Dallas Mavericks Have Become Real Contenders in the Western Conference

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistAugust 13, 2014

Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki (41) of Germany celebrates sinking a three-point basket against the San Antonio Spurs in the second half of Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Monday, April 28, 2014, in Dallas. The Spurs won 93-89. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

It's about time we start to give the Dallas Mavericks some respect. 

Dallas sneaked into the playoffs last season by one game, pulling out 49 wins in an ever-competitive Western Conference and earning the eighth seed. Its reward? A match against the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, to whom the team fell in seven games.

After another disappointing end to the year, owner Mark Cuban's team, which has failed to make it out of the first round since winning it all in 2011, entered the offseason with the same strategy as it always does: Go big or go home. After all, everything is bigger in Texas, and Cuban wanted himself a star to put next to Dirk Nowitzki in the homegrown hero's waning years.

The Mavs may have lost Vince Carter (and remain on the brink of letting Shawn Marion walk), but Dallas pretty easily filled the voids created with the departures of those two veterans, aggressively hitting the trade and free-agency markets:

Dallas Mavericks Acquisitions
NameTypePrevious TeamContract
Tyson ChandlerTradeKnicks1 yr/$14.8 mil
Raymond FeltonTradeKnicks2 yrs/$7.7 mil
Chandler ParsonsFree AgentRockets3 yrs/$46.1 mil
Jameer NelsonFree AgentMagic2 yrs/$5.6 mil
Richard JeffersonFree AgentJazz1 yr/$915K
Al-Farouq AminuFree AgentPelicans2 yrs/$2.1 mil
Ivan JohnsonFree AgentChina2 yrs/$1.9 mil
Eric GriffinUFAN/A3 yrs/$2.3 mil

Aggression can only do so much, though. It's not like Dallas hasn't tried to shoot the moon for a star in previous offseasons. The problem was it failed to do so successfully.

Two summers ago, the Mavericks planned on pursuing Deron Williams. It didn't work and they ended up with Elton Brand, Chris Kaman and O.J. Mayo.

Last summer, they wanted Dwight Howard. But the same thing happened. Howard shunned Dallas, and the Mavs ended up implementing a similar strategy to that of its previous offseason, acquiring dependable, makeshift veterans on one-year deals.

Over the past two months, Dallas has stayed true to that strategy.

Richard Jefferson, who shot 40.9 percent from three last year and has value on a minimum deal, can pull off a poor-man's version of what Marion and Carter did. Ivan Johnson has already provided us with the best quote of the 2014-15 season (NSFW language), via Yannis Koutroupis of BasketballInsiders.com, and can be a bully in every way possible.

And though Al-Farouq Aminu has a rather large flaw in that he's an incapable shooter from the outside with a career 29.2 three-point percentage (just somewhat large), he's still a player who can defend and hit the glass at elite levels for a small forward.

Dallas improved, but clearly it wasn't just on the fringes. For the first time since their title, the Mavs successfully brought in some big names.


The First Chandler

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

What's the difference between this offseason and the last few? Dallas actually shored up its weaknesses, and even in winning almost 50 games last season, the Mavs surely had their share of flaws. 

Most of those came on defense.

Dallas finished 22nd in points allowed per possession last season, though the offense was one of the more fluid attacks in the league. That's how the Mavs—of all San Antonio postseason opponents—were able to present the most issues for the Spurs, taking the men in black and white to seven games during Round 1.

Rick Carlisle was the only coach who could implement an offense that could match Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's ball movement. 

Look up the teams that played the least isolation during the 2014 postseason, and those will you find sitting first and second on Synergy Sports' site? The Spurs and the Mavs. But still, even with all that ball sharing on the offensive end, the defense managed to hold back Dallas as a whole.

Mainly, the Mavericks didn't have a top-notch rim protector, playing Samuel Dalembert, Brandan Wright and DeJuan Blair at the 5 throughout the season. Considering Nowitzki isn't going to play that role at power forward, the team had to find rim protection and help defense from its centers. Last season, it wasn't able to do that on a consistent basis.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Actually, the Mavs haven't been able to find a center to protect the rim since Tyson Chandler's departure in the post-lockout winter of 2011. So, what did they do this offseason? They brought the 31-year-old Chandler back to Dallas.

