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The Difference: The 2013-14 Dallas Mavericks

There are plenty of words to describe the 2013-14 Mavericks season: exciting, expeditious, experimental, and excessive, just to name a few. This Dallas team was new but it was old; it was fast but, boy, was it slow; it was jaw-dropping in the best and worst ways. How one person could sum up an entire season for any team is beyond me — it’s nearly impossible to put together an all-encompassing review of a single team in 1,000 words or less. But fret not: For this team, for these Mavericks, you need more than one recap. You need seven.

lightning2So, with that in mind, here’s the final Difference of the season. (As always, the Difference is a recap of the season that was, with one bullet point for each postseason game the Mavericks played.)

  • After two years of disappointing basketball, there were finally some good vibes surrounding the Mavericks heading into this campaign. Dirk Nowitzki was healthy. The bench was solid. Monta Ellis was going out to prove critics wrong. Ultimately, the 2013-14 club’s roster was, both on paper and in general, the team’s best since Nowitkzi hoisted the Finals MVP trophy in 2011. That doesn’t mean we expected this team to win the West, or even to make the playoffs, but last offseason showed us that the front office was finally keeping an eye not only on the present, but also on the future. Ellis and Jose Calderon earned multi-year deals, a welcome sight after a season of one-year stopgap deals to Darren Collison and OJ Mayo. Devin Harris initially earned a three-year deal before tests revealed he had a foot problem that would ultimately sideline him for half the season. Dallas also inked young European star Gal Mekel to a four-year deal, drafted Shane Larkin and Ricky Ledo, and returned Jae Crowder and Bernard James. Suddenly these old Mavericks weren’t so old. It felt like the aging core of Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, and Vince Carter was finally going to be supported by quick, energetic reserves. This was a team we knew wouldn’t play much defense, but also one that was guaranteed to score almost at will. After all was said and done, this Dallas team scored the third-most points per 100 possessions and finished with the fourth-best effective field goal percentage in the NBA. We got at least half of what we expected.
  • The other half — can the younger guys be productive? — turned out to be a bit of a mystery. Rick Carlisle had plenty of toys to play with off the bench, at least in theory, at the beginning of the season. But injuries to Harris and Brandan Wright forced the coach’s hand in some respects, as he essentially had to rely on Larkin, Mekel, and DeJuan Blair at the start of the season, and those moves didn’t always pay off. Once Harris recovered, Mekel suffered what basically ended up being a season-ending meniscus tear. Ledo spent the entire season in the D-League. Larkin and Bernard James rode the bench for weeks at a time. In short, the young guys weren’t ready this season. Along with that, a combination of injuries, age, and a guard-heavy roster forced Carlisle to be more experimental than almost any other coach in the league. (You could make the case no other head boss needed to tinker with rotations more than him.) Carlisle at times acted more like a hockey coach than a basketball coach, often subbing in three or four guys at a time. We saw it all from the Coach of the Year candidate apparently average tactician this season. He coached his ass off, relying on four completely unique lineups: the starting five (Calderon, Ellis, Marion, Dirk, Dalembert), the second unit (Harris, Crowder, Carter, Dirk, Wright), the “6′ 7″ and under” lineup (Harris/Calderon, Ellis, Carter, Marion, Blair), and the finishing games gang (Harris, Ellis, Carter, Dirk, Wright/Dalembert). Every single lineup ran different plays at a different pace, while also doing vastly different things on defense. The Mavericks were made up of three or four completely different teams, essentially. But, keep in mind, none of these guys are young, Blair and maybe Wright excluded.
