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Dallas Mavericks: Changing of the guard

A new point guard will be starting for the Mavericks
A new point guard will be starting for the Mavericks
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

Saturday, new Dallas Mavericks signee Jameer Nelson told Fansided's Andrew Melnick "I want to win," in describing his decision to join the Mavs after a couple of years of rebuilding in Orlando, a team where he'd spent his entire 10-year career.

With unexpected wholesale changes to the Mavs again but this time largely regarded as one of the NBA’s most successful off-seasons, the team is still left with the question of how the league’s second-best offense and the only team to give the Spurs a serious challenge in last year’s playoffs will move forward.

While the Mavericks made it to the Finals in 2006 with Devin Harris and Jason Terry playing point guard, the Mavericks organization overall has seen a long string of success with two future Hall of Famers, Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, elite floor generals who knew exactly where to put the ball at the right time. When Kidd and Terry both departed after 2012, the results were not pretty.

Darren Collison, who has been a serviceable backup and part-time starter behind Chris Paul in both New Orleans and L.A., was brought into Dallas as the new starter in 2012 and eventually lost his starting job to journeyman Mike James. That year the Mavs were also giving a shot to O. J. Mayo at shooting guard, which also proved to be feast or famine.

The season started off badly with Dirk needing knee surgery but even more, the team was inconsistent and mistake-prone, lacking the “basketball IQ” it had been famous for and dug itself into a midseason hole. To their credit, thanks primarily to Dirk’s return and the elite coaching of Rick Carlisle, even that team was able to turn things around and while they missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade, they made it back to .500 by the end of the season.

The next season the team brought in savvy veteran José Calderón, an elite three-point shooter who was also known as one of the league’s best assist men, with a Kidd/Nash like offensive game including one of the league’s best assist-to-turnover ratios year in and year out accompanied by stellar three-point shooting and recent NBA record for free throw percentage.

The difference was overwhelming, as the Mavericks’ became once again one of the best offensive teams in the league with Calderón, Dirk and Vince Carter spacing the floor and new addition Monta Ellis breaking down defenses with his speed. Calderón was an integral part of Monta’s ascension to the role of Robin to Dirk’s Batman. Although they were lacking on defense as a tandem, Calderón’s superior ball handling and three-point shooting kept the Mavericks from relying on Ellis to initiate too often but Monta was also allowed to facilitate. His assists were the highest on the team, while also benefitting from Calderón’s spacing which helped him drive to the basket more than anyone in the NBA.

In addition to Calderón, Carter continued his clutch shooting by leading the NBA in three-pointers made off the bench the last two years and showed all season why is all-around play was still so valuable even at age 37 including the amazing “finish to remember” versus San Antonio when his buzzer-beating corner three stunned the Spurs.

At the end of the offseason, the Mavericks had indicated the top priority would be keeping the veteran core together and were quite definite that the starting backcourt was “locked in for future seasons.”

However, early in the offseason, the team went a different direction, in fact back to a remnant of a different “core” from the past as Calderón, along with Samuel Dalembert, Wayne Ellington, two second-round draft picks and fellow point guard Shane Larkin were shipped to the New York Knicks to reacquire fan favorite and centerpiece of the 2011 Championship team Tyson Chandler along with Knicks point guard Raymond Felton, whose last season in New York was more than disappointing.

Not long after the Memphis Grizzlies surprisingly snatched Carter away.

With the Mavericks probably losing 4 of their top 6 primary rotation players as Shawn Marion is unlikely to return, the dynamic has certainly changed.

The decision to trade Calderón was likely a difficult one but admittedly the top priority for the offseason was an upgrade at center and TC is a proven fit with Dirk as well as an elite defensive player who is also an effective scorer around the basket. If he stays healthy, the Mavericks’ #1 weakness has been addressed.

In the process, however, the Mavericks’ lost a big chunk of their basketball IQ, veteran leadership and 3-point shooting. So, what’s the prognosis?

The signing of Chandler Parsons is one of the biggest coups in the NBA this season and he is a younger, more versatile offensive threat than Marion at this stage of his career. In addition, Tyson Chandler is a significantly better offensive threat and rebounder than Dalembert. Parsons is also a solid three-point shooter himself. Even if no one remaining, nor any of the new acquisitions including Richard Jefferson and Jameer Nelson are the elite shooters Calderón continues to be, the consensus is that they should provide enough threat to maintain the Mavericks’ floor spacing which is critical to both getting open looks and allowing Monta to continue to shred defenses.

