Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Dirk Nowitzki Era is Over - Dallas Mavericks Season Preview

Starting Five: PG Darren Collison, SG OJ Mayo, SF Shawn Marion, PF Dirk Nowitzki, C Chris Kaman
Key Bench Players: PG Rodrigue Beaubois, SG Delonte West, SF Vince Carter, PF Elton Brand

Notable offseason additions:
SG OJ Mayo, PG Darren Collison, PF Elton Brand C Chris Kaman
Offseason subtractions: F Lamar Odom, C Brendan Haywood, C Ian Mahinmi, PG Jason Kidd, SG Jason Terry

The Dirk Nowitzki era is over.

For the loyal fans in North Texas, this isn't just a tough pill to swallow - it's like you're cramming the entire water bottle down your throat. This past summer, Mavs owner Mark Cuban took a big giant Josh Hamilton swing for the fences, and completely whiffed on what seemed like a fastball down the pike. Dallas emptied their coffers and committed themselves for a mere shot to sign Dwight Howard, Deron Williams, or potentially both superstars in the 2012 offseason. For just an opportunity to do so with zero guarantee of success, Cuban purposely dismantled his 2011 NBA title team, allowing a reluctant Tyson Chandler to move on to the New York Knicks, Seth Green lookalike JJ Barea to depart for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and more recently Jason Terrry to the Boston Celtics. Dallas even went so far as to eat the remaining $21 million left on center Brendan Haywood's contract, saving the money via the league's amnesty provision, but ultimately having to let a serviceable NBA big man go for nothing. Haywood was just another casualty of Cuban's big gamble.

Somehow, Joe Johnson, Billy King and a James Bond villain were able to keep Deron Williams in Brooklyn, while Dwight Howard unknowingly set into action a chain of events that would eventually lock him into a 2012-2013 contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. It seemed that the Dallas Mavericks had deconstructed another potential title team for nothing.

However, GM Donnie Nelson and Cuban picked up the pieces as best they could. With their remaining cap room, the Mavericks signed Chris Kaman, Elton Brand (an amnesty provision victim of Philadelphia) and OJ Mayo to one year, make-good deals in which the players could re-establish market value after poor 2011-2012 years. They also traded for reliable role players like Darren Collison and Dahntay Jones to fill out a roster that had lost Jason Kidd, Lamar Odom and Ian Mahinmi in the offseason. The most fascinating part of all these moves is that none of them prohibit the Mavericks from taking another high-risk, high-reward at-bat next summer, when Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, James Harden and Andrew Bynum will become free agents. The carrot here is that supposedly these prospective new Mavericks will come to Mark Cuban's toyland to play under a fantastic ownership, a rabid and loyal fanbase, as well as with Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki. But I'm afraid that the last bullet point is a far oversold point.

Dirk Nowitzki is 34 years old, and will be 35 shortly before the NBA Finals conclude next June. He's still an All-League player and arguably the most talented power forward in the NBA, still. However, Dirk is slowly creeping towards the end of his prime. He hasn't missed many games the past two seasons, but it's obvious that he's becoming more and more limited by injury. 7-footers certainly age more gracefully than smaller players that are reliant on their athleticism, but other than Steve Nash and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, there have been few players more than halfway to senior citizenship that have still been considered NBA superstars capable of leading a team to a chip. The Mavericks will not be contending for a championship this season with the roster they've assembled, and even if they sign one of those aforementioned free agents, their window with Dirk as a sizeable contributor will only be for one year, maybe two. IF all goes well in next summer's free agency, and IF the Mavericks can put together a title-worthy team, it will certainly be the Dwight Howard/Chris Paul/Andrew Bynum/James Harden-era that leads Cuban's tear soaked cobalt shirt to the podium rather than the Dirk Nowitzki era.

As for this team? Better than you think. Darren Collison, Delonte West, Shawn Marion, Chris Kaman and even Elton brand are known quanities at this point. They've all lived up to whatever potential they've had, and there's little doubt about what kind of production they'll be giving as nightly role players.However, OJ Mayo truly is the key here. Former second overall pick Ovington J'Anthony Mayo.....wait. Ovington J'Anthony? Is that even a name? What does that even mean? It sounds like someone was trying to name a British cocktail with a Halem-esque flair. That's just awful. The abbreviation might rub some people the wrong way, but I'd rather remind people of one of the most notorious serial killers of our time than be called effing Ovington J'Anthony.

With the supporting cast around him and Dirk advancing in age, Mayo has the opportunity to finally establish himself as the type of franchise cornerstone that once garnered him comparisons to Brandon Roy, Michael Finley and Dwyane Wade. Still just 24, many forget that Mayo averaged 18 points his rookie season on 43% shooting, going along with 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 87% shooting from the line and a respectable 38% stroke from the 3-point line. Since then, he'd been downgraded to the fifth offensive option in Memphis, behind Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. For whatever reason, whether it be head coach Lionel Hollins' offensive schemes, more confident veterans like Randolph coming in and taking shots or just a lack of competitive fire from Mayo himself, the USC product's presence was downgraded every single year. He still shows flashes of the promise he was drafted four years ago for, but hasn't shown that he's worth more than a one-year, $4 million dollar commitment. He'll be the second most talented offensive player with Dallas, so if the Mavericks are going to advance any further than simply making the playoffs, it'll be on the back of Mayo, as well as a competant defensive plan from coach Rick Carlisle.

Best Case Scenario: OJ Mayo is a revelation. Despite being saddled with the dumbest name in NBA history, Ovington J'Anthony proves to management that perhaps only one more superstar free agent addition is necessary next summer, rather than the two that they thought they'd have to acquire. All the new role players blend seamlessly into Carlisle's offense and defense, each playing not just to establish market value in their walk years, but also for their own sense of pride. Dirk continues to defy prognosticators, shouting "Suck it MAMBINO" as he sinks game winning three after game winning three. The team is better than anyone could possibly have imagined, sneaking into the number 3 seed in the Western Conference, with Charles Barkley boldly proclaiming that they're the dark horse candidate to play Miami in the NBA Finals.

Absolute Apocalypse: OJ Mayo is a fourth-option offensive player trying desperately to channel the ghost of Michael Finley, and failing. Dirk continues his two-season long streak of injuries, as the end seems to be closer than even the most pessimistic prognosticators predict. Elton Brand, Chris Kaman, Vince Carter and Shawn Marion show their age and the Mavs miss the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. The team goes into next summer having to start from square one, with a great ownership as the only selling point for attracting a superstar free agent.

Expected Finish: 3rd in the Southwest Division, 7th in the Western Conference


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