Last season: 55-27, which was enough to nab the West’s second seed before losing a tight series to the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. It was Dallas’ tenth consecutive 50-win season, but also their fourth first-round exit over that same span.
Head Coach: Rick Carlisle, an excellent coach driven by detail, famous for both getting the most out of his roster and neglecting certain corners of it. Few coaches are as skilled in adapting their game plan mid-season, but Carlisle famously neglected to make Mavs rookie Rodrigue Beaubois a consistent part of the rotation despite his fantastic play, just as he neglected to let Tayshaun Prince sit at the adult table back in 2003.
Key Departures: Erick Dampier, Erick Dampier’s instantly expiring contract, Eduardo Najera, another year of production from an aging core.
Key Additions: Tyson Chandler, Dominique Jones, familiarity for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, and a more deserving role (and the accompanying minutes) for Rodrigue Beaubois.
Best case scenario: Dallas is the clear-cut No. 2 in the West for most of the season, and a Laker implosion vaunts Dallas into consideration as the conference’s “team-to-beat.”
For that to happen: Carlisle will need to find the optimal manner in which to combine all kinds of useful, versatile talents, and each of those pieces will need to perform up to their capabilities.
Dallas is so deep and talented that no one really needs to max out in order for the team to be successful this season, but each of the pieces does need to fit just so and fill in as Dirk Nowtizki’s second fiddle by committee. Tom Ziller of NBA FanHouse illustrated that last point beautifully in a September installment of The Works; the thing that separates the Lakers from the Mavs is not overall depth, but second-tier talent. Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood, Tyson Chandler, and Rodrigue Beaubois are effective and productive players, but they’re no Pau Gasol. Some aren’t even a Lamar Odom or a Ron Artest. Dallas has enough talent on its roster to finish the marathon regular season with an excellent time, but when things turn into an all-out sprint come April? The rotations tighten, the top players have to produce in spite of opposing teams teching specifically against them (and only them), and proper preparation allows opponents to exploit previously unknown (or ignored) weaknesses.
Say what you will about it being a two-superstar system or a three-superstar system or some alternative model, but Dirk Nowitzki needs a top-flight sidekick for the Mavs to be contenders, and no player currently under Mark Cuban’s employ was able to succeed in that capacity last season.
Then again, the same could probably be said of the 2006 Mavs, a team that battled through the West to make it all the way to the NBA finals, or the 2007 Mavs, a squad that won 67 regular season games before running into a match-up nightmare in the first round of the playoffs. This year’s Lakers provide a tougher opponent than anything the Mavs saw in ’06 or ’07, but overall, this Dallas team has more talent in all the right places.
They may not have Devin Harris, but they have a combination of Jason Kidd and Rodrigue Beaubois. They may not have Josh Howard, but they have a superior duo in Caron Butler and Shawn Marion. They may not have Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop (just in case you happen to remember the days in which Diop was an actually effective defensive big), but they have Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler. This team has enough going for it to mount an impressive playoff run, and the biggest point of differentiation between this year’s team and the most successful Dallas models is the mere presence of the Lakers.
Take L.A. out of the picture — by injury, infighting, or simply a premature playoff exit — and Dallas has a shot. I’m not sure how the Mavs would get past the Celtics, Magic, or Heat even if they did manage to make an unexpected surge to the finals, but getting there would be something in itself.
More likely the Mavs will: Win 50+ games yet again, improve their standing (but not their position in the standings, where Dallas finished 2nd in the West) relative to a year ago, and still watch the Lakers waltz to the finals.
It’s nothing against the Mavs. This is a solid team, through and through. L.A. is just very, very good, and the rest of the West is formidable as well. So even if Dallas does have a successful season by most standards, they could still see their run ended by the superior outfit. You can blame the differences in approach, the personnel acquired, or the Pau Gasol trade, but barring a huge (and I do mean huge) boost from Rodrigue Beaubois and rookie Dominique Jones, Dallas will hang out in the waiting room with San Antonio, Portland, and the other would-be contenders in the West.
You can expect Dallas to improve in plenty of areas, regardless. A full training camp and season experience for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood should help them feel more at home in Carlisle’s system, a point which shouldn’t be underestimated. Last year’s offense and defense — both of which ranged from ‘average’ to ‘good, not great’ — should improve with that familiarity and the additions of Chandler and Jones, but again, they likely won’t improve enough to significantly change the Mavs’ fate. Dallas will likely improve their rebounding rate from a season ago, if only because Dallas’ performance on the offensive glass last season was very disappointing (they ranked 26th in the league in offensive rebounding rate) even by this team’s standards, and Tyson Chandler happens to have a knack for hitting the glass on that end.
Also, Rodrigue Beaubois, and hopefully lots of him.
Ultimately, you’re looking at a squad that will be fairly similar to last year’s team in approach, but a tad superior in execution.
Prediction: 53-29. Good (better even, despite one fewer win from last season), but for those with eyes toward titles and titles alone, not good enough.