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NBA / Nov 12, 2009 / 2:06 pm

The surprise contender in the West (and it’s not Phoenix)

Dirk Nowitzki

Going into this season, I honestly didn’t see much in store for the Dallas Mavericks. When we were putting together Dime’s NBA season preview for issue #53, one of my write-ups left on the cutting room floor was titled, “Last Chance Workout,” focusing on the Mavs. And while my Dallas team preview on this site put their ceiling at Western Conference Finals, I was thinking their destination was closer to the basement: “Quiet first-round exit.”

Two weeks into the season, however, the Mavs are playing about as well as any team in the League. Last night’s loss to the Spurs without Duncan and Parker was a blown opportunity for a statement win, but otherwise the Mavs have beat the Lakers convincingly in L.A., and routed the Rockets (also better than expected) earlier this week. Posting a 5-3 record in early November isn’t much on paper for a team that’s won 50-plus games in each of the last nine seasons, but watching Dallas on the court, they have the look of a legit title contender.

How are they doing it?

The elements that make up an elite NBA team are simple enough, and the Mavs have them: A superstar who can dominate in crunch time (Dirk Nowitzki), a smart point guard (Jason Kidd), perimeter defenders who can stop dribble penetration (Jason Terry, J.J. Barea, Josh Howard), bigs who can rebound and defend the paint (Erick Dampier, Shawn Marion, Kris Humphries), reliable three-point shooters (Terry, Dirk), depth on the bench, and a good coach (Rick Carlisle).

Roster versatility has also been a key. The Mavs can go small with a three-guard lineup featuring Kidd, Terry and Barea, where Barea can defend quick point guards like Chris Paul and Aaron Brooks and Terry is often matched up with a slower forward who can’t guard him. (Against the Hornets last week, Terry scored some of his 18 fourth-quarter points on Peja Stojakovic.) The Mavs can also go big with Howard at the two and Marion at the three, which works in their favor against teams like the Lakers and Jazz.

Finishing games in the fourth quarter has been another recent highlight. Dirk’s 29-point explosion in the final 12 minutes against Utah last week was Dallas’ signature crunch-time moment of the season so far, and in wins against Utah, Toronto and Houston, the Mavs averaged 42 points in the fourth quarter. On Wednesday, the Mavs came back from a 15-point deficit in the fourth to cut San Antonio’s lead to four, but ultimately couldn’t close the gap.

Clearly it’s still very early in the schedule, but the pieces are in place for Dallas to put themselves right there with the preseason favorites L.A. and San Antonio next spring. Dirk (26.5 ppg, 8.9 rpg) is playing at an MVP level. Terry (18.9 ppg) will make another run at Sixth Man of the Year. Marion has been a pleasant surprise when many said he was washed up. Kidd’s numbers are down from last season (6.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 8.6 apg), but he’s still an effective quarterback on the floor. Barea has turned himself into a quality backup. Even Dampier (8.5 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 2.3 bpg) has had a couple monster games already. As with any veteran-heavy team, staying healthy is one of the biggest factors.

Maybe I was right in the preseason. Maybe this is Dallas’ last chance at a realistic run at a championship in the Nowitzki era. But even if that is the case, that run could last longer than previously anticipated.

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  • tim

    WRONG

    still no D

  • chris

    you were right the first time…they look really good now because they are all healthy….given their ages, that WON’T last. I cannot see them beating the lakers, suns, trailblazers, spurs in the playoffs (maybe the suns if they get all beat up, too)

  • isotope

    WAY too early

  • Dagomar

    Heading into the season the Mavs were my dark horse team in the West.

    A lineup with Kidd, Howard, Marion, Dirk and Dampier is really, really solid, especially when Damp is playing well. That team can defend and score inside and outside. It has a veteran steel to it and is exceptionally well-coached. Meanwhile there’s some great talent coming off the bench, led by a game-changing sixth man. The team is old and doesn’t play well in back-to-backs, but that’s not a problem in the playoffs. Meanwhile the players don’t have a record of injuries, with the exception of Howard. As for the superstar: Dirk is shaping up to have one of his best seasons and while he doesn’t handle the ball quite like he used to he seems bigger, is better posting up and has become an underrated defender (not seeing he’s a good defender yet, but he’s not bad anymore either).

    Ultimately you can bet nobody will want to see the Mavs in the playoffs.

  • QQ

    You chose a team that made the second round of the playoffs last year as the SURPRISE contender over a team that has been mediocre for two years but is now at the top of the conference? Damn.

  • Remembering ’70

    This is about a day late. Last night showed that if it isn’t Dirk’s night or he gets into a slight slump its pretty much over for Dallas. Call me if they win a game this year without dirk going for at least 20 points.

  • crimewave

    qq said it best…austin, c’mon son…

  • http://www.realgm.com Rare Air

    Ill say this – They put it to my lakers a few weeks ago and that really impressed me, especially the effort out of Shawn Marion. Doing it as well too mind you without Josh Howard.

    I like this team alot as a dark horse throughout the year and into the playoffs. I have confidence but am still not a hundred percent sold on my Lakers quite yet. They have to get healthy first and show that chemistry they found late in their championship run last year. I believe it will happen but not until later.

    Back to the Mavs, I believe the west is very much open this year and they have the chance to be a big part of that. This is a very timely article because having watched the Mavs pretty closely this year, I have been quite impressed.

  • Jake

    Dirk misses the shots to win the game. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him choke when the game is on the line over the past few years. No wonder he went off for 29, he had to in order to ensure he didn’t take the last shot.

  • Big Sia

    QQ and Crimewave said it all…

    I repeat.. C’MON SON

  • Dagomar

    In case you guys didn’t know, there’s a pretty huge different between getting to the second round of the playoffs over a hugely weakened Spurs team and being a contender to win the West.

  • BiG ShoT BoB

    YOu fogot about some of the other main components of winning a chip. Let me list a few they don’t have:

    – Defense
    – An allstar stud bigman
    – Toughness
    – Points in the paint

    Like I’ve wore out in the past – You will never win a chip with your best player being a soft jump shooting big man. Not now…not ever!!!

  • http://www.lasvegassportsodds.biz Ron

    ATTN: for serious Sports Bettors Only: This guy John Morrison,”The Sports Betting Champ” wins 97% of his NBA & MLB sports bets. He makes $70K every week! http://www.lasvegassportsodds.biz

  • Joe’s momma

    most clutch??? You loose credibility when you say things like that….

    Kobe still owns that title.

    That’s like saying Reggie Miller was more clutch than Jordan. Clutch yes, most clutch, not a chance.