, and ultimately ending in relationship building. We use my book as a text and I start with the sports idiom and then translate that down to the secular world as to how there might be applications in corporate america, or in institutions such as education for those who are going into teaching, or church work for those who are going into that area, and families which most of them will be going into. Then I take it down to the spiritual application.
So we use those basic principles and how they all interrelate from the sports to the secular to the spiritual. It’s exciting. I thought we’d have 15 in the class and we have 35, so it’s a little bit more people than I had anticipated, but it’s been very interesting for me.
The Texas Legends are pushing hard for former Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl to succeed Nancy Lieberman in Frisco, and are reportedly willing to make Pearl the highest-paid coach in the D-League’s history in order to woo him. That may seem a bit odd considering the NBA’s current financial situation and the pretty measly salaries afforded to the D-League’s players, but it’s understandable why Donnie Nelson covets Pearl; he’s precisely the kind of talented, charismatic leader who can make the Legends a better team while also turning their games into an event. Like it or not, the D-League still needs to be sold, and Pearl — with his unique sartorial choices and natural panache — could be just the guy to sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves.
Yes, the reported $500k salary package is ridiculous, and there are undoubtedly other capable coaches who could take over the Legends for a much more affordable cost. But Pearl has become Nelson’s very public preference, and the fact that the two hosted a press conference together without any official announcement to be made tells us plenty about the motivations of this particular courtship. Nelson — and the Legends — want to make a splash, and it’s hard to to find fault in that motivation. Pearl could conceivably attract a lot of attention to the Legends organization, and really, he already has. Whether that attention can be converted into actual profit remains to be seen, but Pearl’s involvement with the Legends would certainly make the franchise more attractive to prospective sponsors and fans.
Pearl is a talented coach; he wouldn’t be considered for the position if he were strictly a showman. Yet the advantages gained from Pearl’s potential involvement with the Legends would seem to help the actual basketball product more indirectly than they do directly. The interest, revenue, and branding gained by his possible hire could pay off immediately and even carry over into the next few seasons, and subsequently feed into the overall infrastructure of the team as a result. Of course, the gains from Pearl’s potential hiring could just as easily fail to cover even the costs of his salary alone. Pearl would fit in well as a D-League coach, but he’ll have to do more than that. In order to legitimately justify this kind of expenditure, Pearl would have to be both coach and commodity, and take the Legends brand much significantly further in the coming year than it was able to during the team’s inaugural season.
The Texas Legends are no longer purely conceptual. Beyond the cast of coaches and front office staff that has been in place since last November, there are now actual players populating the roster. Players with strengths, flaws, potential, and limits. Players that will find both success and failure — hopefully more of the former than the latter — under head coach Nancy Lieberman. Between the expansion draft, the D-League draft, and the D’s new allocation rules, the Legends have assembled a promising 15-man roster, and with it, have gained the burden of expectation.
“You can read the press release,” Lieberman said. “I mean seriously, you’re going to put in the press release that we got four former first round picks? I’m like, ‘Dude, I was trying to fly under the radar!’ I mean come on, I’m only a girl. How much can I take?” Lieberman plays the irony perfectly, clearly not overwhelmed by her standing as a pioneer for her gender, her vast responsibilities as a head coach, nor her own anticipation of the season to come.
“Talk about expectations. We have [Antonio] Daniels, Reece Gaines, [Rashad] McCants and Sean Williams,” Lieberman said. “We’re going to get on the court for practice, and we’re going to figure out Sean Williams’ strengths, Reece Gaines’ strengths, Gar Tucker’s strengths. We are smart enough as a staff to start molding the things that we want to do to benefit them.”
That molding, that adjustment, is what the D-League is all about, after all. The D-League is a professional entity in the literal sense, but it’s a stepping stone. It isn’t home to lifers. It’s a landing spot for players with an eye to something bigger, coaches looking for their next opportunity, and general managers looking to try their hand at running an NBA team. The D-League is, by nature, a league of transitions in which coaches like Lieberman, while likely pursuing their own dreams of an NBA job or high-profile college job, adjust in order to best develop and showcase the talent on their roster. “If we’re really who we say we are, we must set our [players] up for success,” Lieberman said. “It really cannot be about us.”
