The headline over Monday’s Dallas Morning News recap of the end of the Mavericks' season, summarizing coverage by Tim Cowlishaw and Brad Townsend read “Another disappointing end to Mavs season” followed by “1st-round dogfight against tough Spurs isn’t enough.”
Surely even the most objective journalists can sympathize with biased and loyal fans who should both understand that while these headlines are technically accurate, they somehow miss the spirit of the season and the Mavs' future.
Even further off-target was the online title for Townsend’s piece: “First-round loss sends Mavericks into another offseason full of question marks.” Granted, reporters don't write headlines but the softer tone of the articles therein still focused a lot more on uncertainty than opportunity.
Yes, the Mavs suffered a blowout loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7, ending a run of unexpected excitement surrounding a team that some predicted wouldn’t make the playoffs in the ultra-tough Western Conference and once they actually did make them, that they wouldn’t win more than a game versus the league’s best team.
Yet make the playoffs they did and forced the Spurs to a 7th-game. By all accounts, expectations have been exceeded and the stage is set for next year.
The detailed post-season analysis is yet to come but a quick reflection on the season seems to contradict the DMN’s pessimistic take.
Make no mistake, optimism has been sometimes hard to come by after Mark Cuban & Co. jettisoned core parts of the 2011 Championship Team including future Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson and the following year ended with a first-round exit followed by Jason Kidd and Jason Terry's departure. Rebuilding was never understood to be part of the plan while Dirk is still playing and the 2012 team featured a group of free agents who simply didn't mesh along with Dirk missing much of the year with an injury.
That doesn't change the fact that as quickly as the Mavs fell they have turned around. From a coaching standpoint, there is an argument to be made that Rick Carlisle deserves as much credit as Greg Popovich this year and prior to the game 7 debacle, Cowlishaw himself said as much.
You can question some of the things Rick Carlisle does (or doesn’t do) in some games against some teams but at the end of the day, his teams overachieve. Such was the case with last year’s team, who turned around a losing season and this 2013-2014 squad well. Carlisle’s teams get better over time, particularly on defense. This team wasn’t the strongest defensive team in the league and certainly not close to the 2011 NBA Champions but strides were made. Devin Harris’ return helped but Carlisle also found a way to motivate Samuel Dalembert into more consistent play and the whole team hustled on D. That’s about all you can ask for.
Kyle Wagner’s take on Deadspin breaks much of it down: How Rick Carlisle Turned the Misfit Mavs Into Contenders.
So perhaps misfits they are no more.
So when you address the question marks that exist for next season, much of which comes from the fact that many players on the roster are free agents, there should be more upside than downside.
The Mavs have a core of older but still very productive veterans in Dirk, Vince Carter and Shawn Marion who play well together and want to stay in Dallas. Mavs' president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said as much: "Mark made it public in the locker room last night that he would like to have every one of those guys back..." and by all accounts the feeling is mutual.
The team also has a couple of similarly outstanding experienced veterans in their prime in José Calderón and Monta Ellis, who may have not made the All-Star team but are among the league’s best at what they do well. With all the mixed reviews around Ellis’ arrival in Dallas, the consensus has been that while he's always been a blur attacking the basket, he is a better fit on the Mavs and a better player now than at any time in his career. Meanwhile Calderón continues to be among the league's best in three point shooting, free throw shooting and assist-to-turnover ratio.
There is up-and-coming young talent that has shown real potential and can provide valuable backup minutes or trade bait.
The Mavs’ biggest problem, the center rotation, never reached an elite level but showed that it had as many strengths as weaknesses. That isn't an ideal situation but it did provide opportunities to exploit some matchups when not much was expected beyond treading water. Functionality became opportunity more often than liability.
The real issue for the Mavs other than finding a defensive-minded big man with at least some decent offensive skills will be shoring up the perimeter defense.
The good news is that the post-championship debacle and failure to sign a superstar did yield one big advantage: the highly touted “financial flexibility.” Add to that that Dirk and possibly a couple of other players who want to stay in Dallas will sign for less than they are worth and you have the making of a team on the rise.
After a championship, anything less than another championship prior to rebuilding is a disappointment. That doesn’t change that the Mavericks are headed in the right direction and there is no reason a fair amount of very good talent shouldn’t be interested in the possibility of coming to Dallas, so it isn't as disappointing as some in Dallas would have us believe...even if you're an "unbiased journalist."