  • But, man, these old guys could play. Dallas executed better offensively than every other non-Spurs team in the West. The Mavericks became the premier pick-and-roll team in the NBA, running it more often and to better effect than any other club in the league, perhaps excluding San Antonio, and Dallas did it by relying on its own versatility. Ellis, Harris, Calderon, and Carter all acted as the ball-handler, and each player had different tendencies within the offense, depending first on their own preferences and second on their pick-and-roll partner. The Carter/Wright pick-and-roll, for example, has been a sight to see for years now. But the Monta/Dirk pick-and-pop and the Harris/Blair pick-and-roll were both new to Dallas this season, and they didn’t disappoint. The former, especially, stood out to no one’s surprise. Only two guys in the league drove the lane more than Ellis this season, and no team scored more points off one player’s drives than the Mavericks scored off Monta (12.5). Nowitzki was the primary beneficiary of Monta’s relentless rim attacks, as “That Dude” scored the second-most catch-and-shoot points (680) in the NBA behind only Kevin Durant.  Along with the pick-and-roll offense, however, Dallas finally brought back its “flow” offense after a year’s respite. Last year’s club was unable to fully implement the offense due to Nowitzki’s health and, um, other personnel-related reasons. But back it came this year, and how it was missed! The 2013-14 Mavericks might have been old, but their offensive IQ was, in general, a huge strength. Dallas attacked teams where they were vulnerable, but didn’t necessarily always target mismatches; that’s an important distinction to make, and one that people who watched Mark Jackson’s Warriors might understand. The Mavericks’ overarching offensive strategy was to get in the lane and either score or kick it out to a jump shooter. Isolation was, for the most part, a bad thing. Teams that target mismatches will go ISO religiously to get a “good” look — Dallas, on the other hand, could always get a good look by sharing the ball and just running its offense. Isolation was a foreign idea to this team until the end of the year, when a combination of fatigue, desperation, and pressure might have forced it. That aside, this year’s Dallas team will be remembered for its offensive execution. The Spurs are robots, and though they do it better, the Mavericks were unquestionably more fun.
  • In addition to being the best offensive Mavericks team in recent memory, this also had to be the most exciting since who-knows-when. The source: none other than He Who Have It All, Master of the Open Floor, His Speedy, Monta Ellis. The biggest bargain signing of the summer brought with him to Dallas not just a swagger this team has sorely missed for years, but also the extra gear the Mavericks have lacked since Nellie’s run-and-run-and-run-and-gun teams blew opponents out of the gym in the early Aughts. Say what you want about his jump shot, but Ellis was spectacular this season. Carlisle’s offense was predicated on Ellis’s elite shot-creating abilities — not only for himself, but also for others. The front office’s mission for years has been to find a player on whom Nowitzki can rely on. Well, they found him. Nowitzki put together an astonishingly efficient season and deserved the MVP votes he received (few as they were), but Ellis was the key to this team. I don’t remember seeing a Dallas player before Ellis that was able turn corners with elite pace, leap into the air to make crazy steals, draw contact and finish at the rim, and distribute the ball. The best comparison I can think of: 2013-14 Ellis was early Jason Terry and late Jason Kidd rolled into one, all their strengths and warts included. He, Dirk, Wright, and Carter made it fun to watch the Mavericks again. There weren’t many teams in the NBA this season more exciting than these Mavericks, and we have Monta Ellis to thank for that.
  • Fun as they were, these Mavericks were also flawed, defensive weaknesses aside. For starters, Nowitzki again entered this season without a capable backup, which forced Carlisle to play Marion at the 4 while Dirk rested. That created three problems: 1. At this point in Marion’s career, you don’t want him guarding guys like Zach Randolph or Blake Griffin, 2. If he’s guarding Randolph and Griffin, that means he isn’t guarding Mike Conley and Chris Paul, and 3. No backup for Dirk means Dirk has to play more minutes. On their best days, the Mavericks could tread water while Nowitzki rested (his off-court per-game plus-minus was -4.5). Considering the crowded bottom half of the playoff bracket heading into March, Carlisle couldn’t afford to give Nowitzki the Tim Duncan Treatment. If Dallas wanted to make the playoffs, Dirk needed to play — so play, he did… perhaps to excess. Stat guys (admittedly I am one) will often discount the value of the eye test, but stats aside, no one could watch Nowtizki during March, April, and May without noticing how slow he looked on the court. He was simply exhausted down the stretch. And after playing 80 regular-season games and more than 2600 minutes, he had reason to be. Tired guys generally aren’t as effective on defense, either. Connect the dots. That said, Nowitzki’s late-season exhaustion is no one’s fault in particular, really. Dallas didn’t have a backup, Nowitzki was playing too well to sit, the Dallas offense struggled without his impact on spacing, and the West was too freaking good to take a day off. Still, if you ask me, Nowitzki’s lost step as the Mavericks headed toward the finish line is reason enough to pursue a backup power forward this summer. I’ll bet Dirk would appreciate the luxury of having to play only 28 minutes per game.