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but we’re going to get better and each guy is going to have a career year. They’re going to learn more about basketball than they’ve ever learned before. We will make our guys better. I promise you, we will make them better individually. And if they’re better individually, they’ll be better in a team concept.”
Of course, this venture isn’t purely altruistic. The Legends don’t only exist as a facilitator of hoop dreams, but also as a competitive franchise in itself, and, perhaps most importantly from an NBA perspective, a valuable resource for the Mavericks. Direct D-League ownership and the hybrid ownership model have reaped benefits for the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets respectively, and while Donnie Nelson’s co-ownership is based on a different model, the Mavs hope for similar gains.
Part of tapping into those gains is creating a clear organizational structure. The interests of both the Mavericks and Legends need to be in line with the hope that, eventually, the lines between the two franchises will be almost non-existent. Dallas will hopefully be able to call up players to fill either temporary or long-term needs, experiment with sets or schemes in a low-pressure environment, and use the Legends to further evaluate and instruct young players already on the Mavs’ roster. The connection between Dallas and Frisco should be seamless, and from Lieberman’s description, that seems to be the case.
“Think of us as one,” Lieberman said. “Donnie, Rick [Carlisle], the Mavericks, the Legends. Everybody decides what is best for the totality of the organization. We love that. We’re honored that the Mavericks care enough about us and enough about the future to help identify the players that we need to be successful. Everything will be collaborative and really, Donnie spearheads it. Donnie’s done every level: he’s played, he’s coached, he’s been a GM, he’s got the bridge to Europe, he’s always willing to make people around him better, and he really has a wonderful gift of bringing people’s interests together. We’re in really great hands.”
Hands that just so happen to steer the good ship Maverick, as well. That congruence is essential if the Legends are going to be a viable long-term resource.
The most obvious potential benefit to come from that resource is the players themselves. The Legends roster was assembled not only with the intent of creating a competitive D-League roster, but also by gathering prospects of interest for the Mavs. Some are relatively familiar faces — McCants, Williams, Daniels — but others, including the Legends’ first round pick, Matt Rogers, are unknowns to those not well-acquainted with Division II college basketball. Still, Rogers went to training camp with the Charlotte Bobcats, and the Legends will expect a lot from him.
“We targeted Matt Rogers from the first time we saw him at our free agent camp,” Lieberman said. “We were very impressed that, at 6-11, he could shoot, he understood how to play the game, he had good energy. We liked everything about him. We can use him in a lot of different, versatile situations on the court, so we’re excited to have him.”
But Rogers isn’t the only player Lieberman is happy to have in a Legends uniform. “I think in this league, it’s very important to have a veteran point guard,” Lieberman said. “Not that young people can’t excel; there are special players. But that’s why we looked at Antonio Daniels. He’s a veteran. He’s savvy. He’s been around the league. He knows what it takes to win. He’s smart. He’s versatile. That was very important to us, to address the point guard position. We also have Sean Williams, who is 6-11 and very explosive. We wanted to make sure that we covered the inside-out. Then we wanted to make sure we had some slashers, and guys that are combo guards, and guys that want to really defend and are willing to sacrifice and defend, and you put shooters around them. We’re really happy. We’re excited about getting Kelvin Lewis. We’re excited about having Booker Woodfox — the guy is an offensive machine. Some guys are just specialists. Curtis Terry is a lot better than people think.”
I’m not sure the Legends are a “team” in the existential sense until they finally hit the court together as a complete unit, but they have a roster, and by Lieberman’s enthusiasm and description, it seems a rather balanced one. There’s a good mix of youth and experience, bigs and guards, scorers and defenders. No one at this level is a complete player, but the Legends have some intriguing individuals and a notable level of collective talent.
