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.

Check out Kawhi Leonard’s highlights from this past season (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook and James Harden were putting up the bigger numbers, they were drawing more attention. And while MVP is a regular season award, nobody has boosted their MVP credentials more in the postseason than Kawhi Leonard.

He had a really impressive regular season, too. Since we’re on a long break between games, enjoy the highlights of Leonard’s season. He may enter next season as the MVP favorite.

Kevin Love on Cavaliers: “I don’t feel like we’re underdogs”

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Kevin Love and Las Vegas bookmakers do not see things the same way.

In Vegas, the Golden State Warriors are heavy favorites to win the title — bet $100 on them to win and you get back $41.7 (or less). Cleveland is a heavy underdog.

Love sees a confident team that is the defending NBA champions, as he told Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“The whole underdog thing is funny to me, because, yeah, at the end of the day we are defending our title,” Love said Saturday after the Cavs’ first practice in preparation for the Warriors since clinching a spot in the Finals. “We’re trying to repeat, which is so hard to do. I think we will use it as fuel, we will use it as motivation, but the idea of playing into it? It’s tough for me to say that is the case. I don’t feel like we’re underdogs. We match up well with them, and I think they’d say the same about us.”

What else was he going to say?

More than any other team in the league, the Cavaliers are built to give Golden State trouble. The Cavaliers can exploit mismatches, be physical on defense, and they have LeBron James, Love and Kyrie Irving. Three NBA stars.

Is that enough against four NBA stars is the question.

Mike Brown still waiting on Tyronn Lue to pay up overdue bet

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Mike Brown is ready for Tyronn Lue to pay up on a nearly two-decade-old bet. Yep, Lue owes him $100 and Brown plans to accept it at long last – perhaps even during the NBA Finals when they see each other.

All this time Brown never wanted the money he earned by beating Lue in a shooting contest when the Cavaliers coach was an NBA newcomer, yet Golden State’s acting coach – who spent two stints leading Cleveland – joked how Lue can surely afford it these days.

“I’m glad he finally admitted that he owes me money because for many years he wouldn’t admit that he owed me money. He does owe me $100 and since he got his new deal hopefully he can afford to pay me now,” Brown said Saturday post-practice. “I asked him many time for it but he’s denied it. He’s denied that the game ever took place.”

Lue insists he has tried to pay up – time and time again, to no avail.

“Mike, I owe him $100 from when I was a rookie. That’s all I ever know about Mike,” Lue said Saturday. “I tried to pay him and he wouldn’t take the money so he says I always owe him. He’s always been a great guy.”

The 40-year-old Lue was rewarded with a contract extension after the Cavs’ championship run last June for the city’s first major sports title in 52 years. Cleveland overcame a 3-1 Finals deficit to the Warriors, and now the teams are preparing to face off for a third straight year.

“I think what it has to do with, it has to do with the fact he’s got a nice, long, fat contract with the Cavs and he realizes that he can finally afford to pay me the money that he owes me for the shooting game back in 2000 or whenever it was,” Brown said with a grin.

Brown acknowledged he cannot recall any other details such as how many shots each man made, saying: “I don’t even remember, that was back when I was in shape and a good shooter. He’d kill me now”

“Yeah, he was with the Spurs and I was with the Lakers and we had a little shooting contest and I lost,” Lue said. “He wouldn’t take the money so from now on 19 years in a row always says, `You owe me $100.’ He won’t take the money. Always been close to Mike and I like Mike a lot, respect him a lot.”

 

Bob Myers’ care for people goes long way as Warriors GM

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — When Bob Myers hosts a dinner party, he is the guy who once it’s all over has a pretty good read on the entire evening: who had a great time, who held something back, which couples are getting along, who might be dealing with a life challenge but chose to keep it private.

“All those things go through my mind, without me trying to. Some people, none of that goes through their mind,” Myers said. “They ate, and did what they did. I don’t know why those things are. I don’t know how you are. … We all have different intuitions and skills.”

Usually, he is spot on. And his instincts also carry over to the workplace.

The Golden State Warriors’ general manager has that same kind of feel for his entire operation – from those staffers behind the scenes, to the coaches, the MVPs and the role players, helping to forge a tight-knit team in its third straight NBA Finals.

