NBA@2: Can Mavericks Repeat As NBA Champions?
When the Dallas Mavericks began their title defense by allowing all of their key free agents to walk away, most pundits around the NBA came to the snap conclusion that the Mavericks were cashing in their chips in favor of targeting Deron Williams and/or Dwight Howard in free agency next summer. For all of his protestations to the contrary, Mark Cuban’s team hasn’t done anything to prove that conclusion wrong. Sure, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry have been as clutch as ever, and Shawn Marion had another phenomenal year, but overall the Mavericks looked like a team with two eyes on the future and none on the present.
To his credit, head coach Rick Carlisle did a great straight-man routine all season, talking about how much he enjoys a challenge and how confident he is in this edition of the Dallas Mavericks. It sounded good, but it was hard to take it too seriously as the team limped through the season and finally played .500 ball over the last 44 games. In fact, if it weren’t for the total collapse of the teams below them in the standings, the Mavericks might have missed the postseason altogether.
They didn’t exactly finish the season on a high note, either. The Atlanta Hawks took turns torching them in the paint and from behind the three-point line as they handed Dallas a 106-89 loss to end the regular season.
A sign of things to come?
The Oklahoma City Thunder certainly believe so.
On Saturday the Mavs will officially begin their title defense, and they will do so against the team they eliminated in the Western Conference Finals last season. The difference is that this is virtually the same Thunder team, only with another year’s experience and a hunger to win it all. Meanwhile, the Mavs are a year older, a year slower, and missing many of the key ingredients who helped make them champs last season. They also finished the season with a 13-20 road record, and they will play the first two games of the first round on the road.
A quick look back at the 2011-12 season shows that Dallas had little luck beating the Thunder. They lost two preseason games in which starters played significant roles for both teams, and then proceeded to lose two of the three regular-season meetings between the teams, as well. They can take some solace in the fact that the games were all relatively close, but that’s about all.
No, on paper this series is over before it gets started. But then again, the series won’t be played on paper.
The only way the Dallas Mavericks can repeat as champions is if the human element becomes a prominent factor in the equation. Jason Terry calling out LeBron James and then torching him for four games is an example of the human element. Peja Stojakovic showing up from out of nowhere to light up the Los Angeles Lakers is an example of the human element. JJ Barea zipping all over the court, foiling the best-laid defensive schemes is an example of the human element.
We know Dirk Nowitzki is going to be in MVP form. We know Jason Terry is going to take over in the fourth quarter. We know Shawn Marion is going to be a game-changer, especially on the defensive end and on the glass.
But where will the human element come in this year? Can Roddy Beaubois be this year’s JJ Barea? Can Vince Carter play Peja Stojakovic’s role? Will Brandan Wright’s much-improved play be a factor in enough games to give Dallas an edge?
No one’s going to pick the Mavericks to beat the Thunder in the first round of the playoffs, and honestly, it’s hard to make a rational case. Then again, the postseason is where legends are made, and last season’s championship run was extremely unlikely, as well. Only by overcoming tremendous odds and having a huge dose of the human element can the Mavericks have even a sliver of hope of repeating as champions, but we saw them pull off some pretty amazing things last postseason.
Never underestimate the heart of a champion? Well, no Hakeem Olajuwon here. Still, there’s a lot of pride in those aging Mavericks’ legs. Don’t count them out just yet.
Worst NBA Team Ever?
The Charlotte Bobcats certainly took their lumps this season, winding up with the worst season percentage-wise in the history of the NBA. There is a clear long-term plan in place, but stomaching the short-term has been tough – especially for the players. DJ Augustin talks with HOOPSWORLD about the mounting losses, seeing his team constantly mentioned as the worst ever on TV, the path going forward, and how far the Bobcats are from being a respectable team in this exclusive interview.
It’s been a difficult season for fans of the Denver Nuggets. After the unexpected success following last season’s Carmelo Anthony trade, it seemed like the Nuggets might just be a home court advantage team come playoff time, yet for much of the year they looked like a team that might not even make the playoffs. Of course, a plethora of injuries played a huge role in that and another midseason trade shook things up a bit, but despite all of that the perception in Denver was that the Nuggets were capable of a lot more than they were accomplishing on the court.
After a scary brush with dropping outside of the playoff picture altogether, head coach George Karl shortened his rotation, leaned on his veterans, and the Nuggets ultimately grabbed the sixth seed by winning eight of their last ten games.
