As tough as a postseason-less 2013 was on the Dallas Mavericks and their fans, just three years ago, having a high-seeded playoff team didn’t feel any better.
The 2010 Mavs were the latest disappointment in what felt like an endless string of them. Dallas was just four years removed from an epic playoff collapse against the Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals, and three years away from losing as a 67-wing number 1 seed to the 8-seed Golden State Warriors. The 2009-2010 Mavericks had recently reloaded the team, bringing on former All-Stars like Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd in addition to incumbent All-Stars Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry. They took a very good 55-27 record and a 2nd seed into the playoffs, but like their predecessors, were unceremoniously dismissed; this time it was a first round loss to the 7th seeded San Antonio Spurs in 6 games. Even as solid as their regular season was, the future didn’t look terribly bright for Dallas. The ghosts of their past playoff failures seemed to haunt the team every spring, which included an aging core of Nowitzki (31), Marion (31), Brendan Haywood (30), Terry (32) and Kidd (36). Suffice to say, the Mavs weren’t getting much younger. Not all was lost–after all, Dirk was still an All-Star, the team had a very good and very underrated coach in Rick Carlisle and an excellent owner that took annual financial losses to make sure his team had everything necessary to remain competitive. However, few expected that the team was close to having the makings of a championship core. 2010-2011 was supposed to be just another year in which the Mavericks were a potent squad, but ultimately an also-ran in the race for the chip.
But after a shrewd series of moves in the summer of 2010, and then into the season, the pieces for a championship contender had quietly fallen into place:
July 13, 2010: Traded Matt Carroll, Erick Dampier, Eduardo Najera and cash to the Charlotte Bobcats for Alexis Ajinca and Tyson Chandler. Signed Ian Mahinmi as a free agent.
September 27, 2010: Signed Brian Cardinal as a free agent.
January 24, 2011: Signed Peja Stojakovic as a free agent.
At the time, none of these moves were considering even close to resembling significant transactions. Chandler was coming off an injury-filled year in Charlotte, and even worse, was traded to the Mavericks for the mere price of Erick Dampier’s expiring deal. The prevailing sentiment that summer was that Dampier’s eight-figure contract would be a key asset in claiming another star to prop up Nowitzki. Though Chandler was considered an upgrade over Dampier’s rapidly degrading corpse, he wasn’t nearly the player that made him into a Defensive Player of the Year seasons later, and thus was thought of as a rather underwhelming acquisition considering the expectations. The pair of 33 year-olds in the Immortal Brian Cardinal and Peja Stojakovic were both on their way out of the league, and few thought they could continue to contribute.
By the end of June, it was clear that these acquisitions were more important than any Decision that had gone on in the summer of 2010. Chandler was the key, quarterbacking a stout defense that ranked as the league’s 8th most efficient per 100 possessions. Shouting out instructions from the paint, Tyson, as well as Marion and DeShawn Stevenson created a deceivingly tough inside-out D that bulldozed their way to a solid 57-win season and an eventual 4-2 victory over the Miami Heat in the Finals for the franchise’s first title. That year’s edition of the Mavericks weren’t the most athletic cats in the world, but Chandler was so excellent defensively that he often made up for the shortcomings of his teammates (a premonition for his future tenure with the New York Knicks). The Mavericks were the oldest team in the league (average age of 30.9 years), but they didn’t resemble the porous Dallas teams of old–this team was tough as hell, physical and very, very intelligent.
Though it was clearly the defense that propelled the Mavs to a chip, there’s no denying how spectacular the offense was. They finished 1st in offensive efficiency that postseason, led by resurgent Finals MVP in Nowitzki, whose 27.7 points on .485/.460/.941 shooting is one of the great overall performances of all-time. But even more than Dirk, Dallas shot the lights out that postseason: five guys hit over 37% of their three-point attempts, which didn’t include an unbelievable JJ Barea, but did include unexpected offensive contributions from Stojakovic (.377), Kidd (.374) and Stevenson (.397) (DeShawn in particular was fantastic, and may go down as the last man in NBA history to talk serious smack to LeBron and live to tell the tale).
The Mavericks formula was quite simple on paper, but extremely hard to replicate in regards to finding the personnel. They first needed a great defensive coach, who could rally his players to continue to play hard no matter who the opponent or what the score was at any point in the game. Second, they needed a transcendent scorer who was lethal from anywhere on the floor. Third, the Mavs had to have an elite defensive center that was so excellent that he’d be able to make up for the shortcomings of everyone around him. Fourth, they needed a three-point barrage that could dependably break down any opposing defense. Oddly enough, the Mavericks resembled their 2006 Finals opponents in the Miami Heat, who rode the very same formula to the title. Easy enough to identify and map out, yes. But to find that perfect mix under the terms of the modern NBA salary cap? Not so much.
Unless you’re looking at the potential of the 2013-2014 Los Angeles Lakers.
(Check out the rest over at Silver Screen & Roll)