Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks and the Least Likely Champs in NBA History

Taylor SmithAnalyst IJune 14, 2011

After 13 years, Dirk and the Mavs have finally reached the summit.
After 13 years, Dirk and the Mavs have finally reached the summit.Marc Serota/Getty Images

The 2010-11 NBA season was the most compelling season in the history of the league.

It all started with the free-agency bonanza that was the summer of 2010. More specifically, of course, “The Decision.” How would a team with three superstars surrounded by aging role players gel? Would talent alone be enough to carry them to the top immediately? Obviously, this was the main league-wide storyline for the season.

Then, you had the revival of the New York Knicks. The franchise that had been, for all intents and purposes, the laughingstock of the NBA from the time Patrick Ewing was traded to Seattle to when Amar'e Stoudemire signed on the dotted line last July.

Then, of course, they landed Carmelo Anthony before the trade deadline, which has people in the city legitimately excited about one of the league’s marquee franchises for the first time in over a decade.

How about the Spurs and Celtics? The NBA’s “old guard” was trying to pry that championship window open just long enough to slip through one final time. They looked like the league’s two best teams throughout the first half of the season, but once the playoffs rolled around, didn’t have enough left in the tank to deal with younger, more athletic teams.

Who had Derrick Rose tabbed as the Most Valuable Player before the season began? Not only did the 22-year-old Chicago native win the award in landslide fashion, but he led the Bulls to the top of the Eastern Conference with an NBA-best 62-20 regular-season record.

The Los Angeles Lakers: Would they be able to send Phil Jackson into retirement after a fourth three-peat? How about four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals? Surely there was nobody in the West that would be able to keep them from at least getting there, right? Oklahoma City and Portland are nice, young teams, but neither would have the experience or veteran know-how to deal with L.A. in a long postseason series.

The league’s tremendous influx of young talent continued, as Blake Griffin enjoyed the best individual rookie season since Tim Duncan in 1997, and became everyone’s favorite nightly SportsCenter feature.

David Kahn is still the general manager of an NBA team. So there’s even comedy involved!

Yet somehow, despite all the storylines and excitement generated elsewhere, the Dallas Mavericks are the only team of the 16 that qualified for the playoffs to end their season with a win.

The Dallas Mavericks. Seriously.

Not to go all Bill Simmons on you here, but the Mavericks were like the “Hangover 2" of the NBA. Nice concept, a few tweaks here and there might make it slightly different, but we’ve seen this movie before. It’ll still be extremely successful, but in the end, you’re left feeling like you’ve seen better.

The Dirk Nowitzki/Mark Cuban era of Dallas Mavericks basketball has been characterized by massive amounts of regular-season success (as evidenced by at least 50 wins in 11 straight seasons), but in the playoffs, they fizzle and die. It happens every single season.

The Mavs have sold out a current NBA-best 399 consecutive home games, which is amazing support from a fanbase that has been kicked in the crotch on an annual basis since 2001. It’s a fanbase that’s witnessed greatness over the years, but you’d think that playoff failure after playoff failure would wear them down. And, to an extent, it did.

To be honest, this is a team that just steamrolled through these playoffs.

They fought back from a potentially season-killing loss after blowing a 23-point lead in a first-round game to the Portland Trail Blazers, to win the series’ final two games. They swept the two-time defending champion Lakers. They discarded the up-and-coming OKC Thunder in five games. And they barraged the Miami Heat with three-pointers in the last two games of the Finals.

Yet, because of the shaky playoff history and near expectation of an epic collapse, the fans were never comfortable until the final buzzer sounded in South Florida Sunday night.

And with good reason. This came out of nowhere.

The Mavericks got off to an incredibly hot start this season, but lost most of that momentum after Nowitzki and Caron Butler were lost to injuries around the holidays. They rebounded a bit after Nowitzki returned after missing nine games, but really scuffled down the stretch, giving no indication whatsoever of what was to come once the playoffs began.

This is a team that didn’t win a game against a single fellow Western Conference playoff team between February 10th and April 6th, when they lost nine in a row before blowing out New Orleans on the final night of the regular season.

The season appeared cooked when Dallas traveled to Los Angeles to take on the mighty Lakers on March 31st, when they lost by 28 points and the game was marred by a scuffle between Jason Terry, Steve Blake and Matt Barnes. Things had hit rock bottom.

