NBA Season Preview: Dallas Mavericks

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Last Season: Coming off their incredible championship season, the Mavericks let defensive anchor Tyson Chandler go to New York in order to retain future cap flexibility. While that decision certainly hurt the chances of a true title defense, the acquisition of Lamar Odom probably buried it altogether. Despite those massive offseason failings, the veteran Mavs grinded out the regular season and survived a few nagging injuries en route to a return appearance to the playoffs. The young Thunder would ultimately take out the reigning champs, but the Mavs put up a strong fight and proved once again that if you have Dirk Nowitzki, you have a chance.

Key Departures: The championship backcourt is now completely gone. Jason Terry was the Mavericks second best offensive option by a wide margin, and now he’s in Boston. That hurts, but Jason Kidd joining Chandler in New York also deprives the Mavs of some stability on both ends of the floor. Backup big man Ian Mahinmi is now in Indiana. Shipping Lamar Odom back to Los Angeles was addition by subtraction.

Key Additions: The Mavericks went into scramble mode after swinging and missing for Deron Williams, but considering the circumstances, they added some nice pieces. You could make a strong case that Elton Brand was the Defensive Player of the Year last season, and although he’s a different type of defender, he’ll fill a void that was left unfilled by Chandler’s departure last year. The Mavs also added Dirk’s German Olympic teammate Chris Kaman to the frontcourt, who should provide some stretch if he can somehow manage to finally stay healthy. Lightning bug Darren Collison will take over as starting point guard, and O.J. Mayo gets a chance to live up to the hype and fill the Jet’s shoes as a big time scorer.

Three Keys to the Mavericks season:

1) Will the defense be elite?

It’s not easy to build a top defense with so many rotating parts, but Rick Carlisle’s defensive schemes are more important than the individual personnel. Dallas ranked second in defensive efficiency in the West last season (8th overall) despite trotting out a few undesirable defenders on the wing (Terry and Vince Carter), missing Kidd for much of the year, and having no real “plus” defender regularly on the court outside of Shawn Marion and Delonte West. It’s scary, but the Mavericks should be even better defensively this season and really have legitimate top 5 defensive efficiency potential. Collison will provide plenty of ball pressure and annoy opposing point guards, while O.J. Mayo is capable of playing a very physical style of perimeter defense when he’s motivated to do so. Kaman and Brand have years of experience playing together from their Clipper days and should solidify the backline. The defensive ace in the hole here is second round draft pick Jae Crowder, who can help the Mavs tremendously when they employ the trapping schemes this defense is built on.

2) A few veterans are still there, but it’s time to focus on developing young talent.

What direction is this going? Dirk Nowitzki has at least one or two killer seasons left in him, but he’ll soon be approaching the twilight of his career. Although it may not always be pretty, the Mavs would be well served to really see what they have in guys like Rodrigue Beaubois, Jared Cunningham, Dominique Jones and Jae Crowder and begin to wean themselves off of Carter, Marion and West. The great Mavericks rebuild looks more and more inevitable by the day, but it can’t truly begin until the Mavericks know if they have future pieces in place right now.

3) Can Dirk carry even more of the load offensively?

Already a high usage player (29.21 usage percentage, 13th in league), Nowitzki will be relied upon even more than usual to pace the Mavericks offensively. Although a 34-year-old with knee trouble taking that much of the scoring load would typically set off all kinds of alarms, no one makes more impossible shots than Nowitzki. He’s indefensible in the sense that degree of difficulty means nothing to him, as evidenced by his insane shooting percentages from 16-23 feet over his career (50 percent last year), which is the most inefficient shot in basketball for regular humans. All that said, Nowitzki is already slated to miss time this season, and the Mavs are ill-equipped to handle that. Can O.J. Mayo step up as a number one option? It’s a scary thought, but it may be a reality for the Mavericks, who could sport one of the league’s worst offenses (20th in offensive efficiency last year with Terry) without Dirk’s magic touch.

What Mavericks fans should fear: Basketball purgatory. The Mavericks don’t have enough offensive punch to be considered among the West’s elite any more, even though their defense is good enough to have them battle it out with Utah and Minnesota for one of the last seeds out West. Dallas is a franchise truly tied to their one star — if Nowitzki is healthy and at his best, they’ve got a puncher’s chance against anyone. But with that blue sky looking less and less likely, the Mavericks may be headed for another first round exit or a narrow miss of the playoffs, and may have an ugly decision awaiting them that their fanbase won’t love.

How it likely works out: Carlisle and Nowitzki should keep the ship afloat for another year and have the Mavs contend for a playoff spot, but the big challenges will come during survival mode without Nowitzki. So long as their big star is still in big D, the Mavs can’t truly justify being a seller or a buyer at the deadline, so they may just have to punt this season and hope they don’t butcher another chance this summer to acquire a star.

Prediction: 43-39, winning the 8th seed in a battle with Minnesota down the stretch. Another first round tilt with the Thunder would likely be on deck, which would spell doom for the Mavs hopes at another miraculous playoff run.

Jimmy Butler on Marcus Smart dustup: ‘He’s not about that life. So, he’s calming down’

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Marcus Smart and Jimmy Butler had to be separated during the Celtics’ Game 4 win over the Bulls after Smart pushed Butler, who was hounding him defensively in the backcourt.