Some of that talent is relatively straightforward in its implementation and utilization; Antonio Daniels is an NBA veteran who could surely benefit from instruction, but has a more established game than some of his fellow Legends. Moussa Seck, on the other hand, needs a fair bit of refinement in his game. Seck, a 7-4 shot-blocker, played for the Mavericks’ Summer League team in Las Vegas both this year and last, and though he’s improved in many respects, his basketball skills are still lacking. But rather than focus on how far Seck has left to go before becoming a fully-functional player, Lieberman sees hope in his progress thus far.
“I’ve known Moussa now for almost a year,” Lieberman said. “Moussa has come so far. He was very raw, but he has something that nobody else has. He has a great heart, he has a wonderful work ethic, he’s learning every day how to be a next level player. That kid was working every day in the spring on his strength, working on his game, working on his power, working on his hands. All you can ask of somebody is to get better.”
“Look at Manute Bol. Look at [Dikembe] Mutombo. Look at the guys who came here and really ended up flourishing. There has to be a level of patience. You almost have to project down the road: What’s Moussa going to look like a year from now? What’s he going to look like two years from now? That becomes our job, to develop him. He has the platform. He has people who care, and we’re going to invest in his development.”
That last statement seems to encapsulate a thematic element of Lieberman’s coaching style, though she’s quick to note her intention to balance that care and that investment with a strong, definite approach.
“We better love our guys because we’re going to work the dog out of our guys,” Lieberman said. “Seriously. All you need to know is my background and where I came from. Again, it’s not about me. I don’t want to make this about me, but they will not roll over me.”
Lieberman is the first female head coach of an NBA-affiliated team, but she’s made a career of destroying that “first female” qualifier. In 1986, Lieberman became the first woman to play in a professional men’s league. When Pat Riley became a coach, Lieberman was his first point guard; she played for the Lakers at Jerry West’s request when L.A. competed in the summer Southern California Pro League. According to Lieberman, Riley tells the story of their shared experience often, and told her: “You taught me how to be fearless. You were never afraid even though you were always overmatched. I never forgot that.”
This is just the kind of thing that Lieberman does.
“This is so normal for me,” Lieberman said. “It’s not normal for you. It’s normal for me. My guys in the office don’t walk around like I’m a chick coaching. We talk like we’re working together, hand-in-hand. We know the judgment. We know the expectation. We know it’s coming.”
It’s almost here. The Legends begin their season on November 18th against the D-League champion Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Lieberman’s D-League coaching debut and the Legends’ commencement are notable for very different reasons, and yet they both represent the actualization of the same plan. At long last, the Texas Legends are ready to tip off. The long-awaited blow of that opening whistle will inaugurate the Legends’ true existence as a basketball franchise and welcome all of the expectations and judgment that come with it.
Mike Fisher of DallasBasketball.com: “A strategic switch was flipped very early in the Mavs’ 99-83 win Sunday afternoon at the Clippers. It’s not the sort of thing the coaching staff will be able to take much credit for, because who is going to ballyhoo a strategic admission to failure? The original plan: Dirk was going to guard “second-year’’ rookie Blake Griffin, the double-double machine. If Nowitzki could survive that, the logic went, the domino effect would allow Dallas to win matchups at the other positions, including Tyson Chandler guarding the dangerous Chris Kaman. Dirk guarding Griffin? It lasted two possessions. The UberMan can do a lot of things, and because Griffin is an untested commodity, there was no way to know for certain whether he can do this. Now we know. After a blow-by and after a rag-dolling, now we know. He can’t. So Rick Carlisle flipped the switch. Quickly and smartly.”
Kurt Helin credited the Clippers’ poor shooting numbers to user error rather than the Dallas defense at ProBasketballTalk: “The Clippers just missed everything — they started the game 3-17, but they were outworking the Mavericks on the boards and stayed close. In the second half they just kept missing, with the team’s starters shooting 30 percent for the game. Give the Mavericks a little credit for their defense, but the Clips were just cold.”
