The Mavericks have won three straight games, which is all anybody seems to be talking about as they prepare to take on the Celtics on Wednesday. That streak would be a sign of a team on a roll, if not for the four losses in five games that preceded the current streak or the fact that they have the same number of three-game losing streaks — two — as three-game winning streaks this season.
Across the NBA every season, front offices and fan bases clamor for a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. This imaginary squad, going off the antithesis of the Miami Heat model, eschews superstars for selfless, solid players who come together for the sake of winning, not for the sake of fame.
Year after year, some team lays claim to this title. Year after year, that team falls in the playoffs, well short of the NBA Finals.
With Dirk Nowitzki sidelined indefinitely after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, the Mavericks are discovering that for all their salary cap-savvy moves over the offseason, no transaction equals that of having one of the game’s elite players in uniform. O.J. Mayo has been a revelation as a starter. Shawn Marion continues to be one of the toughest one-on-one defenders in the game. Vince Carter can still do enough little things to make up for the loss of his athleticism. Chris Kaman has been as solid offensively as Elton Brand has been defensively. Without Nowitzki, though, the Mavs are doomed to be exactly what they have been.
They alternate a few wins with a few losses, occasionally beating a good team like the Knicks and losing to a bad team like the Bobcats. The up-and-down nature seems to make it impossible for anyone to pin down exactly what their identity is, but it really is not that difficult. The Mavs enter Wednesday’s game with an 11-10 record, third in the Southwest Division and seventh in the Western Conference, and rarely does a team’s record sum it up so succinctly. They are good, but not very good. They are in contention for a playoff spot, but nobody expects them to do much damage in the postseason as currently constructed.
The Mavericks were not this year’s preseason anti-Miami darlings — that would be the Denver Nuggets, who are mired a game below .500 — but after a 4-1 start, many observers wondered if they had a chance to be. Could a team built with the possibility of being disassembled at a moment’s notice, if some big-name free agent suddenly became available, actually challenge the star-laden titans of the West with their Kobe Bryants and Kevin Durants? Could a team with only one player making more than $8.6 million a year and nine players on expiring deals pull together and give Disney a reason to make an NBA movie?
Nope. The Mavericks lost three straight after that 4-1 start, then lost five of eight, beat the wallowing Pistons and lost to the Clippers by 22 points before putting together their current three-game win streak. Through it all, they look a lot like a team missing its superstar.
Anyone in the anti-star crowd, be they a casual fan or the most hardcore analytical stathead, tends to miss the immeasurable benefits a true star can bring. LeBron James does more than score 25.2 points, grab 8.8 rebounds and dish out 6.8 assists every game. He makes it possible for the entire Heat system to work. He opens up Ray Allen, Mike Miller and Shane Battier for 3-pointers and wipes out Allen and Miller’s mistakes on the defensive end. When the team is in a scoring rut, he serves as the calming force that can take the ball and generate a basket, a foul or an open shot for a teammate.
This is what Dallas misses in Nowitzki’s absence. Even with Mayo’s evolution into a dangerous scorer who is hitting more than half of his 3-point attempts, the Mavericks lack an isolation threat to go to when the system breaks down. Running “iso” all the time (or even most of the time) is no way to win in the NBA, but as a fall-back position in dire situations, it is invaluable. Sometimes the most well-designed play or most well-executed set will still fail against a heady NBA defense.
(This is part of the reason certain motion-based offenses that are prevalent at the college and high school levels, like the Princeton or the flex, are used sparingly or as part of a more varied system in the pros. Most NBA defenses do not suffer the breakdowns these offenses capitalize on.)
Late in Dallas’ 97-94 win over the Suns last Thursday — the infamous “satisfaction guaranteed” game in Phoenix — Mayo rolled off a screen by Brand and received the ball at the left elbow in a classic iso situation. He jab-stepped Sebastian Telfair, pump-faked, pivoted and coolly drained a 17-foot jump shot to snap a tie game and give Dallas the lead for good. It was the type of shot Nowitzki typically takes and hits, and it showed Mayo’s growth from stellar sixth man into a potential All-Star.
Still, the distance between All-Star to all-world might be the biggest jump in the NBA. For Mayo, that shot was one of the highlights of his season. For Nowitzki, such shots are just a typical day at the office. Maybe Mayo is becoming that type of go-to guy, in which case the Mavericks would no longer be a bunch of starless warriors but a more typical group with a couple All-Stars at the top of the masthead and a collection of good, but not great, players supporting them. It might cost the Mavericks some old-school fans, but it would certainly be better for their win total.