Perhaps most surprising about this random championship run is that we’re not used to seeing this kind of thing in the NBA. More often than not, the team widely considered to be the league’s best is the one that gets to the top of the mountain first. It’s the nature of the seven-game series.

One could legitimately make the point that, prior to the beginning of the playoffs, many would’ve ranked this Mavericks team seventh out of the eight Western Conference playoff teams in a power ranking. And, in terms of how the teams were playing leading up to the postseason, this would’ve been completely valid and fair.

They were supposed to be an easy out. George Karl publicly stated that he would’ve rather faced Dallas than Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs. The OKC matchup didn’t turn out too favorably for him, either, though, as the Thunder bounced his Nuggets in five games.

The Blazers had to be quietly pleased to see the Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. Most felt as though Dallas was going to be first-round fodder for the fourth time in five years.

And, midway through that first-round series, those predictions appeared on the verge of proving accurate. The aforementioned 23-point fourth-quarter blown lead was typical Mavericks playoff basketball. This looked like the end.

Not only did the blown lead cost them a chance at a commanding 3-1 series lead before heading home for Game 5, but it was the corpse of Brandon Roy that led the charge for Portland. The very same Brandon Roy with two bad knees whose career unfortunately appears to be on the downturn at just 26 years of age.

But, as it turned out, blowing that game may have been the best thing to ever happen to these Dallas Mavericks. By all means, this should’ve shattered their spirits. And, for a younger, more inexperienced team, it likely would’ve done just that. However, the loss instead galvanized them like we’ve never seen. Instead of being the death blow, this was the wake-up call.

From that point on, this felt different. This team wanted it more than any of the four teams through which they went to get where they are today.

Much of that started in Game 5 of the Portland series. Tyson Chandler, who may have been the most shrewd pickup by any team in the league last summer, grabbed 20 rebounds that night and provided the kind of emotional lift that this franchise has been lacking through the years. Then, they went back to Portland and closed the series in what may well be the most hostile environment the NBA has to offer.

From there, they were off and running.

Few gave them much of a chance against the Lakers in the next round. And rightfully so. How was Dallas supposed to contend with the length and size of the Lakers? Who guards Kobe?

In the first game of that series, these appeared to be legitimate concerns. The Mavericks offense flatlined in the second quarter, while the Lakers were getting whatever they wanted offensively. Then, as they wound up doing several times throughout this run, Dallas stormed back from a double-digit deficit (15 in this one) and won the game.

Another comeback win in Game 3 in Dallas was sandwiched in between two dominating performances. Pau Gasol withered away in this series and was a complete non-factor, and Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom checked out in disgraceful, flagrant-foul fashion in the Game 4 blowout. The Lakers didn’t stand a chance.

The Mavericks appeared to have a major edge against the young and weary Thunder, who were coming off of a grueling seven-game series against the Memphis Grizzlies in the semifinal round. Dallas won the series in five games, but it was a slugfest that, once again, required several dramatic fourth-quarter comebacks from the Mavericks, including an incredible 15-point run that took the game to overtime in Game 4.

OKC’s exuberance and athleticism was tough for the older Mavs to deal with, but once again, the veterans came through in the clutch when the inexperienced Thunder players couldn’t.

And then, onto the Finals to face the Miami Heat. While Miami wasn’t considered a “heavy” favorite in this series, most seemed to figure that Dwyane Wade and Company would vanquish Nowitzki and the Mavericks for the second time in as many Finals matchups.

While only two Mavericks players remained from the 2006 team that blew a 2-0 series lead to lose the series in six games, it still seemed personal to all of them. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that the roster was laden with players that had come close, but had never been able to get over the top.

Jason Terry is an obvious name, as he is one of the two aforementioned holdovers from the ’06 team. The sour taste left from that fateful series was still quite prominent for him. And it showed.

Despite a particularly slow start to the series, he was unbelievably good throughout the final three games, and it culminated with his 27-point effort in the clinching Game 6. Nowitzki was just 1-12 from the field at the half, but the Mavericks led by two due in large part to Terry’s 17 points at that juncture.

He famously got the Larry O’Brien Trophy tattooed onto the inside of his right bicep before the season, and said he’d have it removed if he and the Mavericks failed to accomplish the ultimate goal. Fortunately, he’ll get to keep it. Something tells me having that removed would hurt…a lot.