Dirk Nowitzki takes a shot at a teammate (via Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News): “We talked about making it a priority that our defensive field-goal percentage has to get better. We all know that’s what wins in this league. If you play defense consistent, you give yourself a chance every night. We’ve been working hard at it. Even Jet [Jason Terry] is trying to chase guys, which I haven’t seen in seven years.”
Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas prodded Rick Carlisle about the Mavs’ shot distribution: “Caron Butler has led the Mavs in shots attempted in the first two games. That isn’t by design. ‘If he’s open, he should shoot,’ coach Rick Carlisle said. ‘But I don’t expect him to be our leading shot-taker. He’s going to be one of our top three or four obviously and be in the top three most likely. But, look, this is two games out of 82. Come back in two weeks and see where we are.’”
A few more detailed looks at the Mavs’ upcoming season are on their way, but in honor of the CelticsBlog-hosted NBA preview circuit, I present to you a first look at the immediate future of the Dallas Mavericks:
Last Year’s Record: 55-27; best in the Southwest, second in the West.
Key Losses: Erick Dampier, screen-setter extraordinaire and instantly expiring contract, Eduardo Najera, a signed-and-released Tim Thomas, Matt Carroll, Rodrigue Beaubois’ preseason, and hope for a big name free agent.
Key Additions: Tyson Chandler, Ian Mahinmi, Dominique Jones, Alexis Ajinca, Rick Carlisle’s faith in Beaubois, the benefit of a full training camp.
1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?
Dirk Nowitzki was re-signed on a bargain deal relative to his current production. Brendan Haywood was inked to a long-term contract that has brought the Mavs a fair bit of criticism, though the partial guarantees written into the deal and the market this summer (not to mention the fact that re-signing Haywood was a flat-out necessity) make his deal fairly palatable. Erick Dampier was traded for Tyson Chandler, and the Mavs shed Matt Carroll and Eduardo Najera’s contracts while picking up an interesting young big in Alexis Ajinca. Mark Cuban shelled out $3 million for the chance to select South Florida’s Dominique Jones in the first round of the draft. Ian Mahinmi, a per-minute wonder with plenty of promise, was had for two years and minimal salary commitment.
Yet the biggest moves of Dallas’ off-season were the ones never made. The Mavs’ brass made pitches to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Joe Johnson in an effort to lure them to Dallas via sign-and-trade, but the former two had grander ideas and the latter his eye on a much larger paycheck. Erick Dampier’s instantly-expiring contract was a hell of a trade chip, but it sat unused while the most attractive free agents on the market committed to playing anywhere but Dallas.
The Mavs also made runs at two candidates for their mid-level exception. Al Harrington: miss. Udonis Haslem: miss. Dallas wasn’t sinking any battleships.
Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban then turned their attention to the trading block, where they found an eligible bachelor in Al Jefferson. His fit with the team may have been a bit awkward, but there’s no mistaking Jefferson’s talent. Reportedly, the Mavs were but Dampier’s contract and a few draft picks away from working out a deal with Minnesota, yet the Mavs balked. Maybe it was the luxury tax implication. Maybe Nelson and Cuban were hoping for an even better return on Dampier’s contract. Maybe it was concern over how Nowitzki and Jefferson would play together. Regardless, the Utah Jazz swooped in to collect Jefferson while giving up little more than cap space and a pair of first rounders in return, and the Mavs leave the summer in only a slightly better position than when they entered it.
2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
Dirk Nowitzki. In an otherwise unremarkable offense, Nowitzki is one of the few unmistakable standouts. He still presents a match-up problem for every player in the league, and even at 32, Nowitzki’s offensive game is as potent as ever. His rebounding rate has dropped a bit. His defense is still lacking, though probably underrated on the whole. But Nowitzki is the player through which all things come and all things go for the Mavs.
