In the NBA offseason's first major trade prior to Thursday night's NBA draft was Dallas' not-unexpected reacquisition of former fan favorite Tyson Chandler, well known as one of the key elements in the Mavericks 2011 NBA Championship.
Also expected was the departure of little-used shooting guard Wayne Ellington and rookie point guard Shane Larkin, along with the much less ideal exchange of starting point guard José Calderón for Raymond Felton. Center Samuel Dalembert was also sent to New York in the deal along with two second round draft picks.
There’s always a lot of talk with any NBA team about who should stay and who should go during the offseason and other than the guys who didn’t play much, there was an argument for keeping just about anyone on the Mavericks. Even Ellington, had he had more of an opportunity, is known to be a deadly shooter and a good defender, something in curious demand right now. Regardless, that’s now a moot point right now for those on their way to the Knicks.
It was well understood that the Mavericks high-powered offense wasn't going to win another championship without better play on the defensive end. The irony is not lost on most Mavs fans that the team has been trying to fill the holes created deliberately after the Championship in pursuit of a wild goose otherwise known as big name free agents.
Chandler was the missing piece as soon as he left. That’s part and parcel of why the Mavericks violated every basic tenet of common sense in doing something completely unprecedented in the history of professional sports – deliberately disassembling a championship team without giving them a chance to defend their title.
So without Chandler, Caron Butler, J. J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson, what were the Mavs looking for?
Sans Barea who, for all of his Mav goodness was not irreplaceable, the team needed…a defensive-minded center with some athleticism in the paint, a good two-way wing player and a defensive stopper. Oh the irony.
And it wouldn’t have hurt to keep Corey Brewer and Steve Novak either.
Some have had fantasies about what would have happened if the Mavericks had kept the team basically intact but added Vince Carter, Brandan Wright and Delonte West the next year. That could have been a recipe for a repeat at a relatively low cost. After that, add Darren Collison to back up J. Kidd and Dahntay Jones as they did and Chris Kaman as the 6th man instead of starter to back up Dirk and Tyson, and presumably at a lower price.
With two championships under his belt J. Kidd might have retired sooner rather than bolting for New York and that would have required filling a hole, although the Jet has run the point in the past. Jose Calderon and Devin Harris were still good additions along with Larkin and Mekel (although many would have preferred to keep Kelly Olynyk, a possible “Dirk Lite” in the making). Despite the emotional attachments, if the guard spots were covered Jason Terry could have been expendable with the arrival of Carter and certainly after signing Ellis.
Regardless, there was one thing that the upstart 2011 Champs had that is fairly uncommon without a trio of superstars: the team hadn’t been together that long. When you have experienced future Hall of Famers such as Dirk and Jason Kidd, (and hopefully Shawn Marion) along with the old duo of Dirk and Jet, some of the learning curve is more easily overcome.
There has been much talk about the Mavs’ unrestricted free agents and the most desirable retention that many seemed to think is on his way out is Shawn Marion. There are possible Matrix-like replacements such as Luol Deng and Trevor Ariza mentioned, although Deng has an injury history that raises red flags and Ariza who has not shot the ball spectacularly for most of his career.
The Mavs took a major nosedive by trying to fix something that wasn’t broken and gave up their proverbial bird in hand for two in the bush. The most interesting thing to note is how might things have looked if the plans had “succeeded?” Chris Paul was never a realistic goal but with Deron Williams, few would be pleased with that signing right about now based on his last year in Brooklyn. While Dwight Howard might have worked out better, max contracts don’t allow you to fill other holes. Who knows if Monta would still have been recruited and he had a lot to do with Dallas' success last year.
The Mavericks were pretty clear after the Spurs series that the #1 goal was to keep the core together for continuity. After the 2012 and 2013 debacle, that notion shouldn’t be taken lightly. Chandler has played with Dirk and Marion before but now that Calderón is gone there will be serious questions about who will be the starting point guard for a team that has had its greatest success with Steve Nash and Jason Kidd running the point, unless you want to count Harris’ first stint with the Mavs when they collapsed in the NBA Finals.
Equally important, the Matrix shows regularly that he can still light it up when needed, boasts the top career defensive rating of active small forwards in the NBA and last year even resurrected his 3-point shooting, something that will be needed now that Calderón, one of the league's best shooters, has moved on. Could someone else come in and do a better job while fitting in immediately? That is a big unknown.
It’s possible Trix will have some substantial offers on the table but his home is Dallas and it shouldn’t be impossible to get him to sign again for a reasonable contract if not a bargain price, so before the Luol Deng chanting gets any louder, everyone needs to remember what continuity and proven chemistry means.
Meanwhile, Rick Carlisle needs to continue working with Jae Crowder to continue his devolution…the not-so-great progress he made from a tough two-way standout in college to streaky 3-point shooter in the NBA.
It’s easy to forget that Draft Express saw him as a possible shorter, saner Metta World Peace and tweeted two years ago “I love this Jae Crowder pick at #34 for Dallas. Toughest SOB in the draft, and probably also the best defender. Will carve out a NBA career."
With time, perhaps Crowder can become a Kawhi Leonard type of two-way player. He was perceived as having his best skills were perceived to be on defense and he was considered to be “one of the most versatile and effective players in all of college basketball” who could guard “every position on the court one through five, often within a single game,”
Rick Carlisle did increase Crowder’s use on the defensive end last season but as of yet, Jae has yet to fulfill his promise on the offensive end, where he has primarily been launching inconsistently from behind the arc, whereas in college he was also known for “diving to the rim to position himself for drop-off passes from his guards, running the floor in transition, posting up, or through his work on the offensive glass.
Rather than letting Marion go, the Mavs would be better to keep the group together and focus on Crowder’s development while filling holes where there are bigger deficiencies, now most notably at point guard. The legitimate two-way threat at center is back (if Chandler can stay healthy) so the focus turns elsewhere but also, maintaining the flow that found the ball in the right hands and the right time last year is critical. And improved defense is never a problem but Chandler didn’t do it alone in 2011 and he can’t do in alone now, so the Dallas defense has to improve on the wings. Moreover, if the offense craters without Calderón, the improved defense won’t be a much of a consolation.