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Dallas Mavericks' resurrection is not yet complete

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The Dallas Mavericks won their third straight game Monday night, defeating a struggling Sacramento Kings without its starting point guard for the second straight time by a narrow 93-91 margin. With every game critical in the ultracompetitive Western Conference, the victory was an important one but also showed again the Dallas Mavericks have not completed their journey back to making another title run.

While the Mavericks have managed to knock off top-tier teams of late including Oklahoma City, Portland, Indiana and the L.A. Clippers, the have also struggled against mediocre teams including Sacramento. The peculiar inconsistency indicates the resurrection is not complete but since the beginning of the season the team’s progress gives hope for a team ready to be a serious threat the next two years.

In 2011 the Mavericks reached the pinnacle of success by winning the NBA Championship. The team that had historically been a great offensive machines for years but somewhat porous defensively added elite defenders to the roster. Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, DeShawn Stevenson, Caron Butler and finally Tyson Chandler turned the team into a two-way threat with a multitude of scoring options that also had layers of stingy defense and the group came together so fast it surprised many NBA observers.

But Mark Cuban felt long-term contracts for many of the team’s key members would be cost prohibitive and didn’t believe a rag-time group of aging stars would be able to pull it off again so he let them walk in favor of attempting to reel in a superstar to be Dirk’s sidekick (or eventually, Dirk’s replacement as the team’s primary star) and the plan failed on every attempt. The Mavericks immediately fell to a first round playoff exit the following year and missed the playoffs altogether last season with a .500 record.

Some of the circumstances certainly could have been much different even without Chandler, Butler, Stevenson, J. J. Barea and the eventual loss of Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. Had Lamar Odom remained an All-Star level player, had Delonte West not exhibited behavioral problems that were too disruptive to allow him to stay on the team and had Dirk not missed much of last season with an injury, the Mavs might have remained a very competitive team with some of the other additions, most notably Vince Carter. Unfortunately it seems karma ran over the “financial flexibility” dogma.

Last year, the Mavs brought in a number of solid players on one-year contracts who simply never meshed. This year, after two subsequent summers of failing to hit a home run in the free agent market, the Mavs obtained a series of great, if not superstar players who were indeed expected to lift the Mavericks back to being an elite offensive team but possibly inadequate defensively. Early in the season, that was largely the case.

However, over the course of this season Coach Rick Carlisle has done what he does best: coach defense. The results have been clear. The Mavericks might not make the playoffs because of a slew of solid teams in the Western Conference but regardless, this team has improved over the course of the year and both the individual players and the team as a whole have stepped up.

The keys to the Mavericks late-season surge?

Samuel Dalembert has been widely recognized for his increase in intensity since the All-Star Break and has been averaging nearly a double-double over the last 11 games in just over 21 minutes. His per 36 numbers are an impressive 14.3 points, 14.6 rebounds, 3.3 blocks and a steal. When Dalembert plays a Tyson Chandler-esqe role and is active on the boards and blocking shots (over 2 a game of late), the Mavericks are a different team. Against Brooklyn, Dalembert put up 12 points along with season highs in rebounds (15) and blocks (7).

The ageless Vince Carter continues to amaze. For a guy whose motivation was questioned years ago and physical skills were said to have diminished, Carter can still take it to the rack but has turned into a solid player in every aspect of the game. Even on nights he doesn’t shoot the ball well he can be counted on for solid defense and his effort is clear on rebounds, blocked shots and assists. As Donnie Nelson, President of Basketball Operations for the Mavericks put it when discussing the likelihood that Carter will be offered another contract next year, “Vince is one of those rare guys that just has gotten better with time. He was the human highlight film coming out. Now he’s making plays, he’s passing; he’s a leader on the floor. Obviously the 3 ball has just really taken his game to a different level and most veteran guys if they’re going to have longevity in the league, you can’t be one-dimensional."

He is having a second year as a legitimate candidate for Sixth Man of the Year and with a better team this year, perhaps he will win it. The Mavericks certainly feel he is deserving and are promoting his candidacy.

Owner Mark Cuban added, “He’s literally been taking over games. He deserves to be a candidate, and I don’t think he’s getting the attention he deserves.”

Monta Ellis is scoring a little less than he has in the past but he’s near the NBA leaders in assists and he’s not even the Mavs’ true point guard. He also gets his share of steals but when he does score, it’s usually driving to the basket, which he does more than any player in the NBA.