Taking care of the ball. The Mavs had the 10th best offense in the league last season, but were ranked 13th in effective field goal percentage, 26th in offensive rebounding rate, and 15th in free throw rate. How? Dallas turns the ball over on just 12.2% of its possessions. Nowitzki is an absurdly efficient go-to scoring option in part because of how deliberately careful he is with the ball. Jason Kidd may pick up quite a few turnovers, but between Nowitzki and a few other high-usage, low-turnover players (Jason Terry, Caron Butler), Dallas puts up plenty of shots without giving up scoring opportunities.
Creating turnovers without fouling. Typically, successful NBA defenses fall into one of two general categories: a more conservative, field goal percentage-limiting style, or a more aggressive scheme based on forcing turnovers. Great defenses can sometimes manage to do both. Dallas manages to do neither, at least to the full extent of each defensive theme. Of the 10 teams that forced the most turnovers last season on a per possession basis (GSW, BOS, CHA, MIL, DET, UTA, OKC, MIA, PHI, and DEN), seven were also among the bottom 10 in opponents’ free throw rate. This is pretty intuitive; the more teams pressure ball-handlers and try to force turnovers, the more likely they are to be whistled for fouls.
Dallas, however, has managed to be fairly successful in creating turnovers (they ranked 11th in the league in that regard last season) without picking up all that many fouls (the Mavs were 3rd in the league in opponents’ free throw rate). It’s a strange balance, but thanks to anticipation on the wings and an overall conservative style (perhaps a bit too conservative at times), Dallas has made it work. Not well enough to do serious damage in the playoffs in the last few years, but well enough to remain in the West’s second tier in spite of other defensive shortcomings.
3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
Shot creation. Nowitzki can manufacture a reasonably good shot attempt against almost any opponent when covered one-on-one, but aside from Dirk, Dallas doesn’t have many players that can create quality shots reliably. Rodrigue Beaubois is likely the team’s second best option in that regard, as Beaubois can use his speed to free himself up for an open look or execute relatively simple drive-and-kick sequences. Otherwise, Jason Terry’s shot-creating abilities looked stifled in last year’s playoffs, and Caron Butler is a decent isolation option…which might make a difference if decent isolation options were considered useful for offensive success.
Jason Kidd is, oddly enough, the question mark. Against San Antonio last season, he wasn’t able to create open looks for the likes of Terry, Butler, Shawn Marion, and Brendan Haywood, and the Mavs suffered. One of the reasons why Beaubois seemed so brilliant in that series was his stark contrast to Kidd; while the future Hall-of-Famer claimed to be troubled by illness and a bad back, Beaubois was slicing to the hoop in a way that no other Maverick can. If Kidd can stay healthy for the playoffs and redeem his performance against the Spurs, the Mavs’ offense could be pretty potent. It comes down to Dirk providing another year of solid production, Dallas recognizing the kind of shot-creating star it has in Beaubois, and Kidd finding a way to make the rest of the offense work. Without all three of hopes points coming to fruition, the Maverick offense will struggle at times.
A lack of elite production in any particular category. When people say that the Mavericks lack a team identity, they’re wrong. What they really mean to say is that Dallas isn’t really a top-level team in any particular statistical regard. The Mavs were a solid team in most capacities last season, but with the Lakers looming above and so many other team fighting for the no. 2 seed in the West, just being solid may not be good enough. The Mavericks were neither an elite offense nor an elite defense last year, and that’s troubling, particularly because their primary off-season acquisition was a back-up center that will replace the already steady Erick Dampier. Any improvement that will thrust Dallas into elite company will have to come internally, and that puts a lot of pressure on Rodrigue Beaubois, Caron Butler, and Brendan Haywood.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Win 50 games to extend the Mavs’ current 10-year streak, rest the veterans as much as possible, and make it to the conference finals. Any playoff series would be a step up from last season’s first round exit, but Dallas has enough talent to aim high. Not ‘up, up, away, and through the Lakers’ high, but high enough to be L.A.’s stepping stool on the way to the Finals.
Here are some developmental goals for some of the younger guys:
Rodrigue Beaubois needs to prove that the production from his fantastic rookie season is sustainable, while working to improve his ability to run the offense and defend opposing point guards.
