How they can win it all: The Dallas Mavericks

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Of all of this year’s contending teams, the Dallas Mavericks are perhaps the most improbable champions. Their trials begin in the first round, as the Mavs are rewarded for winning the West’s No. 3 seed with a tough matchup against the Portland Trailblazers. Should they take care of business against Portland, Dallas would likely have to fight through Los Angeles, followed by either San Antonio or Oklahoma City, only to meet perhaps their fiercest competition yet in the NBA Finals. The road to a title is a tough one for any team, but even more so for Dallas; the Mavs just don’t have the statistical résumé of their contending contemporaries, making them the underdog in pretty much every series beyond the first round (or possibly even in the first round, depending on who you ask).

Still, Dallas didn’t win 57 games by some fluke, and they aren’t merely referred to as contenders just to create cross-Conference symmetry. At various points in the season, the Mavs played at a championship-worthy level on both ends of the court. They just need to tap into what it is that made them great earlier in the year. We know Dallas is capable, even if they didn’t play their best basketball in the final weeks of the regular season; here’s how the Mavs can turn that capability into their first ever NBA title:

1. Align a productive offense with an effective defense

Dallas began the 2010-2011 campaign as a highly effective defensive team with a struggling offense, transitioned into a highly effective defensive team with a fairly efficient offense, became a middling team rendered powerless by injuries, and then settled in as an inconsistent defensive team with an efficient offense. It’s been an interesting ride, to say the least.

Yet all of the ingredients are there for the Mavs. They’ve shown they can lock down on D, and their latest successes have come by way of efficient scoring. They just need to find a way to play solid basketball on both ends at the same time, something the Mavs haven’t really been able to do for a significant stretch all season. Caron Butler’s absence certainly makes things far more difficult than they could have been, but this is the hand Dallas was dealt. It’s up to those healthy enough to play to return to the root of their early season success without compromising the integrity of their offense — a tall order, but hardly impossible.

2. Get the most out of Rodrigue Beaubois

Even though the defensive end has been more problematic for the Mavs of late, a shot in the arm on offense couldn’t hurt. Theoretically, that’s where we could throw in an “Enter Rodrigue Beaubois,” but the second-year guard clearly has no sense of theatrical timing. Beaubois made his long-awaited return from a lingering foot injury soon after Caron Butler had been ruled out for the remainder of the regular season, a fortunate development for a Maverick team in need of Beaubois’ offensive skills. Yet since returning, Beaubois has been largely underwhelming; while slotted at either guard position, Beaubois has wobbled between being overly tentative to trying to force the action. That inability to find a stable middle ground may have cost Beaubois a spot in the rotation for the playoffs, too, as Rick Carlisle opted to remove the erratic — but intriguing — guard from the starting lineup for the Mavs’ final regular season game.

Still, Carlisle will have to reverse course in desperation if the Mavs aren’t able to revive their depressed defense. Beaubois still has the potential to be a series changer if he can center himself, and Dallas will likely need him to bring tangible offensive benefit if they’re to go on a deep playoff run. Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion have become the only stable scorers in the Mavs’ rotation, and if Beaubois could balance the struggles of Jason Terry or Jason Kidd with a productive outing once in awhile, it could go a long way toward relieving Nowitzki and Marion from excessive defensive pressure.

3. Keep Tyson Chandler on the floor

Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi are a fairly strong tandem as far as reserve centers go, but Tyson Chandler is just on another level in terms of his defensive impact. The reason Dallas was able to make such a substantial improvement on defense early in the season was mostly due to Chandler’s timely rotations; though Haywood and Mahinmi make honest attempts to protect the rim, neither is Chandler’s peer in regard to their ability to slide over and contest penetration. The difference between having Chandler in the lineup and either Haywood or Mahinmi is statistically palpable; not only are the Mavs 3.37 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Chandler in the game, but a more thorough look at their performance reveals that Dallas’ worst defensive showings coincide with Chandler’s lowest minute totals.

Rick Carlisle isn’t keeping Chandler’s minutes low by choice; because of his defensive role and physical style, Chandler tends to pick up fouls rather quickly. It’s essential that he avoids cheap, unnecessary fouls that would limit his playing time in the postseason, because the Mavs just aren’t the same defensive team without him on the court. However, it may also be prudent for Carlisle to be slightly less rigid in his approach toward Chandler’s fouls. In order to maximize his center’s minutes and effectiveness, it may not always be wise to pull him from the game, even when he picks up two personals in the first quarter or three in the first half. After all, doing so only creates an artificial cap on Chandler’s minutes when there needn’t be one.