José Calderón’s intelligent play along with that of Ellis and Devin Harris has a dramatically different feel than the mistake-prone offense of last year. Calderón still protects the ball (he’s 4th in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.74) and continues to hit clutch shots, now even more often as Ellis’ ball-distribution has allowed increase his play off the ball. The Mavericks have excellent ball movement and Dirk and Monta make the league’s best pick-and-roll tandem. While Calderón and Ellis were expected to be incapable of defending anyone, Ellis has become an adept pickpocket (tied for 9th in the league at 1.75/game) and Calderón puts forth maximum effort and has learned to be a decent defender within Carlisle’s system.

Calderon was a huge factor in helping the Mavericks finally turn their fortunes around against a mostly healthy Oklahoma City Thunder. After missing the previous game with a facial injury, Calderon showed his toughness and determination by brushing it off. As the Ft. Worth Star Telegram’s Dwain Price noted, “besides his offense, Calderon also played better than average defense on Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook, who was 8-of-18 from the floor, scored 23 points and turned the ball over eight times."

And Harris’ return from early-season injury has given the Mavericks a guard who offers Monta-like driving ability with solid defense and additional court sense. Whether Calderón, Harris or Ellis is running the show, you can sense the emotion, maximum effort and veteran savvy and all three of them have been hitting clutch shots.

Brandan Wright, also injured the first part of the season, has continued to improve and made his presence felt. With incredible leaping ability and cat-like reflexes, Wright corrals on and off target alley-oop passes nearly every night finishing with acrobatic dunks but has also become consistent shooting soft floaters and is improving his midrange jumper. His chemistry with the Maverick point guards as well as Vince Carter are the stuff (pun intended) highlight reels are made of. In addition, Wright’s rebounding and defense have continued to improve as he is on his way to career highs in nearly every statistic, including a perfect 10-for-10 fg and 3-for-3 ft performance vs. the Lakers, accompanied by 2 blocks, a steal and an assist.

Finally, Jae Crowder has started to come into his own. Heralded as a tough defender and inside force coming out of college, his first season and a half have largely been characterized by inconsistent 3-point shooting and not much else. While his April scoring has started off slowly, during March he was averaging over 6 points and nearly 3 rebounds, both around career highs for any given month while playing fewer minutes than when he had similar averages earlier this year. He also shot over 50% from the field and 3-point range in March and in April he is averaging nearly 5 rpg even though his scoring is down so far. There are flashes of strong moves under the basket, tough defense making clutch plays.

But then there’s The Matrix – he’s not doing anything different and you can’t say he’s improved. He simply does what he’s always done as a Maverick…whatever is necessary. He remains the team’s best wing defender and is always close to being the team’s top rebounder while scoring when necessary with rarely a play ever run for him. With all the talk about trading his expiring contract it’s no wonder he’s still around. His value to the team is immeasurable but they are moving back toward not placing the entire defensive burden on his shoulders.

And last but not least, at the top of the list is the also ageless Dirk Nowitzki, who shows little sign of slowing down in the midst of another All-Star season. But this is nothing new for Dirk; he simply returned to form after an injury although no small task for a 35-year old 7-footer.

The Mavericks have dramatically improved to a reasonable two-way threat and while they haven’t been as consistent as they need to be, still sometimes giving up big leads as they have all season and struggling against the likes of Sacramento, they are competing against the best teams in the league and either winning or losing by close margins. They are attacking in the paint when they can rather than just relying on the jump shot and against the Lakers, admittedly also a lottery-bound team, they showed they could survive a night when three of their best shooters were struggling. Similarly, Monday night's victory over the Kings came in spite of a horrible performance by Dirk.

What does all this mean? For this year, it is still unlikely the Mavericks will make it past the first round of the playoffs against one of the Western Conference’s best teams. While they have beaten a somewhat shorthanded Oklahoma City the last two meetings, they have not proven they can beat San Antonio in even one game much less a series. Against most of the other good Western Conference teams, the Mavericks are likely to be competitive but still come out on the short end of the stick.

Next year, the Mavericks will again have a chance to put in the final piece of a puzzle which will likely not end up being the new superstar to be the new Batman to Dirk’s Robin. Dirk’s mentor Holger Geschwinder has said that barring serious injury, Dirk can continue to play for another 3-4 years at a high level and he’s already said he’ll sign again with Dallas for a significant pay cut, allowing that money to be used to attract the talent needed to make another title run.

That should allow the Mavericks to sign what they need most, defensive support at the rim and on the perimeter and/or an additional interior scoring threat without breaking up the core. This is a highly intelligent veteran team and barring major injuries, with just a little more athleticism and strength on the defensive end we can look for the Mavericks to compete for a championship again in 2015.

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