This Saturday night, the Dallas Mavericks will face the Milwaukee Bucks, a team they’ve already beaten handily once this season and no doubt they’ll be favored to win again. Of course, anything can happen on a given night in the NBA but of greater concern with the Mavericks is that anything can happen pretty much anytime.
Early in a season that is largely successful measured against significant preseason skepticism, the Mavericks have proven to be a team to be reckoned with. Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis have become one of the most potent tandems in the league. Ellis, who leads the team in scoring, is the first player to do so other than Dirk since Michael Finley in 1999-2000.
While Dirk is largely back in form following injuries that hampered him last season and averaging 21 ppg doing his usual combination of long-range jumpers and post-up fadeaways, NBA.com reports that “Ellis leads the league in drives per game, player points scored on drives and team points scored on drives. He is shooting 58.8% on his drives to the basket."
But Monta also leads the team in assists, impressive for many reasons including his backcourt mate is perennial high-assist guy José Calderón. Often, when Ellis doesn’t shoot, he still draws the defense in so Dirk or someone else is available with an open look. Dirk and Monta have fantastic pick-and-roll chemistry especially considering they have only played together a short time. The naysayers were wrong: the experiment is working.
Unfortunately, despite the creation of the tandem the Mavs have been looking for and a few other good things, some of them expected (the continued solid shooting of Calderón) and others unexpected (the dominance on the offensive glass of DeJuan Blair), the Mavericks are barely holding their own. It often seems the team as a whole has become as inconsistent as Jae Crowder’s three-point shooting.
On one night the Mavericks can upend the Western Conference leaders, the Portland Trail Blazers. Shortly thereafter, they are blown out by the cellar-dwelling Sacramento Kings.
Wednesday night, the Mavericks completely dominated the Golden State Warriors en route to a lead as large as 18 points in the first half, only to see the Warriors storm back in the second. The Mavs proved unable to get stops, particularly on Steph Curry and gave up another tough loss after being completely in control the first part of the game.
The Mavericks' struggles on defense are no surprise, although it was hoped that Samuel Dalembert would make more of an impact protecting the rim. Unfortunately, he has proven not as effective as he once was either on defense or on the boards and has missed so many easy opportunities finishing under the basket, most of the recent starting assignments have gone to Blair.
The return of Brandan Wright should definitely help with athleticism in the post, where he has led the team in field goal percentage for a couple of years while also improving his offensive midrange touch. While not possessing a lot of brute strength, Wright has the speed and agility to play some defense in the paint. Devin Harris may also help by adding more speed to the backcourt and some better perimeter defense. Will that be enough to change the Mavs' fortunes?
Only time will tell but there are clearly things the Mavericks need, most notably some difference makers who can shut down the currently available open lane to the basket that some opponents are enjoying. Even if Dalembert was exceeding expectations, he can't shut down offenses by himself. During the championship season, Tyson Chandler didn’t do the job all by himself either: he had a lot of help on the perimeter from Jason Kidd and DeShawn Stevenson, as well as Shawn Marion and backup relief from Brendan Haywood.
Yet the Mavs have not been interested in retaining defensive specialists. Neither Stevenson nor Corey Brewer were resigned and at the time, both would have been available at bargain prices. Stevenson, if healthy, still is. Dahntay Jones was promoted as a defensive star last year, yet traded away last year for the one thing the Mavs seemingly didn't need - a rarely-used 3-point specialist Anthony Morrow who was then not retained and is now a rotation player in New Orleans. Meanwhile the Bulls cut Jones early in the season. Defensive-minded players such as Devin Ebanks and Renaldo Balkman were brought in during the preseason but then released.
Vince Carter, while struggling with his shot this year, is playing solid defense and the rest of his game is not lagging. Jae Crowder is also able to defend multiple positions, yet as a team, the defensive struggles continue. Assuming the return of Wright and Harris don’t make any dramatic changes, what should the Mavs do?
Rick Carlisle is as likely as any coach in the NBA to get better defense out of this roster. However, the Mavs do have the benefit of an unexpected surplus in the backcourt, which might be parlayed into a defensive stopper somewhere else in the lineup. The obvious talk has been about Omer Asik but do the Mavs have anything to give up that the Rockets would want and if so, would the benefits outweigh the harm?
The most talked about piece to offer is Shawn Marion, and while his age and expiring contract might make the offer attractive, no one has played better, more well-rounded basketball since his arrival in Dallas than the Matrix, including being the team’s best defender and often the top rebounder. The other name bandied about is Brandan Wright and save for his injuries, he’s been by far the Mavericks most efficient shooter and the only microcosm of “Lob City” that has otherwise been woefully absent in Dallas for a long time. It seems with the current surplus in the backcourt including the surprising Gal Mekel, seldom-used Wayne Ellington and new D-League star Ricky Ledo might be possibilities for sweetening a deal.
Of course, there is also the issue of Asik’s contract. Asik is anxious and rumor has it that something needs to be done by December the 19th but the Rockets are paying him well...certainly too well to sit on the bench.
With Dirk’s window limited the idea of letting proven assets that have worked well with him for years is a tenuous one; however, it must be considered. A center such as Asik would add another pick-and-roll option for Monta Ellis and the other Mavericks guards, as well as adding more scoring and rebounding from the post.
After Wright and Harris return the Mavs will have a good opportunity to shuffle the deck and fine what works. If things aren’t significantly different as the trade deadline approaches, the bank of Cuban needs to do some serious soul…and pocketbook…searching.