Thanks to a Western Conference of virtually unparalleled difficulty, last year's 49-win Dallas Mavericks knew they'd have to make serious changes over the summer if they had hopes of doing anything more than sneaking into the playoffs in 2014-15.
As expected, the Mavs have tinkered, tweaked and swapped out talent during the offseason. Now, armed with an old favorite, a new weapon and a retooled cast of veterans, they head into the upcoming NBA campaign a different, perhaps better team—but still one carrying questions.
They also have renewed hope—hope that they've done enough to not only stay competitive in the knockdown, drag-out West, but that perhaps they've even taken a step forward.
Dallas has been down this road with Tyson Chandler before, and you'll recall the last time they traveled it, a championship trophy was at the end. In 2010, the Mavericks sent Erick Dampier and his expiring contract to the Charlotte Bobcats for Chandler in a five-player deal.
Viewed then as a solid, injury-prone big whose career hadn't fulfilled expectations, Chandler promptly elevated Dallas' defense. Everything came together for Chandler and the Mavs in that 2010-11 season, and everybody was sporting rings when it was all over.
Dallas is hoping for a repeat performance this season.
In town again after a trade brought him back from the New York Knicks, Chandler is four years older and coming off his worst season in years. But head coach Rick Carlisle has a reputation for getting the most out of veterans (see: Carter, Vince and Marion, Shawn).
There's immense risk in relying on Chandler to reprise his role as a defensive anchor, as Dallas surrendered the ultra-efficient and criminally underrated Jose Calderon to get him. Even more troubling, the Mavericks may have to rely on Raymond Felton (the other piece coming back from the Knicks in the Chandler deal) to actually play meaningful minutes this year.
For anyone familiar with Felton's recent (doughy) body of work, the prospect of relying on him for anything is troubling.
Fortunately, Devin Harris is back with the Mavs on a team-friendly four-year deal. He played seven minutes per game in the fourth quarter last year—even with Calderon on the team—which means Carlisle may not have to utilize Felton as much as some expect in high-leverage situations.
It's probably not accurate to call the Chandler-for-Calderon trade an upgrade; it's more complicated than that. "Calculated risk" seems the more appropriate term.
Trusting Strength, Addressing Weakness
Taking on Chandler for Calderon is a clear defense-for-offense exchange, one the Mavericks felt comfortable making because they had no trouble scoring the ball last year.
Dallas finished second in the league in offensive efficiency in 2013-14, per NBA.com, just a fraction behind the Los Angeles Clippers. And after the All-Star break, nobody posted a higher offensive rating than the Mavericks did.
Losing Calderon and his historically accurate jumper will likely mean a downgrade on one end, but the leap from Samuel Dalembert to (a hopefully healthy) Chandler could more than make up for it on the other.
Plus, most of the Mavs' other key offseason moves have been made with an eye toward replacing the offense that left town with Calderon.
Chandler Parsons is the Mavericks' most significant free-agent addition in years, snatched away from the Houston Rockets with a hefty three-year, $46 million offer sheet. He gives Dallas its best wing scorer since...well, probably since Michael Finley roughly 600 years ago.
He'll step in for Vince Carter (gone to the Memphis Grizzlies) and Shawn Marion (still unsigned) as yet another versatile scoring threat alongside Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki. Toss in Rashard Lewis on a cheap deal, and the Mavericks have done well to fill in the offensive hole left by Calderon's absence.
Calderon was a low-mistake point guard who scored with ridiculous efficiency. But if Carlisle is smart enough to redistribute his touches to Nowitzki, Parsons and Ellis, the Mavs may not miss a beat.
Newsflash: Carlisle is absolutely smart enough to do exactly that, while solving two Rubik's cubes and finishing the New York Times' Sunday crossword in pen.
And with Chandler patrolling the lane as part of what we should all expect to be a well-devised Carlisle scheme, there's no way Dallas ranks 22nd in the league in defensive efficiency next season.
Breaking It Down
Even if it's true the Mavericks are better now than they were at the end of last season, the stark reality of life in the West means they can't expect to automatically vault up the conference standings.
The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder remain a cut above everyone else, and the Los Angeles Clippers aren't far behind. Houston finished fourth last year, though most believe it took a step back by surrendering Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik over the summer.
But it's hard to believe the Rockets could fall out of the postseason picture altogether.
The Portland Trail Blazers seemed like an easy out last spring, but they promptly won a first-round series (against those same Rockets) and look like a team with some staying power.
So unless you're convinced the Mavs have done enough to jump ahead of the always tough Memphis Grizzlies or talent-laden Golden State Warriors, it's tough to make a case that Dallas' postseason presence is assured.
And that's to say nothing of the Phoenix Suns, 48-win dynamos who finished one game behind the Mavs last season, missing the playoffs despite a superior per-game differential.
Strangely, though, surviving in the West isn't all that different from contending. As the No. 8 seed last year, Dallas pushed the eventual champion Spurs to a seventh game in the first round—something no other playoff team did.
Realistically, any of the eight playoff squads in the West could have seen the Conference Finals last year. Little figures to change this season.
So even if the Mavericks' moves only marginally improved the club, that might be enough. After all, if we've learned anything about Dallas, Nowitzki and Carlisle during their time together, it's that anything can happen in the postseason.
Is It Enough?
Dallas hasn't connected on any major free-agent swings in recent years, but it has remained slavishly devoted to fielding a competitive, borderline-contending roster all along. It's not hard to understand how.
"We’re just blessed. Dirk is a better human being than he is a basketball player," Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson told Bryan Gutierrez of ESPN Dallas. "He’s a very special man. It’s a sign that he’s willing to sacrifice anything, playing time, financial or whatever, to make us a better team and put us in a position to championship. You can count those kind of guys on one hand."
Nowtizki's willingness to sacrifice (he quietly signed a three-year, $25 million deal to stay in Dallas, despite max offers from other teams) is the reason the Mavericks have remained a threat for so long.
Dirk Nowitzki will be the 4th highest paid player on #Mavericks next season, behind Chandler Parsons, Tyson Chandler and Monta Ellis. Wow.— Ethan Norof (@Mr_Norof) July 15, 2014
It's not just that his salary concessions enable Dallas to spend elsewhere, either. It's that his genuine desire to win creates a sense of obligation throughout the franchise. The Mavericks believe they owe it to Nowitzki to compete.
That's a top-down unity of purpose that makes anything possible. So while Dallas might appear to fall short of the West's elite from a talent perspective, it's never at a disadvantage in terms of focus or drive.
In a conference where being great is merely a prerequisite for playoff participation, Dallas' singular mindset and desire to do right by its superstar give it an edge that could wind up making all the difference in the world.