Butler:

As far as the Marcus Smart situation goes, he’s a great actor. Acting tough, that’s what he does. But I don’t think he’s about that, and I’m the wrong guy to get in my face. So, he needs to take it somewhere else because I’m not the one for that.

Was that their first run-in? Butler:

That’s the first time. Last time, too. We’re not going to sit here and get in each other’s faces like that. Like I said, he’s not about that life. So, he’s calming down.

The Bulls, who’ve lost two straight to allow Boston to tie the series 2-2, is angling for any edge. Butler tried to intimidate Smart on the court, and the Chicago wing might actually rattle the too easily shakable Smart with his postgame comments.

The irony: Some might say Butler, who did come up hard, lost touch with his roots as he entered stardom. I don’t buy that, at least not majorly.

But even if both – or neither – are posturing to any degree, this will be a matchup to watch in Game 5.

Remembering former NBA official Jess Kersey, who passed away Saturday

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Jess Kersey, who officiated more than 2,200 NBA games, including being part of 19 NBA Finals, passed away over the weekend, losing his battle with cancer at age 76.

Kersey was a well-respected official who feared nothing. Maybe the most remembered image of Kersey is him trying to break up a fight between Mitch Kupchak and Hakeem Olajuwon, essentially trying to tackle Olajuwon with his head in Olajuwon’s chest and his arms wrapped around him. Kersey got in the middle of everything if that was what was required.

Our thoughts go out to the Kersey family for their loss.

Bulls Fred Hoiberg complains Isaiah Thomas gets away with palming. Thomas shrugs.

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The Boston Celtics have evened their series with Chicago Bulls, and more than that seem to have been able to take the Bulls best punch and now are responding.

At the heart of that is Boston All-Star Isaiah Thomas, who had 33 points on Sunday. He was attacking and getting into the heart of the Bulls defense all night, telling Michael Carter-Williams “you can’t guard me” so many times Thomas got a technical. Thing is, Thomas was right. No Bull has been able to guard Thomas the past two games.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said the reason for that is the officials let him get away with a palming the ball when dribbling. Via Vincent Goodwill of CSNChicago.com (video above).

“Let me say this: Isaiah Thomas is a hell of a player, an unbelievable competitor, a warrior, everything he’s going through right now. He had a hell of a game tonight,” Hoiberg said. “When you’re allowed to discontinue your dribble on every possession, he’s impossible to guard. Impossible to guard. When you’re able to put your hand underneath the ball, take two or three steps and put it back down. It’s impossible to guard him in those situations.”

I liked the follow-up comment from the reporter (not on the video), which was essentially “the league doesn’t call that on anyone, so that’s your complaint?” Thomas doesn’t get away with palming any more than any other ball handler in the league. If you want to define the rule by a 1950s standard then yes, he does carry, but so does pretty much every Bulls’ ball handler. So does 3/4 of the league by that measure.

Fortunately, Hoiberg never had to coach against Allen Iverson or he might have completely lost it watching him dribble.

This came off as a desperation ploy by Hoiberg. Or it was the worst attempt ever at a “take that for data” rant ever.

Thomas, for his part, basically shrugged when told about it.

When told about Hoiberg’s comments, Thomas said, “That’s not the reason. It is what it is. I guess (Hoiberg) is just going to continue to say it. I’ve been dribbling that way my whole life, I don’t know what to say to that.”

Joe Johnson dominates late, Jazz beat Clippers 105-98 to even series 2-2

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Rudy Gobert was back at center, giving the Jazz an emotional boost and someone who can match up with DeAndre Jordan (although Gobert wasn’t moving like his normal self).

Gordon Hayward had to leave the game with food poisoning.

It didn’t matter, the Jazz had Joe Johnson. The veteran forward who knows how to get buckets scored or assisted on 20 straight points for Utah in the fourth, sparking a run that got the Jazz a 105-98 come-from-behind win.

The series is now tied 2-2, heading back to Los Angeles for Game 5 Tuesday.

When people talk about Johnson, the first thing that seems to come up is the oversized contract Atlanta gave him, but they forget this is a seven-time All-Star. He was nicknamed “iso-joe” because of how Mike Woodson’s offense used him heavily in isolation for the Hawks, but that was playing to the strength of his skill set. He can get buckets. Just ask the Clippers, as Johnson finished with 28.

The return of Gobert, a quietly strong game from Derrick Favors, plus maybe something else (like the heavy load last game) seemed to wear on DeAndre Jordan, who was not as sharp as normal in this one. The Clippers again leaned on Chris Paul — 27 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds — and Jamal Crawford who had 25 points off the bench. However, take those two out of the equation and the rest of the Clippers shot just 34.2 percent against that elite Jazz defense. In the fourth quarter, the entire Clippers’ team shot 31.4 percent total.

Utah got good performances from their role players, who stepped up with Hayward out. Rodney Hood had 18 points and some key buckets in the fourth. Then there was Joe Ingles, who defended CP3 for stretches, was a force getting where he wanted on the pick-and-roll leading to 11 assists, plus he had two key threes down the stretch.

The Clippers clearly missed Blake Griffin in some of these matchups, but Los Angeles is going to have to adjust to that in this series because he’s not returning.

This series is even and feels like it may well go seven. The Clippers have two out of the remaining three at home, and they have the best player in the series in Chris Paul. All that may not be enough if the Jazz role players keep stepping up.