— In many ways, the dominance of the Dallas Mavericks is as much a thing of the past as the pseudo-mullets once proudly worn by former teammates Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki.
Winners of 67 games as recently as 2006-07, the 42-28 Mavs currently rank eighth in the Western Conference, having lost to the likes of the Clippers, Grizzlies and Kings this season. In other words, if there was once an air of invincibility in Dallas, it has long since dissipated.
However, despite some unfamiliar hints of mediocrity, the Mavs are still capable of summoning a high level of play and have more than a little bit of potential to cause havoc in the first round of the playoffs. Here’s a look at some of the elements that define this season’s enigmatic edition of the Mavericks:
The Indoor Rainstorm
With one of the league’s most offensively-limited center tandems in Erick Dampier and Ryan Hollins, Dallas is first and foremost a jump-shooting team (the Mavs attempt the eighth-most 3-pointers of any team in the league).
When the long-distance attack is operating at a high level, Dallas boasts two deadly jump shooters with the ability and desire to bury winning shots in former MVP Nowitzki and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jason Terry. The team also has a quietly underrated 3-point threat in Jason Kidd (a career-best 40.5 percent from long range this season), and, when healthy, a fourth legitimate marksman in Josh Howard.
The problem is, when the jumpers aren’t falling, the Mavs have no clear backup plan other than: shoot more jumpers. They attempt the second-fewest free throws of any team in the NBA, meaning that on nights when outside shots aren’t collectively on target, victory can be maddeningly elusive.
The Wrath of Dirk
During his 2006-07 MVP campaign, Nowitzki averaged 24.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists while shooting 50.2 percent from the floor. This season, he's averaging 25.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists and shooting 47.4 percent from the floor.
Translation: At age 30, the Mavericks’ focal point is still, more or less, the exact same game-changing force as when he was voted the MVP two years ago.
Take, for example, Dallas’ matchup with Indiana on March 20. With the game tied at 92 in the closing seconds, Nowitzki caught the ball near the right elbow. He sized up defender Jeff Foster for a moment before dribbling once to his left, stepping back and burying a fade-away 19-footer with 1.1 seconds left to give the Mavs the lead (and ultimately the win). As clinching plays go, it was cold, calculating, dangerously efficient, and most importantly — not remotely surprising. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle can and will go to Terry on occasion in the closing minutes, but when he chooses to go to Nowitzki, it’s basically a matter of whether the forward buries his nearly unblockable jumper — not a matter of what the defender can do to stop it.
Not so fast, Kidd
With Kidd averaging a career-low 9.2 points this season, there has been some insinuation that the veteran point guard needs to shoot more. But is that really the case? When Kidd has attempted 10 or more shots in a game, the Mavs are 10-9. When he has reached double figures in scoring, they’re 17-10 (that .630 winning percentage is only a slight improvement over their season’s winning percentage of .600). However, when Kidd hits double figures in assists, the win-loss record jumps to 19-6, including a stellar 16-2 since mid-December.
Quite simply, in order for the Mavs to be at their best, they don’t need Kidd to be a productive scorer; they need him to be a dynamic playmaker. Rather than hoist more shots, the pass-first point guard needs to elevate his assist numbers, which, at 8.3 per game, tie for his lowest average since his rookie year (1994-95).
But that diminished assist production isn’t entirely Kidd’s fault. In addition to relatively low assist totals, he’s also averaging just 2.3 turnovers, the lowest mark of his 14-plus year NBA career and a clear indicator of a conservative offensive attack. And though Dallas does run on occasion, all too often Kidd has looked like an up-tempo point guard being forced to play too much half-court, pick-and-roll basketball.
At this late juncture in the season, nothing is likely to change in the Mavs’ overall offensive approach under Carlisle. But the more opportunistic Kidd can be in escalating the team’s tempo, the less predictable and more formidable the Mavs will become.
The missing piece
Not to be overlooked during a somewhat disappointing season in Dallas is the absence of Howard. The team’s third-leading scorer (18.0 points) has missed 25 games because of injuries, and he figures to miss many more as he attempts to come back from a troublesome ankle that will eventually require surgery.
Somewhat surprisingly, a quick perusal of wins and losses indicates Howard’s absence has had no discernible impact — Dallas is 27-18 with Howard in 2008-09, and 15-10 without him for an identical .600 winning percentage.
But make no mistake, having Howard at his best makes Dallas a significantly more dangerous squad. When he has scored 20 or more points in a game this season, the Mavericks are 13-4.
Dallas has clearly done an admirable job of remaining competitive without Howard, but in order to be truly dangerous, the Mavs need their missing piece on the court.
Pick an X-factor, any X-factor
Three players who typically come off the Dallas bench should also play critical roles in any Mavs’ success still to come in 2008-09: J.J. Barea, James Singleton and Brandon Bass.
A diminutive but electric point guard, Barea has flashed an almost uncanny ability to find his way to the rim, and a somewhat uncanny resemblance to former Dallas point guard Nash when viewed from far away (the resemblance falls apart as you get closer). Singleton, incidentally, bears a somewhat uncanny facial resemblance to Rockets’ swingman Ron Artest, while Bass, on his best nights, very closely resembles a legitimate force in the paint.
It’s also worth noting all three backups are reliable barometers for the Mavs’ success. The team is 9-5 when Barea scores in double figures, 8-3 when Singleton accomplishes the feat and an even more pronounced 21-5 when Bass hits double digits.
Unfortunately, there’s no telling when the most productive versions of Barea, Singleton or Bass will show up, just like there’s no telling when accuracy will be the defining trait for the team’s constant barrage of jump shots.
Continuing along the same thread of uncertainty, there are no guarantees as to what will happen for the Mavs in the weeks to come. Though a playoff spot is largely assumed, there is a chance Dallas doesn’t make the playoffs at all. At the outset of this week, they were just three games ahead of Phoenix for the final playoff spot. Then again, in the same breath, they were also just four games behind the Rockets for the No. 2 seed in the West.
In many ways, that uncertainty epitomizes the current incarnation of the Mavericks. Here they drift somewhere in between dominant and anonymous, with a series of moving and unpredictable parts making them take the shape of afterthought or bona fide contender on any given night of the 2008-09 campaign.