Why is this even a question?
The Miami Heat were once a team that didn't have LeBron James, Chris Bosh and thousand hateful blog posts written about them. A little more than 6 years ago, Pat Riley assembled a team that was the ultimate "win-now" squad. With the exception of Udonis Haslem and Dwyane Wade (both in their early twenties at the time), the Heat was filled with rotation players 29 years or older. No one, except for those two aforementioned, had any upside. What they appeared to be were the players that they would remain, and if the title was going to be won, it'd be won with the exact talents that those gentlemen possessed.
And win they did. In a perfect storm of Miami playing their most inspired basketball of the year and the Dallas Mavericks paradoxically collapsing on the very same court, the Heat won the 2006 Finals in six games. Dwyane Wade fought through injury to lead a team of perfectly peaking veterans to a miraculous comeback in a series, that at one point in the fourth quarter of game 3 seemed like an inevitable four game Dallas sweep.
After what was no doubt a celebration that could only be legal in southern Florida, the Heat came back the next season out of shape, unmotivated and lethargic. The team won a mere 44 games (down from 50 the year before) as Wade only played in 50 contests and veterans like Shaquille, Alonzo Mourning, James Williams, Antoine Walker, James Posey and Gary Payton had seemingly gone into a steep decline overnight. They were spotted with the 4th seed and had the dishonor of being swept by a young Bulls team in the first round. It was truly the title defense from Hell.
So how does this relate to the Dallas Mavericks? In more ways than one. Both the 2011 Mavs and the 2006 Heat were veteran-laden teams who parlayed an incredibly hot two months of play into a championship. Each team had certain chips on their shoulder motivating them; the Heat were driven by an upset and vengeful Shaquille O'Neal (not sure there's any other type), and a hungry group headlined by Mourning, Walker, White Chocolate and James Posey. The Mavericks had their share of title-starved veterans like Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood, but like Shaquille's effect on the Heat, had an upset and vengeful Dirk and Jason Terry trying to allay the wounds of their 2006 title defeat driving the team.
The similarities going into a post-championship season are startling; with the exception of the 29 year-old now-New York Knick Tyson Chandler, the Mavericks' 2011 starters will all be well over the age of 30. In fact, their expected rotation this year of Jason Kidd, JET, Dirk, Haywood, Lamar Odom, Vince Carter, Roddy Beaubois and Shawn Marion, they have ONE player younger than 32. All these men played well above their average ability in the playoffs last year, and with a shotgun 66 game season about to commence, health is not guaranteed. A 44-win season and a ignominious departure from the playoffs could be forthcoming.
How will this play out? And how will this affect their season?
The Mavericks are in much better shape than the 2006 Heat. The latter team was led by guys like Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, Shaquille O'Neal and Gary Payton. Those four are not necessarily known as paragons of sportsmanship or monuments to hard work. Aside from DeShawn "I can't believe this guy meaningfully contributed to a world champion" Stevenson, the Mavericks leadership is pretty sound with Kidd, Dirk and JET at the helm. However, injuries to such an old team couldn't be ruled out, nor can a potential championship hangover. Hopefully they are able to import some players that will spark a hunger in the Mavericks to get them fired up about potentially repeating...
Oh wait. They signed Vince Carter and traded for Lamar Odom. Both guys are extremely talented, but I wouldn't ever say that either are the type of guys that would serve as spark plugs on anyone's team, nor would I ever count on them being motivating locker room generals. The book has been (lazily) written on Vince (if he didn't quit writing it halfway through), and Lamar is a guy who demanded to be traded because he couldn't deal with almost being traded as a talented 31 year old on the last year of an affordable deal.
(for those wondering, to sum up my thoughts on the Lamar to Dallas trade - it's BS. I don't know how they could have just said to the guy "Hey Lamar, we're not trading you. Sorry your feelings are hurt, but this is business. Bid-ness. Go in there, talk to Kobe and Fish for support and if you're still upset, go look at Pau and how he's taking this like a man. If Khloe were our center (now there's an idea) and we tried to trade her, she'd come into my office, punch me in the jaw and gone on about her business as a part of the team. Suck it up. Now let's win a title". Is Lamar more upset than Kobe was in the summer of 2007 when he demanded to be traded? I don't believe that he was totally inconsolable to the point where the man couldn't do what he's being paid 9 million dollar to do. We shouldn't have traded the guy, let alone to one of our biggest rivals, let alone for nothing, let alone in a trade that didn't involve Dwight Howard or Chris Paul. B. S.)
Then there's the most important detail of lost personnel. Two of their most important cogs to success, offensive savant JJ Barea and defensive anchor Tyson Chandler, are now on other teams. Without Chandler to be the crux of all the Mavs' defensive schemes and Barea for game changing points off the bench, Dallas is a very different squad than the one that will raise a banner in 10 days.
I see this playing out with less disastrous results than the 2006 Heat, but certainly not to the effectiveness of another championship. They won't miss Chandler nearly as much as everyone thinks because the somewhat-forgotten Brendan Haywood is an underrated defensive center. Lamar and Vince won't have the same type of immediate unorthodox offense that Barea brought, the hope is that they create a type of flexibility in positions that the Mavs have relied on with Shawn Marion and JJ.
The Mavs won last year because Dirk could not be stopped in the fourth quarter, their veterans played to the best of their capabilities and they had one of the top 10 best defenses in the league. Only one of those three facets of their title team can be counted on this year, while the latter two are in serious jeopardy. Definitely not the championship team they were, but certainly not a team that will be swept in the first, or more likely any round.
Player to watch: Brendan Haywood
As I just mentioned, a motivated and healthy Brendan Haywood is not a terrible substitute for the Tyson Chandler. Simply put, everyone in the world saw how good the Mavericks could be when they have a defensive general up the middle. If Haywood can replicate what Chandler gave them, they'll be contenders again. If not, 44 wins and a first round sweep are not out of the question.
Best they can do: 49-17, 1st in the Southwest, 1st in the West
Lowest they can go: 36-30, 3rd in the Southwest, 7th in the West
Probable outcome: 46-20, 1st in the Southwest 3rd in the West
Like this series? Check out the other Burning Questions leading up to the 2011-12 NBA season:
NBA Season Preview: Burning Questions for teams you don't care about
Burning Question #20: Can Sacramento keep their Kings?
Burning Question #19: Will the Rockets finally make a blockbuster trade?
Burning Question #18 - Will we be able to see Mark Jackson make “Hand Down, Man Down” pantomimes in the Warriors’ huddle this year?
Burning Question #17 - When Will Joe Dumars be Fired?
Burning Question #16 - Dwight, Deron, CP3: Who gets traded?
Burning Question #15 - Did the Cavs take the right guy with the number one pick?
Burning Question #14 - Where do the Blazers go from here?