The double-whammy: Chandler is also a far more useful offensive player than Haywood and Mahinmi, as he’s able to do both the little things (set better screens, catch the ball on the perimeter without being flustered) and the major things (convert offensive rebounds, finish alley-oops, hit the occasional elbow jumper) to facilitate the offense better than his center teammates. With that kind of two-way impact, foul trouble in a game or two could potentially turn a series. Dallas’ margin for error will be small even in the first round, and there’s no way the Mavs can live up to their potential with Chandler on the bench.

Lakers president Magic Johnson: I get fined every time I talk about other players, but nobody else does

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Magic Johnson got the Lakers fined for tweets he sent while holding a ceremonial executive title. Once he started running the front office, his blinking at Paul George on national TV contributed to the Lakers getting fined again for tampering. Johnson’s praise of Giannis Antetokounmpo drew yet another tampering fine.

So, though he escaped punishment for his recent comments on 76ers guard Ben Simmons, Johnson refused to answer a question about Hornets guard Kemba Walker.

Carolina Blitz:

Johnson:

You know I can’t answer any questions about no players, because every time I do it, I get fined. But anybody else do it, they don’t get fined. So I’m going to stay away from that one.

I don’t blame Johnson for feeling that way.

Other teams’ owners, coaches and executives have repeatedly publicly discussed rival players without facing announced punishment.

To be fair, the NBA doesn’t reveal every fine. Bucks owner Marc Lasry reportedly just got fined for tampering, but the league never announced it. But, at minimum, there’s an inconsistency with how the NBA exposes Johnson’s transgressions.

Even NBA commissioner Adam Silver said last year there’s a spotlight on the Lakers due to prior tampering. That strikes me as unfair. The Lakers already paid for their prior violations and should now be held to the same standard as everyone else.

And for what it’s worth, I wish that standard allowed an all-time great point guard like Johnson to publicly share his thoughts on Kemba Walker.

In wake of Rudy Gobert snub, Jazz propose changing All-Star-selection process

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Jazz center Rudy Gobert and many in Utah were upset about him getting snubbed from the All-Star game.

Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey is doing something about it.

Lindsey on The Zone Sports Network:

This examination of the process is just long overdue, and Rudy frankly highlights this. So, therefore we would recommend the following things and measures to the league:

A: Form an All-Star-selection committee, by former players, by former NBA coaches, by former management, by former scouts, by former NBA media and using current, but unattached, analytic personnel to consult with that group. In our opinion, the committee should be rotated, share a little bit of the love. In our opinion, the committee should be paid for their time and expertise.

B: The selection process should be an ongoing education process. Head coaches don’t have time to get a weekly update on who’s doing well, even in raw per-game numbers and much less in advanced numbers on who’s impacting what. Their job is to organize their own group. So, let’s make this something where’s there’s an ongoing process of who’s having a good game, who’s having a good week, good month and driving winning as much as anything. So, that would be B.

C: There’s a committee. There’s a selection room. There’s a process. There’s a criteria. And the vote should be made public. Let’s open it up, a little bit like NCAA teams do now for the tournament. And I think you could monetize it. I think it’d be compelling TV. There’s no conflict of interest by the committee, because ex-coaches, ex-management people, ex-media – they’re hopefully voting their conscience and voting to the facts.

In our opinion, and point D, the criteria should be a combination of per-game stats, advanced stats, win-loss records, player decorum and player behavior. In our opinion, these measures should be of the highest-possible standards, both tangible and intangible.

Imagine a world where Lindsey’s committee was already in place. Now imagine that committee picked the same All-Stars this year – including Gobert getting snubbed – as in reality.

In that alternate universe, Lindsey might be proposing NBA coaches choose All-Star reserves. After all, who’d be more likely than coaches to reward a dominant defender and excellent screen-setter like Gobert?

Lindsey’s proposal is needlessly complicated. The current system gets some picks wrong, but it mostly works. Lindsey’s system would also get some picks wrong but mostly work. That’s just the inevitability of the setup. There will always be debate about the final spots on an All-Star roster.

The feasibility of Lindsey’s plan is also questionable. Who are these former coaches and former management without aspirations of re-entering the league? Who qualifies as former media in a world where it’s increasingly easy to remain somewhat involved? Are any of those people still connected enough to the game to make good choices?

