What The Championship Means For The Mavericks
Dallas is celebrating: a group of giants from all over the world paid vast amounts of money to represent the city in a league of organized ball-tossing teams just won the annual tournament, throwing a spherical ball into a ten-foot cylinder more often than any of the other 29 teams throughout the country.
This is a fan base that has consistently sold out the American Airlines Center for over a decade despite years of heartbreak: that saw a promising young team in the late 80’s destroyed by Roy Tarpley’s drug addiction, slowly morphing into one of the worst teams in NBA history a few years later. That saw the “Three J’s” broken up before they could ever get going, and held out hope when a mad scientist brought in a third-string Canadian point guard and a German teenager and promised great things.
The “Big Three” of Steve Nash, Michael Finley and Dirk Nowitzki went through the growing pains of a young team, knocking off the Malone/Stockton Jazz before running into the Webber/Peja Kings and the Duncan/Robinson Spurs.
In 2003, they lost in the Western Conference Finals after Nowitzki injured his knee. Nash went to Phoenix two years later, becoming one of the biggest stars in the NBA, winning two MVP’s and knocking his old team out of the playoffs. And nothing more needs to be said about the 2006 NBA Finals or the implosion of a 67-win team in 2007 at the hands of an eight seed.
The only modern championship team that suffered as much before ultimately winning a title was the Bad Boy Pistons: they lost in 1987 on a stolen inbound pass and lost Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals when no foul was called on Magic Johnson for knocking Isiah Thomas to the ground with two seconds left.
The perfect coach for a veteran team, Carlisle split the difference between Don Nelson’s innovative offensive schemes and Avery Johnson’s emphasis on defense. He deftly managed the egos of a team with 27 combined All-Star appearances and expertly manipulated match-ups throughout the playoffs.
Like many of his players, Dallas was a chance for Carlisle to make up for previous playoff disappointments. He was the coach of the Pistons when they made the Conference Finals in 2002, before being promptly thrown overboard for Larry Brown. He rebounded in Indiana, where he helped build a team that seemed capable of knocking off the new Bad Boys, before the aftermath of the Brawl in the Palace scattered that team throughout the league.
One of the best shooters in the NBA, the talkative Terry is one of only two Mavericks who remain from the 2006 Finals. A once explosive scorer that age has turned into spot-up shooter, the former Sixth Man of the Year overcame bad performances in the last few playoffs with a gem this season -- picking his spots carefully, holding his own on defense and exploding for a barrage of three-pointers when necessary.
After being cast out of Phoenix as a malcontent in 2008, Marion played for mediocre teams in Miami and Toronto before finding a home in Dallas two years ago. In his prime, he was a 6’7 210 defensive dynamo with the foot-speed of a point guard and the wingspan of a seven-footer, capable of playing All-NBA Defense on four different positions.
He was the glue of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, covering the defensive flaws of Amar'e Stoudemire and Nash. But he wasn’t content with playing the background to Phoenix’s offensive stars, and the Suns eventually shipped him out of town.
In Dallas, he subjugated his ego, playing off the bench before Caron Butler’s injury and re-inventing himself as one of the team’s most consistent performers: he ditched his three-point shot and its T-Rex release for a dizzying array of one-handed floaters, while defending Brandon Roy, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James in consecutive rounds.
His pivotal role in this championship, giving him a ring before Nash, Amar'e and Mike D’Antoni, should re-open the question of who really was the most valuable part of that team.
The back-bone of the Mavs vastly improved defense, Chandler overcame doubts about his ability to stay healthy and was a dominant “goalie” at the front of the rim. A 7’1 235 center with jumping jacks for legs, he was often both the tallest and most athletic player on the court.
One of four high-school seven-footers drafted in the top ten of the 2001 Draft, Chandler has outlasted his contemporaries and found a home for himself in Dallas after bouncing around the NBA, going from Chicago to New Orleans and Charlotte. A free agent after this season, he’ll likely get a contract from that will keep him in Dallas the rest of his career.
While his father drew headlines as the coach and his boss drew headlines as the owner, the consummate NBA insider avoided the spotlight as the Mavs GM for over a decade. Dallas has built three different teams around Dirk in that span without ever winning fewer than 50 games, a testament to the organization’s capability to re-invent itself.
Nelson turned Erick Dampier into Tyson Chandler, Antoine Walker into Jason Terry, Antawn Jamison into Devin Harris and Jerry Stackhouse, Harris into Jason Kidd and Stackhouse into Shawn Marion. He found Josh Howard at #29, Rodrigue Beaubois at #25 and Marquise Daniels and JJ Barea as undrafted free agents.