Dallas shipped off Dalembert, Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin and Wayne Ellington to the New York Knicks. In return, it got Raymond Felton and, the main man in the deal, Chandler.

It's a strange move in that it's the organization's way of saying, "We totally messed this one up." The Mavs balked on re-signing their defensive general in 2011 because they thought Chandler would command too much money on the open market after adding Second-Most-Important Player on a Championship Team to his resume that June. 

Their prediction was right. Chandler would sign a $56 million, four-year contract with the Knicks that summer. 

Now, after Chandler has already won Defensive Player of the Year and has garnered an All-Star appearance, the Mavs bring him back, three years older on a contract they didn't want to pay him in the first place. Now, they missed the best part of the deal and have to eat the less valuable, back end of the agreement. But the trade still makes sense.

Don Emmert/Associated Press

Chandler had a down year last season. No one's disputing that. But that doesn't necessarily mean he's done forever. Would anyone be all that surprised if the soon-to-be 32-year-old had one or two more great seasons left in him?

There were extenuating circumstances in New York last year. Mainly, the Knicks were the worst-communicating defense in the NBA—and coach Mike Woodson flip-flopping on pick-and-roll coverages throughout the season didn't help that one bit. That's not an environment conducive to a defensive floor general.

On top of that, Chandler spent the year dealing with leg injuries and off-court personal issues, which never leaked but did seem to be damaging enough to affect his in-game play:

As Chandler said in a conference call after the trade, he thinks this season can be a turnaround one (h/t to Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com):

I finished the season healthy, so this summer I was able to start earlier. I took a couple of weeks off and then I already started getting back in the gym and improving things. I want to get back to thinking and moving the way I moved. I started correcting things mentally and physically. I was already looking forward to this summer because I felt like there was so many things I could improve on. 

Is it even bold to predict that one of the best help-defending big men of the past five years will improve from a down season as he presumably gets healthier (the Mavs training staff, led by former Phoenix Suns trainer Casey Smith, is fantastically underrated) and resumes playing for one of the three or four best NBA coaches, one for whom he's excelled in the not-so-distant past?

Dallas allowed opponents to shoot 63.9 percent in the restricted area last year, the third-worst percentage in the league. If any part of a retro-Chandler comes back, that stat will change.


The Second Chandler

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL  27: Wesley Matthews #2 of the Portland Trail Blazers reaches in on Chandler Parsons #25 of the Houston Rockets in the fourth quarter of Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Moda Center
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Tyson wasn't the only Chandler the Mavs brought in. They were just one Bing away from the trifecta. 

Chandler Parsons, you got us so close. 

Parsons has been possibly the most underpaid player in the league over the past few seasons, earning six figures during each of his first three in the pros. But such is the life of a second-round pick.

The Mavs jumped in and gave a $46.1 million, three-year deal to the restricted free agent this summer. Even if that seems like a reach for a guy who has only been a third option, it's a deal that makes sense for Dallas, especially considering the amount of flexibility a freshly signed $25 million, three-year Nowitzki contract gives the organization. 

The 25-year-old Parsons is entering his prime and switching to a coach under whom perimeter players have thrived. 

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

Parsons will still have to guard the opposition's best wing on a nightly basis—a job he's slightly underqualified for—but at least he'll have wing defenders like Jae Crowder and Aminu coming off the bench to spell him, something Houston didn't provide.

Really, this is only going to help the Dallas offense. One of the most underrated parts of Parsons' game is his passing, and that Dallas offense moves the rock as well as any other attack in the league.


Acting as a floor spacer the Mavs didn't have at the 3 when Marion was there, Parsons swings the ball around the three-point arc promptly and has the ability to create off the dribble. Often, he'll receive a pass on the wing and immediately find a guy in the corner for an open shot as a defender closes out on him.

That's the respect Parsons commands as a 37 percent career shooter from long range. It's also part of what the Rockets' analytics-crazed philosophy has taught the former second-rounder: prioritize the corner three and the shot at the rim over all else.

Parsons will create those looks, and his ability to put the ball on the floor to create for others and himself only helps with that. His 19.5 percent assist rate ranked him among the top 10 among small forwards last season. And remember, this was as a third option when he wasn't handling the ball as much as he could in the future.

