The surprise contender in the West (and it’s not Phoenix)

11.12.09 8 years ago 14 Comments

Dirk Nowitzki

Going into this season, I honestly didn’t see much in store for the Dallas Mavericks. When we were putting together Dime’s NBA season preview for issue #53, one of my write-ups left on the cutting room floor was titled, “Last Chance Workout,” focusing on the Mavs. And while my Dallas team preview on this site put their ceiling at Western Conference Finals, I was thinking their destination was closer to the basement: “Quiet first-round exit.”

Two weeks into the season, however, the Mavs are playing about as well as any team in the League. Last night’s loss to the Spurs without Duncan and Parker was a blown opportunity for a statement win, but otherwise the Mavs have beat the Lakers convincingly in L.A., and routed the Rockets (also better than expected) earlier this week. Posting a 5-3 record in early November isn’t much on paper for a team that’s won 50-plus games in each of the last nine seasons, but watching Dallas on the court, they have the look of a legit title contender.

How are they doing it?

The elements that make up an elite NBA team are simple enough, and the Mavs have them: A superstar who can dominate in crunch time (Dirk Nowitzki), a smart point guard (Jason Kidd), perimeter defenders who can stop dribble penetration (Jason Terry, J.J. Barea, Josh Howard), bigs who can rebound and defend the paint (Erick Dampier, Shawn Marion, Kris Humphries), reliable three-point shooters (Terry, Dirk), depth on the bench, and a good coach (Rick Carlisle).

Roster versatility has also been a key. The Mavs can go small with a three-guard lineup featuring Kidd, Terry and Barea, where Barea can defend quick point guards like Chris Paul and Aaron Brooks and Terry is often matched up with a slower forward who can’t guard him. (Against the Hornets last week, Terry scored some of his 18 fourth-quarter points on Peja Stojakovic.) The Mavs can also go big with Howard at the two and Marion at the three, which works in their favor against teams like the Lakers and Jazz.

Finishing games in the fourth quarter has been another recent highlight. Dirk’s 29-point explosion in the final 12 minutes against Utah last week was Dallas’ signature crunch-time moment of the season so far, and in wins against Utah, Toronto and Houston, the Mavs averaged 42 points in the fourth quarter. On Wednesday, the Mavs came back from a 15-point deficit in the fourth to cut San Antonio’s lead to four, but ultimately couldn’t close the gap.

Clearly it’s still very early in the schedule, but the pieces are in place for Dallas to put themselves right there with the preseason favorites L.A. and San Antonio next spring. Dirk (26.5 ppg, 8.9 rpg) is playing at an MVP level. Terry (18.9 ppg) will make another run at Sixth Man of the Year. Marion has been a pleasant surprise when many said he was washed up. Kidd’s numbers are down from last season (6.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 8.6 apg), but he’s still an effective quarterback on the floor. Barea has turned himself into a quality backup. Even Dampier (8.5 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 2.3 bpg) has had a couple monster games already. As with any veteran-heavy team, staying healthy is one of the biggest factors.

Maybe I was right in the preseason. Maybe this is Dallas’ last chance at a realistic run at a championship in the Nowitzki era. But even if that is the case, that run could last longer than previously anticipated.

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