The “Defending” Champs: Dallas Mavericks
Last season, the Dallas Mavericks won 57 games and earned themselves the third seed of the Western Conference standings. One could argue that Dirk Nowitzki should have received far more consideration for the MVP award given how well the team performed when he was in the lineup, but his contributions largely went unnoticed outside of Dallas.
Disco Dirk submitted a quite impressive shooting season: 51.7 percent shooting from the field, 39.3 percent from 3-point range and 89.2 percent at the free throw line. Combine that with his 23 points and seven rebounds per game and it’s obvious that the Mavericks’ big man was not only productive, but extremely efficient.
And yet, when the 2011 postseason started, no one gave them much of a chance against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Dallas handled Portland in six games in the first round of the playoffs and then took out the Los Angeles Lakers — who were the two-time defending champs at the time — in four games. The Western Conference Finals pitted the Mavericks against the Oklahoma City Thunder; an opponent that they handled in five games.
In the NBA Finals, Rick Carlisle’s squad split the first two games in Miami against the Heat and then came back home and won two of their three home games. The scene shifted to Miami for Game 6, where the Mavericks came out as a team to help offset a struggling Dirk Nowitzki as Mark Cuban finally won his first NBA title as the owner of the team.
Joe Budden may have been premature in his proclamation almost a decade earlier, but his words on the Pump It Up Freestyle would prove to be prophetic:
“I ain’t Kobe or Tracy or Jay-Z,
Jay be murked,
Joey be the future, I’m more like Dirk…”
Indeed, the Mavericks superstar not only captured his first ever NBA title, but he was also rightfully awarded the NBA Finals trophy given his out of this world play in 21 playoff games.
In 39.3 minutes per game, Dirk Nowitzki averaged an astounding 27.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game on 48.5 percent field goal shooting, 46 percent 3-point shooting and 94.1 percent free throw shooting during the 2011 playoffs. In other words, Nowitzki dominated his opposition despite some solid defensive individual performances by the likes of Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka, Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem.
The 2011 Mavs won the title and looked terrific in doing so.
The 2011-12 season has been an entirely different animal however. Granted, they could still potentially win the championship this season, but they will have to climb an uphill battle to do so. Notwithstanding Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson, they still have the same core that helped them get to the promised land last season.
The absence of Chandler was thought to change the fortunes of the team, but one could argue that their defense has been better this season. Indeed, Dallas boasts a defensive efficiency of 98.7, which is the seventh best figure in the NBA.
And yet, earlier in the week, Marc Stein of ESPN.com released his weekly Power Rankings and had the Mavericks ranked at 14th. John Hollinger’s rankings — they are updated daily — are far less generous towards the Mavs and currently have them at 19th, just ahead of powerhouses like the Portland Trail Blazers (currently tanking) and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
At 32-36, Dallas is currently sixth in the Western Conference standings and although it’s unlikely, they could slip out of the playoff race altogether.
Their season has been a roller coaster ride that saw them deactivate Dirk Nowitzki earlier in the season in order to allow him to regain his form and he has played better since. Lamar Odom on the other hand was brought in to help the team get back to the Finals and hopefully win it again, but the experiment can now be deemed a failure given reports that the left-hander struggled to find the motivation to play hard in Dallas.
Combine all of these issues with the fact that the offense has been mediocre at best this season, and one can understand why Dallas is not in the top three teams out west like they were last season. They favor playing a two-man game on one side of the court to force defenses to rotate and then they swing the ball to the other side of the court where they typically find the open shooter. It’s a great strategy to create open looks, mind you the Mavs are far too reliant on jump shots as opposed to attempts at the rim.
The end result is an offensive efficiency of 100, which is 23rd in the NBA.
With that said, given that these players have been through the grind already as a unit, it would be awfully tough to discount them as a contender regardless of the fall off that the team has gone through between last season and this current one.
But as far as title defenses go, the Dallas Mavericks are extremely reminiscent to…
The 2007 Miami Heat.
After defeating the Mavericks in the 2006 Finals, Miami went 44-38 (a .537 winning percentage) during the 2006-07 regular season as Dwyane Wade missed 31 games. Many figured that the team would display its championship resolve in the postseason, but it was not meant to be. The Heat were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Chicago Bulls.
Unlike the 2007 Miami Heat, the Dallas Mavericks didn’t lose their star for any significant period of time — he’s missed four games this season — but Dallas only sports a .552 winning percentage and has everyone thinking they might be able to shift into a different gear once the playoffs roll around.
It’s impossible not to give the defending champions the benefit of the doubt, but when a team fails to adequately defend its title — when’s the last time you heard an opponent say that their game against Dallas was a statement game? — during the course of the regular season, it makes it rather tough to expect big things for the playoffs.
Let’s see if they can show some glimpses of championship basketball tonight at Oracle Arena…
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