“There’s a lot of things I have no clue on and then you bring people in to your blind spots and say, `Look, I’m not good at this, can you help me in this area?”‘ he said. “That’s also being self-aware. What does it mean? It just means we’re attentive to people. Everybody wants to feel appreciated. Everybody wants to know that they matter. We all matter in our own unique ways. So, does that help our team? I don’t know. It helps that we have really good players.”

Myers has found a balance being involved just enough in the day-to-day. Hands-on when needed while knowing when to back off.

One day, Myers stands in the middle of the center practice court meeting with Steve Kerr. He might be speaking to Andre Iguodala or Draymond Green. Another time, he leans against a back wall checking in with Mike Brown, who has been coaching the team during Kerr’s absence following a procedure to repair a spinal fluid leak stemming from complications after two back surgeries in 2015.

Myers does sit-ups on a stability ball while chatting up Stephen Curry, antsy for practice to wrap up so the GM can get to hooping himself.

That genuine care for the person and not just the basketball player that Myers shows in all he does went a long way in Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma City last July to join the Warriors. Sure, a star-studded roster didn’t hurt either.

“He doesn’t walk around like he’s the leader. We know he makes the big decisions but we work together, all of us, him and Steve especially. If you see Bob walking with a group of Warriors employees, you wouldn’t know he’s Bob Myers, the president of the team. He just fits in with everybody,” Durant said. “We talk so much about great leaders being just ahead of the pack most of the time but sometimes that doesn’t have to be your personality. It could be encouraging, working with others, learning and listening. All those traits he has, and I think that’s why he’s ahead of the pack.

“That’s what drew me here.”

In a pre-playoff practice, the 42-year-old ex-sports agent and former player at UCLA stood holding a basketball while wearing sweats and no shoes – his typical, understated NBA executive style. He pulled on some bright blue high-tops and started stretching out his quadriceps for one of those regular staff pickup games he so enjoys because it allows him a break from being “leashed” to his smartphone.

Myers picks his moments, or, in some cases, Kerr assists. After Golden State fell behind 2-1 at Memphis in the second round of the 2015 playoffs, the coach called Myers over afterward and sought his input, a gesture the GM appreciates to this day.

He respects his role and the specific jobs of everyone who works with him. He doesn’t look at it as if he is above the rest.

“The best thing we can do is be who we are, whatever that is,” Myers said. “We’re all drawn to authenticity. We like people who are real. Sometimes real people are flawed, we’re all flawed. I think we connect with people who are open, exposed, willing to admit things they’re good at, things they’re not good at, try to be humble, try to be collaborative.”

Golden State wound up coming back to beat the Grizzlies on the way to winning it all in `15 for the franchise’s first championship in 40 years. The Warriors squandered a 3-1 Finals lead last year to Cleveland to miss a repeat title. Then, Myers – with help from Curry, Green, Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Kerr – lured Durant away from the Thunder to make another deep run. An acquisition accomplished as a team, in Myers’ mind.

“He’s a listener and an observer and that’s what I love about him,” Kerr said. “He’s really, really bright and he understands people. The reason he understands people is because he watches and observes and doesn’t have to dominate the conversation.”

Myers might spend extra time watching the backups, who often stay late for extra scrimmaging to keep sharp.

He doesn’t interfere, yet they know he’s there.

“He’s got a really special quality of being here and then staying in the background at the same time,” Kerr said. “He gets it. I think that’s the way he approaches his life. He’s very modest and yet he’s very confident. He’s very knowledgeable and yet he listens. He’s never the know-it-all guy who has to show he’s the smartest in the room but he actually is the smartest in the room.”

When Myers moves about team headquarters in downtown Oakland he also blends right in with any group. That’s how easy he is to have around – and much like the scene at one of his dinner parties, he has a gauge on the vibe.

“He understands how important it is for him to be aware of everything that’s going on, how everybody’s feeling,” Curry said. “It’s a tough job, for sure, to have to balance, manage, all these different personalities and the ups and downs of the season. He’s bridged the gap between upstairs and downstairs. All that responsibility, it all pays out when we all succeed, and a lot of that goes to what Bob does on a day-to-day basis. … He finds a way to be personable, to be connected to every single person in our organization. And it’s very genuine. That goes a long way.”