“I think we’re ready to go into the playoffs and play the best basketball we’ve played all year long,” Karl said in an interview with 102.3 The Ticket in Denver. “I think the young guys, Arron (Afflalo) and Ty (Lawson), have had solid to very good years. At times, they both had parts of the season where they weren’t involved as much we would like them to be, but the last six weeks they have been I think very, very special and I think our big guys in a crazy way, all of them have figured out how to help us win games. Gallo (Danilo Gallinari) seems like he’s getting his legs back and his feel for the game back, which I think we need in the playoffs to be successful, and the number one thing about our team all year long is our bench. Our bench has been spectacular. Andre (Miller) and Al (Harrington) have been big-time veterans; Corey Brewer has been really good off the bench, and I think some of the other guys have always pitched in. From Rudy Fernandez, even though he’s out for the year, he helped us early in the season win three or four games and I think it’s a young, energetic team that is really anxious. As a coach, I’m 60-years-old and I’m anxious to see what we can do and I don’t think anybody in the NBA this year is that far away from anybody else. I will give Oklahoma City and San Antonio, they’ve had special years and are very, very good but it’s a long process.”
Early in the season Karl spoke frequently about how he believed the Nuggets could win a championship without a labeled superstar. He clarified in an interview with HOOPSWORLD, saying what he really meant was that he feels there are several players already in his locker room who could turn out to be superstars. This season Ty Lawson has emerged as the first player to perhaps live up to that billing.
“I think the one thing we have is two playmakers who can make plays in any game and we can win games because of it,” said Karl. “Because of Ty’s youthfulness, his speed, and his ability to probably be more explosive than Andre, I think he’s our engine and I think Andre in a lot of ways is our steering wheel. I think everybody else is kind of the wheels of the car. I don’t think there’s any question that Ty and Andre are the guys that make our offense happen.”
Conventional wisdom says you slow things down, control possessions and play a more deliberate style of basketball once the playoffs start, but Karl sees that as playing right into the Lakers’ hands.
“If your team says run, play fast, and be aggressive then why would you want to be like the Los Angeles Lakers and slow down and play a possession game. I understand all the things that people say, but I’m going to be honest with you, San Antonio is playing just like we play. Oklahoma City plays a lot like how we play. They’ve won a lot more games and a lot more big games than we have, but if our defense continues to improve, which it has over the last four or five weeks, if we don’t beat ourselves, we have a lot of talent and if we put the pieces together we can play with anybody in this league. Probably the key to our team in those situations is making shots from the outside and Ty Lawson being into every game.”
There is a perception that Karl relies too much on his veteran players, but Karl is quick to point to the emergence of rookie Kenneth Faried as an example of how he is open to letting youth be served.
“Fortunately, I’ve always been on teams that had to make the playoffs and had to win 50 games or win 60 games. In Seattle, if we didn’t win 60 games we had a bad year. The expectations of the team that you are with, if you expected us to make the playoffs this year, I want you to know if there’s another rookie in the NBA today that played more minutes than Kenneth Faried as a rookie on a team that has made the playoffs. I don’t know if there is or not. I haven’t studied it but all I’m saying to you is rookies on teams that have to make the playoffs to have a great year they don’t play. The team that drafts a guy with the sixth pick in the draft and won 20 games last year, yeah, he’s going to play because they don’t have to win 45 games. I disagree with all the crap that been said by all these fans that I don’t play rookies. Ty Lawson played 24 minutes as a rookie. That is a lot of time for a rookie. We had to win 50 games to make the playoffs and he still played 25 minutes per game. Now, if you want to play rookies and give them minutes and lose, then that’s not me. You’re right. That’s not me as a coach. I think you guys are way off board on the bullsh…crap that you guys have been throwing out about me and Kenneth. Kenneth has played a lot of minutes, he will continue to play a lot of minutes, and he’s earned those minutes in the right way. He’s earned it by the respect of the players, he’s earned it by helping us win games and he’s earned it by continuing to keep a strong, professional attitude.”
Looking back on the crazy, lock-out shortened and cramped 2011-12 NBA season, Karl sees his team emerging with a definite direction and emerging personality.
“I think the personality was we drifted from a team that didn’t have a direction to a team that now has a good direction. A team that with Arron, Ty and all the young guys from the New York trade and we didn’t exactly know what we would be this year and I think come this summer, Masai (Ujiri), Josh and I and the whole organization is going to know what we have to do. After the lockout, the new collective bargaining agreement, we’ve regrouped, re-established ourselves as a playoff team that’s dangerous, and if we make some good moves in the next couple of years we’re going to be really dangerous.”
Taking out the Los Angeles Lakers, even without Metta World Peace, is a daunting challenge. Kobe Bryant wants another championship, and equally wants to make up for a disappointing finish to last year’s playoffs. Standing between Kobe and his goals has proven to be a losing proposition, but the Nuggets feel they are at least up to the challenge.
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