The critique on the Parsons deal is that he's been a third preference within an offense. But would he be anything other than that in Dallas, with Dirk still going strong and Monta Ellis doing plenty of dribbling? We haven't even gotten to exactly how great Nowitzki has remained.


Ageless Dirk

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

The safe bet by now is just to assume that Dirk is never going to age. 

At 35 years old, Nowitzki came closer to a 50-40-90 season last year than anyone else in the league, and it would've been his second 180-shooting year. Dirk is still as efficient as ever, and Dallas has even more offensive weapons coming in next season. The Mavs have a pick-and-roll guy now to pair with Dirk's Pringle-like popping ability.

Ellis is a pick-and-roll ball-handler but didn't have a center to play off last season, though Wright has become a reliable screen-and-roll option in his 18 minutes a night. And though Chandler isn't thought of as an offensive player, his threat as someone who can screen and dart to the hoop actually helps space the floor by bringing guys into the paint.

That helps Dirk when he pops, and the presence of Parsons will only give the 36-year-old a break from offensive reliance. 

Dallas is starting from a high base. This team tied for second in points per possession last season. Next year, it could easily have the best scoring attack in the league.


The Organization

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Let's go back to that first-round Spurs series for a second, the one the Mavs ended up losing in seven games despite heading into it as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.

No one drove the Spurs to seven games after that—not the Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder or Miami Heat—and part of that was because Dallas was the only team that could come close to matching what San Antonio does best.

We always talk about how Popovich is the best coach in the league, hands down. And that's perfectly justified. After championship No. 5, it's pretty safe to say Pop has made his way onto the NBA coaching Mount Rushmore along with Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach and Pat Riley. (How weird is our recent cultural obsession with ranking top fours, by the way?)

When it comes to the conversation about who the NBA's second-best coach is, Carlisle has to be in the conversation, if not leading it. No one—save Pop—can craft both an offense and defense so methodically. And that's how the Mavs match San Antonio: with brain power.

Dallas moved the ball so well last season. Part of that was because of personnel.

LM Otero/Associated Press

Calderon is as unselfish as they come. (His "You shoot!" "No, you shoot!" moments when he shares the floor with fellow anti-chucker Pablo Prigioni this season in New York could become an immensely entertaining game of hot potato.)

Dirk, meanwhile, is an egoless superstar on the floor. But then there are the transformation projects, the stray dogs Carlisle rescued from the alley out back.

Look at what he did for Carter's career, prolonging the basketball life of a guy who once succeeded mainly on athleticism. Now, Carter is an ideal 3-and-D veteran, who makes smart decisions and defends on the perimeter. 

A career transformation—thanks to coach Rick. Clearly, Carlisle brings more to the table than just a striking resemblance to Jim Carrey.

We all know about Ellis, Carlisle's most impressive resurrection. It's not that Ellis took bad shots. It's that he exclusively took bad shots.

Two seasons ago in Milwaukee, Ellis sunk 28.7 percent of his threes. Of the 716 individual seasons in which a player attempted at least 300 long-range shots, Ellis' three-point percentage in his final year as a Buck ranked 709th.

Yep, it was the eighth-worst high-volume, three-point-shooting season ever. But Carlisle tamed Ellis' shot selection and decision-making, and in that, created a totally new player who could score relatively efficiently and even command an offense. And he did all that in just one season.

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

With that, Ellis' true shooting jumped from an atrocious 49.3 percent the previous season to 53.2 percent during his first year in Dallas.

Carlisle simply understands how to get guys to buy into his offense.

Dallas was this close (the index finger and thumb are almost touching) to moving past the first round back in May. Now, this is a team that has two potential All-Stars in Parsons and Dirk, and one more major scorer in Ellis.

The offense is going to be destructive, and the defense could make its way into the top half of the league if Chandler finds any of the juice he left back in 2013. That's a formula to push Dallas past any given team in the West...potentially.

Portland doesn't play much defense and came back to earth a bit during the second half of last year. Houston lost Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin. And Golden State is relying on Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry to stay healthy for another season, which is no guarantee.

A top-four seed isn't out of the question for this team—actually, if the Mavs can outplay the Memphis Grizzlies, it should be the expectation.

With potential on both sides of the ball, Dallas can contend to make the Western Conference Finals—or even beyond that. Finally, holding out for the big names worked.


Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of August 13 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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