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.