Besides, everyone has biases. Even people removed from the game still have biases.

The NBA’s new voting system for choosing All-Star starters – 50% fans, 25% players, 25% media – has worked well. Maybe the simple solution is adding a coaches component and using that for reserves, too.

As front office looks toward free agency, starless Clippers winning now

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CHARLOTTE – The Clippers have no All-Stars here.

Not Danilo Gallinari. Not Montrezl Harrell. Not even Tobias Harris, who spent most of the season with L.A. before getting traded to the 76ers.

Heck, nobody who has played for the Clippers this season – including Gallinari, Harris and Lou Williams – has ever made an All-Star team.

No Clippers are participating in All-Star Saturday Night events, either. Their only representative here is rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the Rising Stars Challenge.

Yet, the Clippers are an impressive 32-27.

“When you just have a bunch of guys that are selfless and just want to play for each other and just want to ultimately win,” Gilgeous-Alexander said, “things like that happen.”

The Clippers are on pace for one of the best-ever records for a team with no past or present All-Stars. Here all the all-time leaders (counting only seasons with an All-Star game):

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The Clippers’ success is particularly surprising because this was supposed to be a transitional year for them.

They moved on historically quickly from the Chris PaulBlake Griffin-DeAndre Joran Lob City era. Everyone from the Clippers’ 2012-17 teams was gone before the season even began. Since the early 1950s, only these Clippers, the 1996 Mavericks and 2003 and 2004 Hawks completely turned over their rosters within two seasons.

The Clippers have made no secret of their interest in Kawhi Leonard. They’re also reportedly pursuing Kevin Durant. Jimmy Butler could be in the mix.

“The front office and coaches and teammates are all competitive guys and want to be good for a long time,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

Here’s the rub: Many of Gilgeous-Alexander’s teammates might not be around for that ultimate goal.

To open a projected $57 million in cap space this summer,* the Clippers had to stock their roster with expiring contracts.

*Based on the Clippers renouncing all their free agents and not having a first-round pick. L.A. owes the Celtics a lottery-protected first-rounder.

Beverley will be a free agent this summer. So will Harris and likely Avery Bradley, who got dealt to the Grizzlies shortly before the trade deadline and has just $2 million of his $12.96 million salary next season guaranteed. So will Marcin Gortat, who got waived around the trade deadline.

Yet, these players put aside personal agendas to help a franchise that’s transparently looking past them. It’s a tribute to the players. It’s a tribute to Clippers coach Doc Rivers, too. This team has played hard and shown great camaraderie.

It won’t get easier even after moving Harris, L.A.’s top player this season who’s entering free agency. Ivica Zubac, JaMychal Green, Garrett Temple and Wilson Chandler – acquired before the trade deadline – also have expiring contracts.

Don’t assume the Clippers will fall off now. They added solid vets who could fit this culture.

The Clippers’ identity – starless, transient – remains intact. The winning could, too.

It’s not that the Clippers got snubbed. I thought none deserved to be an All-Star.

That’s the beauty of this team.

Pelicans reportedly fire GM Dell Demps

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Dell Demps has been on the hot seat for a few years now, just scraping by while making short-term moves that appeared more about keeping his job and winning games now over planning for long-term success around Anthony Davis.

This season that all seemed to catch up with him — Davis demanded a trade and the Pelicans are well out of the playoff chase in the West.

That has cost Demps his job after nine seasons, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Frustration with Davis leaving the building is more the last straw that cost Demps his job rather than the sole firable offense. Demps has been on thin ice for a while, what happened Thursday was just enough for New Orleans to pull the trigger now rather than wait until after the season. But the sense around the league is this was coming no matter what.

If Demps had traded Davis to the Lakers at the deadline he would have been fired anyway. Also, sources have told me that it wasn’t Demps’ call, that ownership and upper management (the people above Demps) did not want the Laker trade and he couldn’t have pulled the trigger on the deal even if he wanted to. Ownership and upper management didn’t want to feel “bullied” into a deal.

It was thought by many around the league that there would be a housecleaning in New Orleans after the season and that the new GM, whoever he or she is, would be the one making the call on the trade and the direction the team takes next. The question is, will coach Alvin Gentry be out, too?

Expect the Pelicans to move reasonably quickly on finding a replacement, whether it is internal or external. They want someone in place to have a strategy for the team heading into the draft, a strategy that includes what to do about a Davis trade.