Dominique Jones needs to find a way to crack the Mavs’ wing rotation, which is currently clogged with veteran talent. Jones’ on-ball defense and ability to get deep into the paint could be quite useful, but nothing will be given to Jones. He’ll have to pry every minute he gets from Terry, Butler, Beaubois, and J.J. Barea’s fingers.
Ian Mahinmi needs to continue to work on his face-up game, work the offensive glass as well as he did in the preseason, and focus on improving his ability to defend centers. There aren’t all that many minutes to be had behind Dirk, but if Mahinmi can grow into a capable defensive option in the middle, he could become a Maverick fixture.
Alexis Ajinca needs to outplay Ian Mahinmi and force the Mavs to give him a serious look. He’ll start the season at the back of the center rotation, but if Alexis can outplay Ian in practice and in his limited floor time this season (which won’t be the easiest thing to do considering Mahinmi’s gaudy per-minute numbers), he’ll have a chance to feast on the Mavs’ center minute scraps. Other than that, Ajinca needs to continue honing his hook shot, and improve his defensive positioning.
J.J. Barea needs to be a bit more choosy with his shots in the paint, and really hone in on his coverage of the pick-and-roll. All things considered, he’s not a bad backup, but it’s his D on screens that really gets him in trouble.
5. Do you have a video of Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash playing guitar that could take us back to the simpler times, when defensive inadequacies were just a cute little quirk of our beloved Mavs?
The Mavs’ acquisition of Tyson Chandler was dressed with an effusing of praise typical to an average NBA roster move. Sort through the post-trade quotes from Donnie Nelson, Mark Cuban, Rick Carlisle, and Dirk Nowitzki, and you’ll find an incessantly complimentary pro-Chandler soundboard without a single mention of the seven-footer’s weaknesses.
The buzz words? ‘Defense,’ ‘length,’ ‘depth.’ Conspicuously absent words of note? ‘Offense,’ ‘injury-prone,’ ‘limited’.
Chandler is a welcome addition to the Mavericks’ roster for exactly the reasons that team officials have noted, but Dallas hasn’t simply acquired the long, athletic defender that Nelson, Carlisle, and co. were quick to laud; all of Chandler’s shortcomings were packed up in suitcases and imported from Charlotte as well. The Mavs’ reps can attempt to cake all of Chandler’s weaknesses in makeup, but once the season begins, those claims (or convenient omissions) will likely begin to smear.
Among the first of the post-trade sound bites to dissipate could be the praise for Chandler’s positional versatility. Apparently, those in Mavs’ HQ have flirted with the idea of playing Chandler and Brendan Haywood on the floor together, convention be damned. Considering the impressive size that the Lakers boast, it makes sense that the thought would have crossed the minds of the Mavs’ brass. Plus, in principle, that idea deserves a pat on the back for creativity, if nothing else. But in practice? It should be an outright disaster.
Chandler, shockingly, doesn’t share in that pessimism.
“Whenever you have the versatility that we have at the guard positions and at the forward positions, there will be no reason that we wouldn’t be able to play together because we have different styles,” Chandler said. “When you have such great scoring from the perimeter, you can have two big guys that can just clog the paint and go after every rebound and make some noise defensively. I think it could work out.”
Right. Obviously Chandler wasn’t going to sell out an opportunity for more playing time (playing alongside Haywood, even if a bit awkward basketball-wise, is still better than riding the pine), and he took a shot at justifying the Haywood-Chandler tandem by way of the Mavs’ versatility. Well-played, but I still worry about the concessions that such a lineup would make on both offense (driving, spacing, double-teams off of the bigs, etc.) and defense (D4, perimeter exploitation, etc.). It’s an idea that’s worth a try in small doses, I suppose, but doesn’t make a ton of sense on either a conceptual level nor a more specific one.
