- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Mavericks didn't accomplish their ultimate mission of adding a superstar, but they did accomplish a significant goal this summer.
They got better. Maybe good enough to get back into the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference.
The Mavs, assuming all the deals they've agreed become official soon, made upgrades almost across the board after Dwight Howard decided to head to Houston. A position-by-position look:
POINT GUARD: The Mavs believe Jose Calderon will solve a lot of their problems from last season, particularly regarding late-game basketball IQ woes.
Darren Collison is a nice sparkplug backup, but he never earned coach Rick Carlisle's trust to run the offense, especially in clutch situations, as evidenced by the Mavs recruiting geezer point guards Derek Fisher and Mike James out of their rocking chairs during the season.
Calderon, who has career averages of 7.2 assists and 1.7 turnovers per game, can be counted on to get the ball where it needs to go. He's not a creator, but Calderon is a phenomenal spot-up shooter, leading the NBA in 3-point percentage (.461) last season. The Mavs gave Calderon a four-year, $29 million deal to make the offense run much smoother.
The 31-year-old Calderon comes with defensive deficiencies due to his limited athleticism, but the Mavs' point guards weren’t exactly Gary Payton in his prime on that end of the floor last season. That’s a problem the Mavs didn't fix, not one that was created this summer.
Devin Harris, who is likely to sign a one-year, minimum-salary deal after recovering from a dislocated toe that caused his three-year, $9 million offer to be pulled, would give the Mavs a proven, versatile veteran backup with some pedigree as a defensive stopper. Harris isn't the blur the Mavs used as bait to get Jason Kidd, but when healthy, he's a solid third guard who can play both backcourt positions.
Rookies Shane Larkin and Gal Mekel are a couple of intriguing prospects who will have to earn every minute of playing time this season unless they drive down the tollway to Frisco. They're different players -- Larkin is an explosive athlete who can create off the dribble and shoot from deep; Mekel is a savvy distributor -- but both have potential to be factors as pick-and-roll facilitators.
How much better? That depends on how coachable an eight-year veteran with a career average of 19.4 points per game will be in Dallas.
Ellis' shot selection in Milwaukee the last season and a half was simply awful, making him an extremely inefficient scorer. If the Mavs can convince him to eliminate long pull-up jumpers from his diet, they'll have no regrets about the three-year, $25 million deal they offered him only after discovering Harris' dislocated toe.
The upside with Ellis: He’s the most dynamically athletic guard to ever be paired with Dirk Nowitzki. He's a tremendous penetrator who is a good finisher when he gets to the rim and willing passer when help defense comes. He's a one-man fast break waiting to happen. And he’s capable of taking over games for stretches with scoring flurries.
Ellis gets a lot of steals, but he’ll never be confused for an All-Defense candidate. Frankly, he's a concern at that end of the floor, not that he's a downgrade from Mayo.
Wayne Ellington, who will sign a two-year deal for $5.3 million, will give the Mavs a perimeter threat (.382 on 3s for his career) off the pine and isn't a poor defender.
Second-round pick Ricky Ledo, who didn’t play a minute of college basketball due to academic issues, is a raw project with starter potential who should be a featured attraction in Frisco this season.
SMALL FORWARD: The Mavs didn’t make any upgrades at small forward this summer, but it was a position of strength last season. The hope is that Father Time doesn’t tackle Shawn Marion or Vince Carter this season.
It helps that Carlisle can keep their minutes manageable, although it appears that Marion will have to continue to play a lot of power forward when Nowitzki rests.
It'd be nice if Jae Crowder can make a jump after a solid rookie season, especially by second-round standards. His 3-point shooting in summer league has been a disappointment, but Crowder is at least a tough, rugged body to bring off the bench.
POWER FORWARD: If Nowitzki's knees don't act up, this position might be the Mavs' most improved next season. He missed the first third of the season and took several weeks to work his way back into form last year.
The 35-year-old Nowitzki is no longer capable of carrying a contender -- hence the failed plan to acquire a superstar -- but it's not a stretch to think he can get back to the All-Star game after his 11-year streak was snapped. He averaged 18.9 points and 7.7 rebounds while shooting 50.5 percent from the floor after the break last season, the kind of production that can be expected of him at this point of his career.
CENTER: Until recently, if Samuel Dalembert was mentioned in the same sentence as Howard, it was something along the lines of, "Howard dominated Dalembert." But this isn't about a no-contest Howard-Dalembert comparison. It's about whether Dalembert is an upgrade over Chris Kaman.
There's no doubt that Dalembert is a better fit in Dallas than Kaman, as detailed here earlier this week.
The Mavs will also bring back Brandan Wright, barring an unforeseen development in his contract negotiations, and hope he can build off his outstanding finish of last season.
Elton Brand's physical presence and veteran savvy might be missed, but the Mavs should be better at center if Dalembert and Wright can stay healthy, whether or not injury-riddled former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden is added to the roster.
This summer wasn't the spectacular success the Mavs hoped for, but it was good enough to give them a chance to get back into the playoffs.