Carter spent much of his minutes at the small forward spot and his overall hustle and leadership will most certainly be missed, along with occasional glimpses of Vinsanity and his defense. Chandler Parsons will offer a more versatile offensive option at this stage and hopefully Jefferson and Jae Crowder will be capable of filling in at the 2 along with Devin Harris.

The real issue is going to be at point guard, where the Mavericks now have a platoon consisting of returning backup Harris, Knicks’ castoff Felton, Nelson and second-year man Gal Mekel. With the core not intact as planned and Calderón’s steady hand gone, the starting position is currently wide open and who should take the reigns is uncertain. Early practices will likely determine chemistry and Rick Carlisle will have to decide if someone is capable of filling the floor general role or if the multiple facilitators will make for a more diverse path to the basket.

With Mekel unlikely to get significant playing time, the duties will likely fall to one of the three veterans and much may depend on whether it’s clear Felton is motivated and determined to resurrect his career and put personal issues behind him.

None of the remaining three would likely be on the top of anyone’s list for a starting point guard. None has what Calderón had to offer offensively and while each is somewhat better on defense, as a group they are also undersized and even Harris can't be counted on as a stopper.

All in their early 30’s, this trio has each had success and one All-Star or near All-Star season some years ago while experiencing a significant falloff last season.

Russell Peddle gives an excellent comprehensive breakdown of each of the veterans and whereas Calderón is about the same age, he’s at the top of his game and was able to adapt his role, taking fewer possessions and dishing out fewer assists but playing off the ball more and using his elite three-point shooting to adapt into a catch-and-shoot assassin.

In contrast, Harris, Felton and Nelson, by the numbers all had arguably the worst years of their respective careers.

Peddle points out:

“Each player had a negative nERD last season (an estimate of wins above or below .500 a league-average team would finish the season with the player as one of its starters), on top of a win share total that ranked in the bottom three seasons of their respective careers and their worst player efficiency rating ever.”

Harris has had some solid seasons and an All-Star nod but has struggled with injuries and consistency. Likewise, he had a rough start coming back from injury last year and didn’t shoot the ball consistently most of the season, although he certainly had some moments including against the Spurs. He still boasts enough speed that defenses have to give him space and still worry about Monta.

Felton has had arguably one very good season and has typically managed to underachieve and mix in a lack of fitness with off-the-court distractions, neither serious enough to seriously derail his career but more than enough to mire him in mediocrity. The only hope for him in Dallas is a fresh start and a chance to rejuvenate his career.

Jameer Nelson is considered a savvy veteran and like Harris, has Finals experience and one All-Star nod. He is likely the best overall shooter of the three and the best three-point shooter, although not by any wide margin.

The Mavs are not left with a situation as dire as two years ago when the revolving door resulted in Mike James and Darren Collison being at the helm. The issue will be who can adapt to a role that fits in with the current lineup.

The Mavs had the league’s second-best offense last season partly because Calderón adapted his game from being primarily a facilitator to more of a shooter while averaging the most three-point attempts per game in his career and hitting nearly half of them. The new lineup has the potential to be even better but perhaps not in the same way.

The Mavs had two glaring needs to work on in the offseason: first, a consistent rim protector who could also add some reliable scoring in the post beyond Brandan Wright. A healthy Tyson Chandler fulfills that need.

The second need was for more perimeter defense and while any of the three point guards are an improvement on Calderón, none would be considered a major upgrade with the possible exception of Harris. In addition, with the loss of Carter and Shawn Marion, the team’s best wing defender for the last 5 years, it will be up to Rick Carlisle to finally get the kind of defense the team has been hoping for from Jae Crowder or look for other possibilities. Al-Farouq Aminu provides some possibilities there as well but he is raw.

Chances are that Nelson will best serve the needs of the Mavericks as the primary playmaker. He is the most reliable shooter of the three, generally shoots around 40% from beyond the arc (albeit around 35% last year) and was a reliable facilitator in the days when Orlando had a reasonably well-oiled machine. He has the ability to hit Dirk, Chandler Parsons and Tyson Chandler at the right time in the right places and his success finding open shots should benefit from the Mavs’ multiple offensive weapons, just as Calderón did. Harris and Felton are better off as alternate dribble penetrators that can help with defenses keyed on Monta Ellis. If Felton isn’t able to resurrect his game, Harris can be valuable at both guard spots, where he has spent much of his career.

Carlisle has proven consistently that is an elite NBA coach largely because his teams improve. Whatever logjam exists at the point guard position will likely shake out and perhaps the team will be able to parlay the odd man out into draft picks or a salary dump.