As the Dallas Mavericks head into the final stretch of the season, there is still much up in the air. Will the Mavs be able to hold onto the second seed? Or can they jump to the first, or fall to third or fourth?
All those are external factors, but those aren't the only issues. The Mavs have a few internal matchups to settle before they can get about this business of winning in the playoffs.
Let's take a look at three internal competitions the Mavs are facing.
1) Backup PG: J.J. Barea or Rodrigue Beaubois?
The Mavs drafted Beaubois to be the heir apparent to Jason Kidd, but the young lad has accelerated his development with some strong performances of late, as the Mavericks give Jason Kidd some rest.
Beaubois features breathtaking athleticism with the ability to make jump shots and get to the paint at will. He is also a very good defender, able to keep up with quicker guards because of his foot speed, and he can contest shots from bigger players due to his monster wingspan.
JJ Barea has been a crowd favorite for a number of years, as he comes in at under six feet, yet is scrappy on both ends of the floor, getting to the cup, drawing charges, and even occasionally hitting a jumper.
For Beaubois, his newness to both professional basketball and the English language is a bit of a drawback.
For example, when the trade brought Butler, Haywood and Stevenson to the Mavs, Barea was used almost exclusively as the backup PG, because the new guys were finding their places in the offense, and Beaubois, who still struggles a bit with English, isn't the guy you want explaining an offense, where the smallest miscommunication can shift the balance of the game.
He also has the tendency to make some dumb mistakes. He goes too hard sometimes, takes ill-advised shots, and sometimes can't corral the ball back to himself on the fast break.
These are forgivable flaws, as they're likely to vanish as he gets more reps under his belt, but in the playoffs, when each game is key, can the Mavs afford to lose even a single possession due to some rookie jitters?
JJ has his own drawbacks. He's not particularly good on defense, except for his ability to draw charges. He's not a good jump shooter, and he can tend to fall in love with his jump shot.
He also doesn't really impress me in the way he runs the offense. One of the things that makes Jason Kidd so unique is his court vision, where he seems to know where people are going to be almost before they do.
JJ doesn't have that, and sometimes he really struggles in running the halfcourt set. This could be due to his height, but he also just seems lost at times, and he tends to react to being lost by shooting.
Since Kidd tends to get rest at the start of the fourth quarter, the Mavs could be ceding a significant advantage going into the fourth quarter of a playoff game. They either have inexperience, or poor decision making, neither one of which is ideal.
I like JJ coming in off the bench in the second and third quarters, where he can provide the offense with a spark, and provide opposing defenses with a different set of worries.
But Roddy is clearly the way to go here, he takes much less off the table than Barea, and he's more likely to fix his flaws the more time he spends out on the court.
2) Crunch-time small forward: Caron Butler vs. Shawn Marion
The first question that came with last summer's trade for Shawn Marion was: can Josh Howard play the shooting guard?
The answer was pretty clearly no, which is why Caron Butler was brought in. But Butler (heh heh, "butt butt") is also a natural small forward.
This is all fine and dandy at the beginning of games, because Butler seems more than capable of playing the shooting guard on both ends of the floor.
He can have plays run through him, and he can also switch with Marion on guarding the other team's best scorer.
In fact, the two of them form a great duo on the perimeter, with games that almost perfectly complement each other. One is a physical jump shooter, one is a finesse rebounder and low-post guy.
Enter Jason Terry. As the reigning sixth man of the year, we know Terry is going to start each game on the bench, but crunch time is another story.
You know Kidd, Terry, Dirk and Haywood/Damp are going to be in at crunch time, but who works the small forward spot?
Butler is a more polished offensive player, which the Mavs could use to take pressure off Dirk. Against the Nets last week, Dirk couldn't get anything going, and Caron became the go-to guy in the fourth quarter, responding with some clutch shots in the closing minutes.
But Marion is a better defender, and in a close game, I want Butler getting up in Kobe/'Melo/Durant's face if they're taking a tying or winning shot.
Marion also plays well down low, getting offensive rebounds that lead to extra possessions (huge in close games) or tip-ins and put-backs on missed shots.
Those are the kind of things that good teams get in crunch time, and they help to put other teams away when the game is still up for grabs.
So who do you choose? It's a nice problem to face, too much talent, but the Mavericks still need to come up with an answer.
This is where Coach Rick Carlisle has his time to shine. It's up to him to judge who is feeling the game better, and in some cases it may be both, and Terry is riding the pine.
After all, Terry has been known to go ice-cold around playoff time, and this Mavs team is better built than any previous one to deal with that situation.
But more than likely, Terry will be the crunch time shooting guard, so that still leaves us with a decision to make.
I thought about this one long and hard, and I believe that Caron Butler is the way to go. As a better offensive player, he can help the Mavs put games away better, and it's not like he's a slouch on the defensive end either.
Butler has also proven himself able to get key offensive rebounds, and to be honest, I trust Butler shooting the ball more, even from the paint, where Shawn Marion has been known to miss more than his fair share of chippies.
3) Starting Center: Erick Dampier or Brendan Haywood?
Erick Dampier has taken a lot of flak from the Mavs faithful (myself more than included), for better or worse.
He has shown flashes of being a center, but he hasn't proven he can be the night-in, night-out option at center when it comes to putting up 10 and 10.
Haywood can do exactly that. As a D.C. resident, I have coveted Haywood for a long time, even going so far as, during the Wizards-Mavs game this year, tweeting, "Brendan Haywood= Me Wanty."
Now I've got him, and I couldn't be happier. I was way more excited about Haywood than Butler, and so far, Haywood has delivered.
He can finish with the ball in a way that Dampier couldn't dream of, and he's also proven more than adept on the defensive end.
But Dampier has made a habit of coming through when his starting spot/contract is on the line.
Remember, Dampier will most likely be dealt this summer for a big free agent, and his contract will then be bought out, so he's playing for a new deal.
He's also playing to keep his spot from Haywood, much like he had to play himself back into the starting spot over DeSegana Diop and Drew Gooden in the last few years.
He won both of those, but Haywood is better than both of those players, so we'll see if he can do it.
It would be nice to have two legit, motivated centers going into the playoffs, which would give the Mavs length that only the Lakers could match.
I think Haywood deserves the nod here, but I'm more than willing to watch Dampier try to get his spot back.
In fact, I'm more than willing to watch Barea, Beaubois, Butler, Marion, Damp and Haywood try and outdo each other on the floor.
With such internal competitions to settle, the only way players are going to win is by performing during the game.
And if these players can leave their best out on the floor every night, then even the loser of each competition might have a shiny championship ring as a consolation prize.