Are the Renovated Dallas Mavericks Contenders for the NBA Title?
Since missing out on signing then-free agent Deron Williams, the Mavs have added Chris Kaman on a reasonable one-year deal, acquired Darren Collison and Dahntay Jones for an outbound free agent that they weren't going to re-sign anyway, picked up Elton Brand on an amnesty waiver, signed O.J. Mayo for mid-level money and re-signed the incredibly useful Delonte West.
While not exactly as preferable as picking up a new franchise player, that's a hell of a Plan B; Dallas looked to be dwindling toward irrelevance for a minute there, but Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban have cobbled together a legitimately competitive team that should vie for one of the middle seeds in a competitive Western Conference.
Unfortunately, that brilliant series of moves doesn't at all elevate Dallas into the title discussion. The Mavericks now have a fully formed roster, but its one lacking in too many places for us to include them in the same tier and conversation that includes the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder, among others.
Then again, the 2011 Mavericks were similarly situated in the league's hierarchy—somewhere below the inarguable contenders and not even a particularly convincing dark horse. That outfit was stellar enough offensively and flexible enough defensively to make it through a brutal playoff gauntlet, solely on the basis of providing a competitive game-by-game front. They weren't favored over the Heat, the Thunder, the Lakers or even the Trail Blazers, but the 2011 Mavs were good enough to give themselves a shot in virtually any context and rode an incredible wave en route to their first ever championship.
Dallas' roster for the coming season is very different, but no less resourceful. That may not be enough to keep up with the league's ongoing arms race, but it's a remarkable achievement in light of how gloomy the Mavs' outlook was just a few short weeks ago. All seemed lost in the wake of Williams' choice to re-sign with the Nets, and yet the Mavs have put together a deep, capable—and yes, flawed—roster capable of putting up a decent fight.
The trio of Collison, Mayo and West actually makes for a more productive playmaking rotation than what Dallas had at its disposal last season, in part because Jason Kidd's offensive decline had put the Mavs at a considerable disadvantage. Just by virtue of letting the 39-year-old point guard walk, Dallas opens up its offense for more dribble penetration, reduces the number of careless turnovers executed in their "flow" offense and changes the way that opponents can pressure Dirk Nowitzki.
Yet Brand, who was central to the Philadelphia 76ers' defensive success last season, may be the most exciting get of all. He's hardly a prototypical defensive big, but Brand brings effective back-line rotation, shot contesting and defensive rebounding in a more compact package. He's not the player he once was and he's not exactly the overdue replacement for Tyson Chandler, but Brand can nonetheless anchor a successful defense, and between West and Shawn Marion, he'll have some skilled and versatile help.
Can we have complete trust in the idea that this roster, Nowitzki aside, can create enough quality shots to sustain a playoff run on offense? Of course not. Do we have reason to believe that a defense reliant on Kaman and Nowitzki to play pivotal roles can stand up to the league's premier offenses? Hardly. But this team is quite good, even if it's not quite good enough, and has positioned itself for a winning season and a clean cap picture going forward. That may not be as sweet as legitimate contention, but it's a very substantial victory in consolation.
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