The Dallas Mavericks are certainly happy their Western Conference counterpart L.A. Lakers are approaching new levels in futility, or their disappointing season, unlikely to end with a postseason bid, would be grabbing a few more headlines. Headed into Friday’s games, the Mavericks stood at 21-28, 7 games below .500, 4th in the Southeast Division and 5 games out of the No. 8 seed. A year and a half ago, this team was atop the NBA throne, but now, after a first-round playoff exit last year, you would be hard-pressed to argue the Mavericks’ brass hasn’t wasted the latter part of Dirk Nowitzki’s career, barring a free agent coup, ala Dwight Howard, this summer.
The most cited reason for this team’s demise has been the departure of Tyson Chandler, who anchored the middle of the Mavericks’ championship defense before signing with New York. Dallas is 28th in the league in points allowed (103), 15th in opponent’s field goal percentage, 23rd in opponent’s 3-point percentage and 14th in rebounding. Gone are key championship components like Chandler, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, J.J. Barea, Peja Stojakovic and DeShawn Stevenson; since arrived are O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Elton Brand, Dahntay Jones, Chris Kaman, Brandan Wright and a host of young guys.
I was high on Dallas coming into the year. Collison is a more than capable point guard who formed a dynamic duo with Indiana Pacers running-mate George Hill, but the absence of Kidd, 7.9 points and 8.2 assists per game in Dallas’ 2010-11 championship campaign, and Terry, 15.1 points and 4.1 assists that year, has been more difficult to overcome than expected, especially from a leadership perspective. Collison, 12.7 points on 48% shooting and 5.3 assists, is far from terrible, but lacks the big-time shot making ability of Terry and the distributor skills of Kidd.
Mayo, 18 points per game, has been the Rick Carlisle’s primary option, given knee surgery that’s kept Nowitzki out of 29 games and under minute restrictions in most others. Carter, 12.8 points in 25.2 minutes, has been a pleasant surprise, showing he still has something left at age 36; his 17.0 PER is tied with Shawn Marion for tops on the team among players who have appeared in at least 45 games (Wright, 7.2 points in 32 games, is No. 1 among all players at 20.4). And scoring is not a big issue for Dallas, even minus Dirk — they’re 9th in the league at 100.6 points per game, 11th in field goal percentage, 10th in 3-point percentage, 11th in assists and tied for 5th-fewest in turnovers.
But Dallas is stuck as a franchise — they’re not good enough to contend with the top teams in the West, nor are they bad enough to accumulate and develop steady lottery picks. The team is slim on young talent — after Collison and Mayo, rookie Jae Crowder has flashed potential as an inside-out 3, and Bernard James could develop as a workhorse big, but not much else. (Crowder, 5.5 points per game on 37& shooting and a well-below-average 11.1 PER, probably has a higher ceiling.) And Wright, a former lottery pick, has upside as an athletic, versatile big with 6’10” length, but has yet to catch on with 3 different teams, a dangerous prospect for a 25-year-old.
And the team has essentially no trade assets, with the Feb. 21 deadline fast approaching. Carter is the one guy other teams seem to be calling about, given his production, shooting ability and inexpensive contract, but trading Vince would bring little of value in return and hardly move the needle financially. If Dallas could package Carter and Shawn Marion, due $9.3 million next year, for an expiring deal or two from a desperate contender, that could free up enough space for a Dwight Howard max deal this offseason. (These prospects are complicated, though, as recent reports say Marion would refuse to report, if he’s traded to a ‘bad’ team.)
Dallas has $48 million on the books for next year, should the Mavs extend affordable qualifying offers to Collison and Rodrigue Beaubois, who’s struggled to see the floor this year, and Mayo pick up his $4.2 million player option, which could be unlikely considering his scoring ability in a weak free agent class, meaning Mark Cuban’s team is comfortably below the cap (and Cuban, for what it’s worth, would not hesitate to throw some of his millions into the NBA’s luxury tax jar). But the problem in going after Howard, even if Dallas is rumored to be a frontrunner to land his services, is what do you offer him? Surely Howard’s chances to win are better in Los Angeles, who can, by the way, pay him more money since they own his bird rights. The only piece Dallas can throw at Howard is Nowitzki, who’s 34, battling thigh problems and coming off knee surgery.
Conclusion: Barring a minor miracle this offseason, it’s going to get worse for Dallas before it gets better.
Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.