In a year following what could generously be called disappointing for the Dallas Mavericks, expectations are high that without the immediate availability of Dwight Howard, at least Deron Williams will make his way to Dallas. At this writing that appears to be a good possibility, but will that really put the Mavs back in the finals?
With Williams AND Howard AND Dirk plus the supporting cast remaining in Dallas, there wouldn't be much the Mavs lack. But for now the future is uncertain and the Mavs, as any team, have strengths and weaknesses. Clearly many of the strengths which made 2011 a championship year were lost to free agency in the hopes of landing Williams and Howard.
Regardless of who is the "top prize," the Mavericks need to focus on what their weaknesses are and the best approach for addressing all of them. With a championship just barely in the rearview mirror, there are numerous ways to return to the success that also largely rode on the shoulders of Dirk Nowitzki.
How ironic it is that when Brendan Haywood was signed, he was the best center the Mavs had on the roster since James Donaldson? And then along came Tyson Chandler. When Chandler left the Mavericks, so did defense and rebounding down low, as the Mavs were mauled inside much of last year by Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol, Andrew Bynum and others. While it was popular to say the Mavs defense actually improved last year because their average points allowed dropped, it didn't take much attention to actual games to see what was happening in the paint.
Haywood is too expensive to keep for what he offers. Ian Mahimi has upside offensively, but he is foul prone on the defensive end so he can't be your only option. While Brandan Wright has an incredibly bright future, he doesn't have the size to guard NBA centers. Drafting tough defensive-minded 6'10" C/F Bernard James from Florida State was a step in the right direction, but it wouldn't hurt to shore up the inside even further, particularly if you get a solid offensive player as well.
There are a handful of good free agents that can offer not only defensive improvement but offense as well, which is why the Mavericks should stay away from looking at one-sided options such as Brook Lopez, who won't likely leave New Jersey anyway.
Chris Kaman seems to stand out as a big man with an all-around solid game and a reputation for good defense and toughness. Playing with Dirk in the past is a big plus, and the only downside is his injury history.
Marcus Camby would be a workable short-term option and of course, there has been much discussion about taking a chance on Greg Oden, who, if healthy, could be a force. There are also a couple of lower-profile up-and-comers such as Jordan Hill and Marreese Speights, who could contribute without breaking the bank. Any of these options would be an improvement.
If no viable centers can be worked out, perhaps a solid double-double power forward such as Kris Humphries or Brandon Bass might suffice. With one of these options the Mavs would likely make dramatic strides defensively, especially if Shawn Marion and Delonte West hang around with new additions James and Jared Cunningham.
While much attention has been justifiably focused on the loss of Tyson Chandler, it cannot be underscored how much the loss of JJ Barea—along with Jason Kidd's struggles—contributed to the disappointing season.
Jason Kidd is still capable of being a great floor general, but Father Time has eroded his quickness and he has also struggled with his shot. He played much closer to his prime in 2010-2011, and having Barea as a backup brought a different type of offense that gave defenses fits. Delonte West and Vince Carter both contributed decently in his absence, but with Kidd struggling and Barea gone, nothing matched the previous season's one-two punch. In particular, Barea's knack for sailing right past bigger defenders and hitting clutch shots was a thing of beauty. In addition, with Kidd's status uncertain, the Mavs are now having to look for a point guard when they already had a very good one.
The good news is that this free-agent crop is ripe with good and great point guards so it's largely a question of the best fit and who is in the budget. For all the ballyhoo about Deron Williams and the sacrifices made to chase him along with Dwight Howard, other options should be explored, especially if signing Williams dramatically restricts the Mavs ability to get a solid post presence. On the other hand, ESPN's Ric Bucher reports that Kidd will sign as a backup for whatever team Williams chooses, and having him as a backup and mentor is worth its weight in gold.
While Jeremy Lin may be getting a contract close to Williams, Steve Nash could provide an equivalent short-term solution at a much lower price with the added benefit of having played with Dirk and Shawn Marion for years. Other than that, there are a number of up-and-coming young guards that could help the Mavs right away.
With Roddy's future looking uncertain, it's also important to keep Delonte West and Jason Terry if possible—in addition to both of them having a nice shooting touch, they are both capable of running the point.
Emotion and chemistry should not be overlooked. A championship team is a group that is more than the sum of its parts, and the 2010-2011 Mavs are an excellent example. You can assemble a team of comparable talent to a championship team but that is no guarantee of success. Tyson Chandler, JJ Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and even Caron Butler are all very good players in different ways that you can see in the box score, but a lot of what they all brought to Dallas was something you DON'T see—an emotional intensity that transformed Dallas from a franchise historically perceived as "soft" to a physical, intense and scrappy squad.
The addition of Delonte West brought a touch of the physical side back to the team, but the team overall simply lacked those intangibles. Jared Cunningham and Bernard James appear to be cut from similar cloth, and with another physical post player or fiery point guard, perhaps the burning embers can ignite once again.
As reported by ESPN, the most intense player in the league (and an excellent low-post option) Kevin Garnett is headed back to Boston. With ESPN also reporting Jason Terry will join him there, other options for an infusion of energy need to be explored.
Steve Nash is quietly considered to be one of the most competitive players in the league—a relentlessly hard worker who can break his nose and keep right on going. Nash isn't as demonstrative as some, but everyone knows how focused and serious he is. In addition to the other reasons for considering him, Nash's leadership and drive are invaluable.
If these priorities can be addressed and the gaps filled, there is a good chance a return to the finals in 2013 is more than a pipe dream.
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