Jason Kidd had reached the Finals twice before, with New Jersey in 2002 and 2003. He fell short each time at the hands of the Lakers and Spurs, respectively. He, like Nowitzki, was a sure-fire future Hall of Famer with or without a championship on the resume. He struggled offensively for stretches during this Finals series, but he hit several huge, back-breaking three-pointers, and was faced with the daunting task of manning up one-on-one against both Dwyane Wade and LeBron James throughout.

Shawn Marion and Peja Stojakovic? Each was an All-Star player on teams that made deep runs into the playoffs earlier in the last decade, but neither had appeared in the Finals.

Marion’s Suns ran into the Spurs year after year, and Stojakovic’s Kings couldn’t get through the Shaq/Kobe Lakers mini-dynasty from 2000-2002. Neither was seen as a major pickup for the Mavericks upon their arrivals, but there’s a slim chance this team makes it out of the second round without them.

Marion, who made his name on defense throughout the season, was a huge factor defending the likes of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James in these playoffs. And, when the Mavericks offense sputtered at times, it was Marion that often picked up the unexpected slack on that end as well, particularly against the Heat.

Miami’s defense was primarily geared towards shutting down the Mavericks’ perimeter shooting, and, with his non-existent and unorthodox jump shot, it was Marion that Miami chose to leave open on the outside. He made them pay with a series of flips and floaters that, fortunately, kept finding their way through the bucket.

Peja played his way out of the rotation in the Miami series when his shooting stroke turned south and his defensive deficiencies reared their ugly heads, but he looked like the 2003 version of himself in the Lakers series. He averaged 12.5 points in just over 25 minutes per game in those four games, and drilled an unbelievable 52 percent of his three-pointers, including all six of his attempts in the Game 4 clincher.

How about Tyson Chandler? Dallas acquired him in unceremonious fashion five days following “The Decision.” He was just 27 years old at the time they traded for him, but ever since he was an integral part of the up-and-coming 2008 Hornets team, his career has been marred by a series of unfortunate injuries that have limited his effectiveness.

The Mavericks gave up the potentially valuable $13 million, non-guaranteed expiring contract of Erick Dampier to get Chandler, who they believed could become the difference-maker in the middle that they’ve always lacked. Considering the direction in which Chandler’s career appeared headed, this was a fairly underwhelming move to most, because they believed that the Dampier deal could’ve fetched them something major. However, as it turns out, that’s exactly what they did.

Chandler, who was fully healthy for the first time in several years, was a beast from day one. He finished third in the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year voting, and was the rim-protector in the paint that the Mavericks had been lacking during the era of Erick Dampier. The rest of the team fed off of his enthusiasm and energy all season long, and it continued throughout the playoffs.

Chandler was brought in five days after the team signed Brendan Haywood to a massive six-year, $55 million contract. Haywood, who was picked up along with Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson at the trade deadline last season, was expected to be the starting center before the trade for Chandler. And, on most teams, he would’ve been.

He wasn’t particularly pleased with the role change at the beginning of the season, but eventually accepted the reality and was the ideal backup center. He’ll give very little offensively, but, like Chandler, he’s a great defender and rebounder. Whenever Chandler struggled, Haywood was able to come in and make an impact on the game. Having a pair of seven-footers of this caliber is quite the luxury, indeed.

Caron Butler and Roddy Beaubois, who many believed were key cogs with this Mavs team, missed most of the season due to injuries.

Butler went down on January 4th with a ruptured patella that shelved him for the remainder of the season. Beaubois broke his foot while playing for the French national team in August, and didn’t play until February 16. The 23-year-old was very up-and-down throughout the remainder of the season, and was left out of the rotation completely once the playoffs began.

Prior to the beginning of the season, the Mavericks were on very few radars with regards to being big-time, realistic championship contenders. Take these two key contributors out of the mix, and you’re looking at a doomed season, right?

Well, against all odds, little J.J. Barea was the guy that stepped up and made us forget about Butler and Beaubois. He enjoyed the best statistical regular season of his career, but really made his name during the playoffs, when he repeatedly baffled opposing defenses with his quickness, effectiveness around the rim and proficiency from long range.

He can’t be any taller than 5’8" on a good day, yet he proved to be a matchup nightmare throughout. He was struggling to find his way through the first three games of the Finals when he scored a combined 13 points, so Rick Carlisle took a risk and altered his rotation to get Barea into the starting lineup, replacing Stevenson. Once again, Barea answered the call. He scored eight points in 22 minutes in Game 4, which is nice, but he looked like his old, Lakers-killing self during the last two games, when he scored a total of 32 points on 13-23 shooting, including several cold-blooded, momentum-killing shots.

