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|The Mavericks failed to hit their stride after dealing for Jason Kidd.|
The key decision in all this was the midseason trade for Jason Kidd. Despite declines in production from Dirk Nowitzki and Jerry Stackhouse in particular, things were looking pretty good before the trade -- Dallas was 35-17 and pushing for first place in the West.
W-L: 51-31 (Pythagorean W-L: 56-26)
Offensive Efficiency: 108.6 (7th)
Defensive Efficiency: 103.2 (8th)
Pace Factor: 92.5 (24th)
Highest PER: Dirk Nowitzki (24.66)
But the Mavs were hungry for more, and looking for a deal that would put them over the top in the difficult West. Instead, they made a deal that might put them under. Dallas agreed to send Devin Harris, DeSagana Diop, Trenton Hassell, Keith Van Horn, and first round picks in 2008 and 2010 to New Jersey for Kidd, Malik Allen, Antoine Wright and a second-round pick.
Getting Kidd was the main idea, but it was a bad one on multiple levels. For one, as great as Kidd has been over the course of his career, Harris was a better player in 2007-08 and made a fifth of the money; given the disparity in ages that advantage should only increase next season.
Second, the Mavs surrendered two first-rounders in the deal, including an unprotected first-round pick in 2010 -- the exact moment when they may very well be in position to have a high draft pick given the age of the rest of their roster.
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And finally, the trade didn't exactly spark them the way they had hoped. Dallas was 35-17 before the trade, but only 16-14 after. That difference in record partly overstates things -- Dallas had a very strong point differential after the trade -- but one of the alleged reasons for the deal was that Kidd would help with their late-game execution. Not so much, as it turns out: Dallas was 2-8 in games decided by five points or less once Kidd came board.
When they weren't screwing up their future with panic trades, the Mavs were once again bludgeoning opponents from midrange and the free-throw line. Dallas was a below-average 3-point shooting team, but ranked eighth in two-point shooting percentage and led the league in free-throw shooting. They also had the league's fifth-lowest turnover rate, a by-product of Nowitzki's remarkable efficiency in creating shots.
The Mavs have never been known as a defensive team, but they were actually solid on this end last season. Dallas ranked eighth in defensive efficiency with a low-risk approach that took away the 3-point line. To say they didn't gamble much is an understatement: The Mavs only forced turnovers on 13.1 percent of opponent possessions, the lowest rate in the league, and were third to last in steals (see chart).
So it was easy to get a shot against the Mavericks ... but it was hard to get a good one. Dallas allowed the fewest opponent 3-point attempts per field-goal attempt in basketball and ranked fifth in opponent 3-point percentage (see chart). Getting a clean shot inside the arc wasn't much easier, as they were fourth in opponent 2-point percentage.
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The only weak link in the Mavs' shooting defense was a propensity for fouling, but they still ranked fifth in opponent TS% -- an outstanding performance for a team that has been heavily criticized for its lack of defensive mettle.
However, that solid D broke down in the playoffs, courtesy of New Orleans' Chris Paul, and the Mavs bit the dust unexpectedly quickly. Consequences soon followed, as Johnson was given a pink slip and replaced by former Pacers and Pistons boss Rick Carlisle. This wasn't exactly unforeseen, as after three years the Mavs began chafing at Johnson's overbearing style and halfcourt tendencies.
And as far as hires go, Carlisle was a good choice. He has a track record of success in Detroit and Indiana, and while his tenures have been characterized by communication breakdowns after a couple of years at the helm, that's down the road: Dallas is firmly entrenched in win-now mode. The more immediate question is whether he'll be more willing to run than Johnson was -- Carlisle's teams were among the league's slowest paced in his past two stops, but with this roster he should be above the league average in pace.
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The linchpin is Nowitzki, whose offensive skill goes underappreciated because one of his main attributes is how shockingly few negative plays he makes. Between his high-percentage shooting, his insanely low turnover rate and the fact that he almost never misses a foul shot, he gets more out of his possessions than almost any player in the league. Throw in solid rebounding and vastly improved defense, and he's one of the 10 best players in the league -- even though his numbers fell off from his 2007 MVP season.
At the other forward spot is Howard, whose flaky behavior in the past six months has been a concern, but whose play on the court has been consistently excellent. Howard is a jack-of-all-trades type who doesn't excel in any one area, but can handle the ball, shoot from mid-range, defend and rebound. His numbers slipped after the Kidd trade a year ago, so between that and the odd behavior there's some concern -- keep an eye on him early in the season.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes Bass had a huge year off the bench as a reserve forward behind Nowitzki. He'll likely take on a greater role this year, and we'll get to see if his outstanding mid-range shooting numbers from last year were a fluke or not.
However, one area to start fretting about is the depth at the perimeter positions. Jerry Stackhouse has been Dallas's primary sixth man the past few years, but his numbers dropped off last year, he turns 34 the first week of the season, and he is a virtual lock to miss 20 games with hamstring problems.
That about does it for proven commodities. The team seems fond of George but he was terrible last year (PER 7.06) and not much better the previous two, while Wright (8.42) has struggled nearly as much at the offensive end. And at the point there's only Barea behind Kidd, although Terry can slide over and play that spot as well. It's possible Green or Singleton could play well enough to plug the dike, but that's hardly something the Mavs can count on.
Magnifying the problem is the age of Dallas' starting backcourt. Kidd is 35 and Terry, 31; while both have been extremely durable, there's little in support should they falter.
That said, they had a long way to fall. Dallas still had the point differential of a 56-win team a year ago, and they still have the best forward combo this side of Boston. Even with all the questionable personnel decisions, it's hard to imagine this team falling out of the top seven in the West. Nowitzki is too good and Carlisle too smart for that to be likely.
If they do slip, age in the backcourt will be the likely cause. The Kidd-Terry combo looks rock-solid on paper, but old guards can lose it fast, and when teams collapse suddenly that's often the cause.
More likely, they'll end up as one of the "tweeners" in the West -- far better than the bulk of the conference, but not nearly good enough to challenge the likes of Houston, Utah and the Lakers for supremacy.
If so, let's just hope it doesn't lead to any more panic moves.