Chandler did introduce one noteworthy idea to the twin towers discussion, though: the zone defense. Rick Carlisle selectively employed the zone last season, and if he chooses to do so again in the coming year, that system could empower Haywood and Chandler to reach new defensive heights as part of the same on-court unit. “If we do throw a big lineup out there, [running the zone] could be something that we could potentially do,” Chandler said. “Throw the zone in, and with all of our length out there, it could be trouble for teams.”
Now there’s an idea. Both Haywood and Chandler are intelligent defenders with solid instincts, and periodic stints of the zone could be an interesting way to utilize both players simultaneously. That wouldn’t solve any of the far more glaring offensive problems such a lineup would present, but it could give the Mavs’ an overwhelmingly effective defensive look capable of taking away particular elements of opponents’ offenses. By removing specific assignments from our list of defensive concerns, a Mavericks lineup featuring Haywood and Chandler could completely smother opponents’ shot attempts around the rim. Plus, having two seven footers crashing the boards would allow the Mavs to stave off the usual rebounding limitations of the zone.
The offensive end is where things get tricky. I’d like to include Jason Kidd, but that would leave the Mavs with three players limited in shot creation. Kidd is able to generate offense with his passing, but asking him to bail out a lineup that has two bigs, neither of whom can score when more than four feet away from the rim, may be pushing it. Instead, I’d probably go with this lineup:
Tyson Chandler (rebounder)
Brendan Haywood (rebounder)
Rodrigue Beaubois (creator/scorer)
Jason Terry (scorer/creator)
Caron Butler (scorer)
I feel like that lineup has the best potential for offensive/defensive balance. Beaubois and Terry can share ball-handling responsibilities, Butler can work the baseline and create in isolation, and both Chandler and Haywood can work the screen-and-roll game with the creators.
Then again, if the point of playing Chandler and Haywood together is to overwhelm opponents with length and defense, including Terry, who is neither long nor an effective defender, in such a unit is counterproductive. However, take Terry’s scoring and ball-handling out of the equation and Beaubois is suddenly left trying to figure out a pretty bizarre lineup all by his lonesome. That’s a lot of responsibility thrown onto the shoulders of a player who has struggled running the offense, and expecting him to thrive in such an unconventional lineup may be asking a bit much.
So, in the spirit of this lineup doing what it does best and trying to figure out the rest later, I’ll offer the following:
Tyson Chandler (rebounder)
Brendan Haywood (rebounder)
Shawn Marion (rebounder/scorer)
Caron Butler (scorer)*
Jason Kidd (creator)
*Butler is probably interchangeable with Beaubois here, but for the sake of having lots of size at the top of the zone, we’ll go with Butler.
It’s weird. Very weird. It has the potential to make the Timberwolves’ defense look like a world-class outfit; after all, if an opposing defense can rush Kidd like San Antonio did in the playoffs, Butler is essentially left to carry the load on his own. Spoiler alert: that doesn’t end well.
I’m not convinced that playing Chandler and Haywood together could ever end well, but the zone makes me wonder. It provides just enough doubt to deny that perspective certainty. That’s not much, I’ll admit, but when considering how ridiculous the idea sounded on first mention, fleshing it out in greater detail represents a world of progress. Now, rather than an absurdity, we’re looking at a unit with bonafide gimmick potential. Just as some teams have employed a full-court/half-court press unit in the past (the Memphis Grizzlies come to mind), could it actually behoove the Mavs to employ a zone unit?
Gatorade’s “Replay” gives teams that participated in controversial games a chance at a redo. Dwyane Wade (along with Dwight Howard) served as a a coach for the event, which pitted two Chicago schools against each other for a rematch of a hotly contested game from a decade ago. Steve Aschburner of NBA.com had a chance to catch up with Wade on the possibility of replaying one of his more controversial finishes:
“NBA.com: Have you ever had a game that you wanted to replay?
DW: Every game I’ve lost.
NBA.com: But you’ve contributed to some that other people would like to replay, too.
DW: Yeah, I’m sure. So it’s a wash [laughing].
NBA.com: So it’s OK with you if the Dallas Mavericks want to replay Game 5 of the 2006 Finals in 2016?