This next group of players is completely unheralded, but every single one of them played a key part in this playoff run. Yep, I’m talking about the great Brian Cardinal, DeShawn Stevenson and Ian Mahinmi. Mahinmi played quite sparingly throughout the first three rounds, but each saw the floor after Haywood suffered a hip injury in Game 2 of the Finals.

Mahinmi struggled mightily in Game 3, committing five fouls in eight minutes while looking fairly lost defensively for the majority of his time spent out there. Then, when he was thrust into action once again in Game 6, he responded with four points and three rebounds in 11 minutes.

The numbers don’t look huge, but his two baskets were scored on an unlikely turnaround, fadeaway with the shot clock running down in the second quarter, and a buzzer-beating jumper from the elbow as time expired to end the third quarter that put the Mavericks up by nine heading into the fourth quarter. Two of his three rebounds came on the offensive end and led directly to points.

Cardinal found his way onto the court after Stojakovic was dumped from the rotation, and played double-digit minutes in Games 5 and 6. Like Mahinmi, his on-court role for the team throughout the season was minimal, so few expected much of anything once he was inserted into the lineup. He responded by hitting a three-pointer in each of the last two games and played solid, aggressive defense in the post.

During his 12 minutes on the floor, the Mavericks outscored the Heat 35-17. This wasn’t a coincidence.

Stevenson, like Marion, earns his money primarily on the defensive end, and whatever he gives on offense is icing on the cake. He struggled with his three-point shot throughout the OKC series (5-21), but found his shooting stroke in the Finals, when he shot an astounding 56 percent from beyond the arc. His defense on both James and Wade was essential to Dallas’ success, and his gritty, won’t-back-down approach provided a major spark, as well.

The 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks have to rank fairly high on the list of least likely champions in the history of the National Basketball Association. Carlisle and his coaching staff performed sensationally throughout this run, and it culminated when he coached championship rings around the young Erik Spoelstra (yep, I totally stole that phrase from Twitter).

Even though the majority of the roster hasn’t been in Dallas long enough to have gone through all of the annual suffering, every single player on this team seemed to take every past slight and every kick to the groin for this franchise personally throughout this unlikeliest of playoff runs. They helped Nowitzki exorcise all of his playoff demons.

The first-round series against Portland represented every kick to the crotch Dirk and his teams have had to endure. The Mavericks teams from the early 2000s, featuring the exciting trio of Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley, played a fun, run-and-gun style of basketball, but always faltered when they were opposed by more disciplined, defensive-minded teams like the Spurs once the playoffs rolled around.

There was plenty to like about the brand of basketball, but it repeatedly came up short. They were never able to match up. These Mavericks blew a 23-point lead to lose to the Blazers in Game 4 in the first round. They overcame it.

The second-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers represented the underdog mentality associated with this team. Respected Yahoo! Sports reporter Adrian Wojnarowski famously picked the Blazers in fourLakers in five, Thunder in five and Heat in six.

They weren’t supposed to win the series. Phil Jackson was supposed to wrap up his Hall of Fame coaching career with his 12th and final title. Kobe was supposed to tie MJ with six. Right? Nope. They overcame it.

The third-round series against the Thunder represented the 2007 debacle against the Golden State Warriors. Much like with that series, the Mavericks were going up against a younger, more athletic team that, on paper, presented several potential matchup nightmares.

The ’07 team, despite finishing the regular season with the league’s best record, was mentally and physically exposed by the exuberant Warriors. Nowitzki was named league MVP that season, but was thrown out of rhythm by the likes of Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes. Golden State held a huge home-court advantage.

Similar things were expected by some before the Oklahoma City series this year, when youthful players like Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins were supposed to give Dirk fits on the defensive end, and Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd wouldn’t be able to stay in front of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. However, again, they overcame it.

The most obvious link is to the 2006 NBA Finals against this Miami Heat franchise, the closest Dirk and his Dallas Mavericks had ever been to winning it all before this year. Not only did they lead that 2006 Finals series 2-0, but they led by 13 in Miami in the fourth quarter of Game 3. Not only did it appear as though the Mavericks were about to win the title, but it was looking like they could’ve done so in a sweep.

