Last year Jason Terry had the audacity to get the Larry O’Brien Trophy etched into bicep.
Last year Tyson Chandler and assistant coach Dwane Casey elevated the Dallas defense to elite levels.
Last year Dallas raced to a blistering 24-5 record before stumbling over Dirk Nowtizki’s twisted knee and limping into the playoffs with a three seed.
Last year the Dallas Mavericks made fools of those who scoffed at the notion of the Mavericks escaping a first round matchup with the feisty and physical Portland Trailblazers.
This year Jason Terry can touch the real life Larry whenever he chooses.
This year Tyson Chandler and Dwane Casey are gone--Chandler for a fat check in the big city and Casey for a long overdue chance to coach his own team.
This year Dallas is 0-2, spanked twice by playoff teams, and faces another hungry foe in the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight.
This year Dallas might not make the playoffs.
NBA Champions often return from the offseason without the sense of urgency and all-consuming drive that took them to the top. Pat Riley called it “the disease of more.” His theory was that after winning a ring, the ultimate team accomplishment, players tend to look inward to their own goals of more playing time, more shots and more money.
It’s always tricky to speculate on the psyche of players thousands of miles away, but even from farflung couches one can see that this Mavericks squad has a severe and perhaps untreatable case of the disease of less--less talent and less belief. With little practice time and a bunch of new players, the Mavericks also have less time to right the ship.
Despite how devotedly Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd bail out the the boat, water will continue to flood the hull.
Riley’s theory is conveniently player-focused. It wasn’t his fault that the players he coached or signed couldn’t muster the requisite competitive zeal. But what is happening in Dallas is a direct result of front office personnel decisions that have almost nothing to do with this season or even last season.
For example Tyson Chandler had the best offensive rating in the NBA during last season’s regular season and playoffs. Simply put: when Chandler was on the court, the Mavericks scored more points per possession than did any other line up on any other team. As you might expect, Dallas’s most consistent defensive lineups also included Chandler.
Was $14.5 million per year over four years too high a price to keep a 29 year old center with 10 years on his injury prone legs? Maybe not, if the goal is to make a great run at winning again this year.
What about José Juan Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and Caron Butler--three overpriced (well, not Stevenson) but useful wing players Dallas let walk for nothing. On-court chemistry was an important part of what made Dallas special last year, but keep in mind that the graves of former champions are dug with imprudent signings of replacement value players.
These moves make perfect sense if the off-season goal isn’t to reload for a repeat run at a ring but to scrub your cap sheet in hopes of landing Dwight Howard or Deron Williams in 2012.
That’s probably a wise decision. Williams grew up in Dallas and Howard scribbled the Mavs on his shortlist of places he’d like to play. Nowitzki needs a stud to play with in the twilight of his career, and both would be a fantastic compliment to the sweet-shooting big man. Even if neither ever wear a Maverick uniform, Dallas will still have about $25 mil to bring in better talent next year.
But think about how these decisions must appear to players like Jason Kidd and Lamar Odom.
Kidd is still capable but has spent more time playing against some of the other coaches in the league than he has against the likes of Derrick Rose. He’s old and he’s aware that he doesn’t have many more seasons left. Now he’s toiling in what is in effect a stop-gap season.
Odom went from a perennial contender that always made the big move to put itself in finals contention to a team that is obviously renting him for one season to free up cap space. He’s gone from 6th Man of the Year and rotation player for the league’s best franchise to a player whose primary value is that you don’t have to pay him for more than one year.
Even Nowitzki, he of tireless work ethic, mentioned that his motivation was down following the euphoria of his brilliant playoff run and subsequent slog at the Euros.
In their first two games of the season, the Mavericks’ characteristically sharp passing and incisive offense haven’t just been rusty, but dull.
It’s not possible to quantify spirit, but the their struggles so far are nothing so esoteric as “wanting it.” They just don’t have as many good players and this happened on purpose.
The message that Mark Cuban has been trying to spin is that the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was the impetus for him gutting Mavericks roster. He told Dallas radio that “this is 100 percent about the CBA and understanding the impact it will have on the market."
That may be true, and it may very well be the smart play. But the the message to the entire team and coaching staff was “do your best this year, but your immediate success isn’t really our main concern.”
When, rightly or wrongly, the management views the current season as an afterthought, it must be difficult to muster the focus and passion that make last year’s Mavericks so special.