  • This Mavericks season ended expeditiously. Like, one day they were up 2-1 to San Antonio, and the next thing you know the Game 7 blowout was over. The whole season was over. It’s odd that a season as dramatic and, at times, agonizing ended so quickly. By now you’ve read this a billion times, but heading into the playoffs mostly everyone thought Dallas would last four or five games against the mighty Spurs. Dallas lasted seven hard-fought contests. Could Dallas have survived against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the opponent they would have played had Monta Ellis’s jump shot as the regular season’s buzzer sounded found the net? Maybe, maybe not. But the Mavericks’ postseason fate was decided long before Monta’s clean look rimmed out. Dallas developed a reputation during the season as the team that blows leads — the Hawks, Clippers (how many times?), Wolves, and Nets were among the teams that stole wins from the Dallas’s gentle grip, and that’s not counting a 30-point lead the Mavericks blew to Portland before pulling off a thrilling win. Simply put, Dallas cost itself several wins this season by sacrificing late-game leads. The roster’s collective unfamiliarity with one another played a role, as did injuries, fatigue, poor execution, a couple unlucky bounces, and fourth-quarter technical fouls. Dallas could have been a 55-win team, but it was instead a 49-win team. I remain completely baffled by this club; you could convince me the 2013-14 Mavericks were one of the best teams in the Western Conference this season (the Spurs could attest to that), but you could also persuade me to believe Dallas didn’t even belong in the playoffs. That’s how close this season was, and that’s why the unexciting conclusion to the seven-game thriller against San Antonio left me unmoved. Dallas could have won six of those games; instead it won three. That’s the story of the season, awesome as it was.
  • That leaves us looking forward, much like the front office. Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban’s first order of business this summer will be deciding on the future of six current Mavericks: Nowitzki, Marion, Carter, Harris, Blair, and James. (Dalembert’s contract next season is partially guaranteed, but they’ve given every indication that he’ll be back next season.) Will a mass exodus take place? I doubt it. All six of those guys seem happy here. But business is business, and all it takes is one team with a more promising outlook (or more cash) to swoop in and give an offer. Anything can happen this summer with these six guys, Nowitzki excluded. He said during his exit interviews that he plans to meet with Cuban and Nelson in the coming weeks to hammer out a deal. The future is more cloudy for the other five. However, Nelson and Cuban will want to take care of business quickly so they can move on to the free agent market, which — although it doesn’t contain many “big fishies,” to quote Nowitzki — is chock full of guys who could help the Mavericks. Some of them are still competing in the playoffs. Some aren’t. If I’m the Dallas front office, I’m looking to add a backup 4, a wing (or two), and maybe another big guy. The Mavericks will have roughly $30 million in cap space this summer to work with, more than most other teams in the league. Dallas has the cash to put some big-time deals together, but only time will tell if any will come to fruition. Time, however, is of the essence: The more time Carlisle has to devise a game plan for next season, the better. The Mavericks will almost certainly add multiple new faces this summer, so the team will need as much time to gel as possible. Regardless of who they sign, though — whether it’s a 12th man, an All-NBA talent, a key reserve, or just a quality starter — it’s going to be hard for next season’s Mavericks to surpass this year’s squad in terms of excitement and overall fun-ness. This season was everything: good, bad, heart-wrenching, exhilarating, new, old, and exhausting. Dallas overachieved and it underachieved. It surprised and it let down. It won and, finally, it lost. And now, just like that, it’s over. The clock might already be ticking for Cuban, Nelson, Carlisle, Nowitzki, and the rest of the gang, but before you move on and commit to next season, be sure to take the time to appreciate what we just experienced. You might not see such a remarkable season again anytime soon.