Then, all hell broke loose. Dwyane Wade began to attack the basket with reckless fervor, and he was rewarded with free-throw trip after free-throw trip. Not only did Dallas lose that Game 3, but they went on to lose the next three, as well.

The Mavericks fell into a 1-2 hole heading into a must-win Game 4 in this year’s Finals. Not only did they win Games 4, 5 and 6, but they did so by doing what they do best: defending the paint, hitting their outside shots and coming up with big buckets when the game dictated that they absolutely had to do so.

The lanes that were open for Dwyane Wade and LeBron James though the series’ first three games were shut down in the last three. In Game 2, with Dallas trailing by 15 with just over seven minutes to go, the Mavs’ past playoff history of failures finally seemed to be catching up to them.

Then, as has happened repeatedly throughout this postseason, something clicked, and the Mavericks caught fire. Jason Terry started hitting shots, and Dirk Nowitzki sealed the deal. Without that heart-stopping comeback, we’re likely talking about a completely different outcome to this series. However, finally, they overcame it all.

Nowitzki and his Mavericks flew directly in the face of the philosophy that appears to be taking over this league: that you need more than one star player to have a chance to win a championship. This Dallas roster is full of All-Stars…from 2004.

The role players were amazing throughout, but, as always, it comes down to the one guy. Dirk Nowitzki is, and always will be, the face of basketball in Dallas. He’s spent all 13 years of his NBA career in one town, and took less money last summer with hopes that the team would use the extra cash to help him build a champion. A far cry from the direction in which the NBA seems to be going, where we believe teams like the Knicks and Nets need to lure Dwight Howard and Chris Paul before they can truly contend with ”superteams” like the Heat.

Do you think Carmelo demands to be traded to New York if Amar'e Stoudemire isn’t already there? Not a chance.

As mentioned above, Dirk and Kidd would be Hall of Famers even without having ever won a title during their playing careers. The numbers speak for themselves. However, there’s a reason that history will perpetually separate guys like Jordan, Kobe, Olajuwon, Russell, Bird and Magic from Malone, Barkley, Stockton, Reggie, Ewing and Baylor.

It appeared as though Nowitzki was destined to be a part of that second group after Dallas lost in the Finals in ’06 and in the first-round in ’07 (despite an NBA-best 67 wins during the regular season). There’s not much shame in that. A Hall-of-Fame career is a Hall-of-Fame career. Some guys just take different streets to get there. Fair or not, though, the primary knock on guys like Barkley, Malone and Ewing is that they were never able to lead their teams to the top.

Take the Tim Duncan-Kevin Garnett comparison as an example. The two have very comparable career numbers, but Duncan has always been seen as the superior player primarily because he’s been a part of a winner. From 1996 until 2007, Garnett never reached the NBA Finals. He, like Nowitzki, appeared headed for that undesirable permanent label of “great player, but not a champion.”

That all changed when he was dealt from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Boston Celtics in the summer of 2007, and he helped lead the team to a championship in his first year with the team. He’s immediately vaulted into the true best-of-the-best discussions as a result.

I would agree that Nowitzki, even had the Mavericks come up short against the Heat, had been stellar enough in this postseason to have improved upon his already great career legacy. Still, though, something would have been missing.

Now, this isn’t to say that I’m an advocate of the “count the rings” argument. I don’t think that Michael Jordan is a superior player to Kobe Bryant because MJ owns six championships compared to Kobe’s five (to this point). Michael Jordan is a better player because, quite simply, he was a better on-court player. Done. Robert Horry has seven championships. That doesn’t mean he was a better player than Jordan, Olajuwon, Duncan, Kobe, Bird, Magic, Wilt or Dirk.

That said, history dictates that we value winners over guys that were close, but never got there. It’s an interesting paradox. What do we think of Dwyane Wade at this point if he hadn’t already won a title? Mark Jackson said that he believes Wade to be the third-best shooting guard in the history of the league. And I agree. But, would we rank him so highly if he was, like LeBron, still searching for his first? No way.

So, this is what it means for Dirk and Dirk’s legacy. As Dirk has said himself on numerous occasions, he’s never been interested in endorsements, commercials or television specials. He’s not interested in being a global icon, he’s interested in being a basketball player. And he’s been a damn good one for 13 years.

You can call him a Hall of Famer. You can call him the best European basketball player ever. You can call him the best shooting big man ever.

And now, you can call him a champion.

Take dat wit chew. Congratulations.


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