DW: Uh, that would have to be something I’d have to think about.”
Rick Carlisle on the Mavs’ depth and flexibility this season (via Earl K. Sneed of Mavs.com): “We feel like we have great flexibility with the club. You know, one of the reasons you have training camp is to compete for those positions, compete for minutes. And again, I just think that our ability to use different lineups, use different combinations, is going to be a big key for us. We’re going to be able to go 10-, 12-deep. I have no question about that.”
Rick Carlisle, in evaluating his seasons as the Mavericks’ coach and what the team needs to do this season to be more successful (via Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News): “‘[The last two seasons are] both failures,’ [Carlisle] said. ‘One we got to the second round so maybe it’s viewed as more successful. But we were a better team this past year. We just got beat in the first round. Our mission is to stay the course and keep working on the things we have to work on – defense and getting better at home. That’s the difference between ultimate success and perceived shades of success.”
Dave McMenamin of ESPN LA thinks the Mavs have the best shot of challenging the Lakers in the West: “With Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler (who looked like a new man at times during Team USA’s gold medal run), the Mavericks have the size to compete with the Lakers’ length in Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Add in the fact that this might be Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki’s last real shot at a championship and consider that Kobe’s buddy, Caron Butler, will get the benefit of a full training camp under Rick Carlisle’s system and you have a seven-game series battle on your hands.”
Kyle Weidie from Truth About It dug up a pretty bizarre account courtesy of Lola Natisa, a friend/acquaintance of Brendan Haywood. This anecdote is very much of the unconfirmed variety, but worth noting regardless (excuse the lengthy quote and the non-basketball subject matter). Natisa wrote on her blog: “Brendan Haywood is an uncomfortably tall basket ball player who has recently signed with the Dallas Mavericks. When he was traded from the Washington Wizards to the Dallas Mavericks earlier this year, my friend Daylon (who knew Brendan from Charlotte) thought it would be cool to show him what Dallas had to offer. It was a Sunday night right after my gig at the House of Blues and the only place that was really jumping in Dallas was a night club called Wish. Brendan is a guy who enjoys muliti-cultural environments because they tend to be much safer, and the women seem to be much much nicer. After going out with him a few times, I can’t disagree with his preference. I’m not sure why…… but black women plus a night club, can add up to rude/bitter/unattractive results at times (lol) FYI: the black woman reading this and is offended, is the black woman that produces these unattractive results. Anyway, we warned him that this night for this club sometimes can become a little hood. Brendan listened to what we had to say and he asked, “Now, is this club just a little hood or is it Josh Howard hood”? I had never been to a Josh Howard party nor had I met him personally, so I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant. That was until I recently sang the National Anthem at Josh Howard’s Celebrity Softball Charity Game. All I can say is Josh Howard is sooo much more hood then just hood. His staff of hometown homeboys who sometimes need to ‘smoke one’ when under pressure were an interesting trio. The after party at the House of Blues looked like a Big T’s Bazaar fashion show. There were over sized gold chains, discount baby phat outfits and ass…just a whole lot of ass (tragic just tragic). Needless to say the night at Wish with Brendon and Daylon wasn’t Josh Howard hood. Hood is just that hood…Josh Howard Hood is hood on steroids, everything hood times ten.”
Say what you will about Jason Terry the player, but Jason Terry the person is about as endearing as they come. It’s from a bit of a fluff piece, but here’s Terry, via Gary Herron of the Rio Rancho Observer (H/T DOH at Mavs Moneyball): “I’ve been blessed and fortunate just to be in the business as long as I have. The ‘life expectancy’ of an NBA player is four years; I’ve been in the league now 11 years. I’ve been primarily healthy throughout my career, haven’t had any major injuries. Blessed with some big contracts; I have a beautiful family.”
From Jeff Caplan of ESPN Dallas: “Cuban said Mavs head athletic trainier Casey Smith, a member of the Team USA medical staff, has reported that Chandler appears to have regained the explosion he had prior to ankle injuries that ruined the past two seasons.”