And with Nelson at the helm, the Mavericks' window for title contention isn’t as small as many people assume.
Of course, most of Nelson’s moves would have been impossible without an owner willing to go deep into the luxury tax every year, an owner unafraid to spend to win. Cuban’s deep pockets turned the Mavericks from laughingstock into one of the most valuable franchises in the NBA, and his willingness to spend to increase the team’s value could be an example for the next generation of owners.
His passion has often led him into trouble over the years, but he’s toned down his act this season while still being a vocal fan. Few owners are as closely tied to their franchise as Cuban, and few earned the right to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy more.
One of the Mavs’ two first-ballot Hall of Famers, Kidd was brought in after the 2007 collapse to bring veteran leadership and stability. While he would have been recognized as one of the greatest point guards of all-time regardless, this title is the cherry on top of an unbelievable career.
The oldest guard in the NBA and the oldest to ever start in an NBA Finals game, the 38-year old completely re-invented his game in Dallas: becoming a lethal three-point shooter after being called “Ason” (because he didn’t have a J) for most of his career. The days of him leading the break in New Jersey are long over, but Kidd made himself valuable offensively despite an almost complete inability to create his own shot in the half-court.
His defense on shooting guards and small forwards allowed the Mavs to play Terry and JJ Barea, their undersized offensive spark-plugs. He accepted the challenge of defending Kobe and Wade, the two best shooting guards of his era, and more than held his own. The pick-and-roll between him and Nowitzki, two players with well over 1,000 NBA games under their belt each, was a beautiful display of skill and experience.
The face of the franchise, Dirk received the brunt of the blame for the Mavericks losses in 2006 and 2007, despite a career playoff average of 26 and 10, a number only three players -- Hakeem, Bob Pettit and Wilt -- can match.
A championship cements his place in the pantheon of NBA greats; in the last 25 years, only four other players -- Hakeem, Duncan, Ben Wallace and Isiah Thomas -- won an NBA championship while being the only All-Star on their team. One of the most unique players in the history of the NBA, he is a paradigm-shifting player who used his height not to bully people at the rim but to release an un-contestable jumper.
A seven-foot shooting platform, NBA scouts spent a fruitless decade overseas trying to find players -- from Darko to Andrea Bargnani and Yi Jianlian -- who could replicate his game. Yao, a 7’5 shooting platform modeled on Dirk, is already practically out of the NBA, but Kevin Durant, a 6’10 shooting platform, looks poised to turn the Thunder into the Mavericks of this decade.
Dirk’s game is based entirely on the two things that correlate the most with career longevity: size and shooting ability. He’s only 32; he’s not getting any shorter and his jumper isn’t getting any worse. As strange as it may seem, with a title under his belt, the twelve-year NBA veteran’s future is still brimming with possibilities.
I grew up in Dallas. My parents didn’t, and none of my friends’ parents did either. Dallas is a city of transplants, one of the many late 20th century Sun Belt metropolises designed around the automobile.
It’s home to two of the most flamboyant owners in sports -- Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban. Neither man came from much family money, but through a combination of boldness, hard work and sheer chutzpah, they amassed vast fortunes and promptly sunk them into professional sports franchises.
I went to college down I-35 at UT, where bumper stickers say “Don’t Dallas My Austin”. And for better or worse, Jones and Cuban -- flashy and egotistical but also loyal and hard-working -- represent the new money ethos of the Metroplex.
Dallas is much younger than most American cities of comparable size, and it’s still constantly re-inventing itself. Its connection with energy development has let it avoid the worst of the Great Recession and brought emigrants from all 50 states to a place where land is still cheap, the weather is still good and jobs are still available. It’s a place where the American Dream still has some promise, where you can be judged not by the color of your skin or the content of your character, but by the size of your wallet.
It looks like 21st century America too -- while there are many conservative Texan oilmen like President Bush, there’s also a booming Hispanic population and a large African-American community with roots going back to Reconstruction.
And for the last few weeks, be it in the bars of Uptown or the basketball courts of South Oak Cliff, the city was united by one topic of conversation -- the Mavericks. Their win wasn’t just for the fans, the players or even the organization, it was for the vibrant metropolis they represent, a blue city in the heart of a red state, and a belief that the promise of the American melting pot where people of wildly varying economic, social and cultural backgrounds can come together for a common purpose, the promise that brought my mother and her family across the Pacific Ocean, isn’t over.