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Mavericks Regained Contender Status With Nostalgic Summer

The Dallas Mavericks enter the new season with a revamped roster and high expectations. Out went key veterans Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, and Jose Calderon along with several other prominent role players. The Mavericks were able to bring back the heart and soul of their 2011 NBA Championship in Tyson Chandler. Budding all-star Chandler Parsons and Al-Farouq Aminu were bought in to bolster the void left by Marion and Carter, and several serviceable starting point guards in Ray Felton and Jameer Nelson have come in to form an interesting trio with Devin Harris. The newcomers to Dallas adds another dimensional similar to what the Spurs have done in San Antonio – depth from top to bottom of the roster.

Ranked 22nd last season at 105.9 in defensive efficiency, the acquisition of Chandler will surely help improve that side of the floor for the Mavericks.

In his lone season with Dallas in 2011, Chandler helped the Mavericks to a 103.9 defensive rating when he was on the court, and a 107.7 defensive rating when he was on the bench.

Chandler’s three-year exodus with the New York Knicks did net Chandler a Defensive Player award, but he was only able to play in 74 percent of the games due to injury. The decision to let Chandler leave in free agency was as much about the Mavericks’ confidence in him staying healthy as it was in pursuing upcoming superstar free agents such as Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Deron Williams.

As he was in 2011, Chandler will be playing for his next contract, and the teams’ success will heavily depend on how healthy he can stay through the course of the season.

Having finished second in offensive efficiency in the NBA at 109.0, some have questioned the move to sign Parsons to an above market contract of $46 million for three years to bolster an already effective offense. Parsons shot 41 percent on catch and shoot threes last season, which will help mitigate the trade of Calderon.

Parsons will also see minutes as a stretch four and bolsters the three and four positions left by Marion with a true shooting percentage of 57.4. Moreover, over the course of his career, Parsons improved his percentages when he goes to the rim. Within 3-10 feet, Parsons has progressively improved his percentage of 32.9 in his rookie year to 42 last season. In mid-ranged shots from 10-16 feet, Parsons came into the league shooting at 21.7 percent, but improved to a 42.9 clip last season.

This is important since Rick Carlisle’s offense calls for more mid-range shots, compared with Kevin McHale’s system of layups or threes.

The most underrated move this summer by the Mavericks is the signing of Al-Farouq Aminu, who was the eighth overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Outside of his offensive deficiencies, Aminu brings a scrappy defensive presence on the perimeter that they desperately lacked in previous years. His defensive impact should lessen the burden on Parsons and the other swingmen on the perimeter.

The trio of Felton, Nelson and Harris will give Rick Carlisle the opportunity to mix and match throughout the long and grueling season. All three former starting point guards are similar in this aspect: they are most effective when they stay within the 20-25 minute range. All three guards have a checkered injury past, so it will be key to see how Carlisle maximizes the potential efficiency at the point guard position.

From his days in Orlando with Dwight Howard, Nelson has experience in running the pick and roll – Dallas most used and effective play in their offense. Over his time in Orlando, Nelson has learned to change his game from an applicable floor spacer to an effective passing guard – career high assist rate of 35.1 last season. Pairing with Monta Ellis, Nelson figures to start and finish games this season for Dallas, while Felton and Harris should provide an instant spark off the bench when healthy.

After a forgettable two-year stretch subsequently following their unexpected 2011 title run, Dallas finished last season at 49-33. With Nowitzki’s generous paycut – $25 million for three years – that allows for roster flexibility, Dallas should see a rise in wins (about 55) and a deep run in the playoffs. Combined with the dilemma of keeping everyone happy in their potent offense and the daunting task to keep the roster as healthy as possible come April, the potential of the Mavericks is at its highest since they were champions.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Southwest Division

Around the basketball interwebs, one of the most popular pastimes of the offseason is grading every team in the NBA, tallying up the arrivals and departures to see which teams came out ahead and which fell behind. The problem with this approach is that it ignores one of the main avenues for teams to improve from season-to-season - the progression of younger players as they grow into bigger roles and make names for themselves in the NBA.

A team with a bunch of young players can get better without doing much of anything in the offseason. Often times, the biggest improvement they can make is letting go of some of their older players and giving the young guys a chance. This is where the idea of addition by subtraction comes from - last season, the Toronto Raptors improved not just by getting rid of Rudy Gay, but by redistributing his shots and minutes to DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross.

And while some young players are marked for stardom as soon as they come into the league, many others slip through the cracks for a few seasons before seemingly emerging out of nowhere. The days of college players staying four years in school have come and gone - for the most part, guys declare for the draft as soon as they are confident their names will be called. As a result, few are ready to make an immediate impact at the next level.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll go division-by-division, looking at a second-fourth year player on each team with room to grow as a player and the opportunity to assume a bigger role this season. One of the best ways to look for surprise teams is to scour the ranks of young players and look for guys ready to make the next step. It can happen fast - in six months, Eric Bledsoe went from a guy trying to earn a starting spot to a guy asking for a max contract.

- San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard

After going toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the last two NBA Finals and coming home with the NBA Finals MVP last season, Kawhi Leonard is set to get paid like a superstar either at the end of the month or next summer. The only thing left to do is for him to start getting used like a superstar in San Antonio. Leonard’s usage rating has increased every year since he has been in the league, but he was still only at 18.3 last season, a role player’s number.

It sets up perfectly for the Spurs - Leonard can pick up the slack as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker see their roles decrease with age. It’s a scenario that allows the older players to age gracefully into a smaller role while the younger player takes on more responsibility without being overwhelmed. The next step for Leonard is becoming more of a facilitator - a guy with the ball in his hands as lot has to be able to make others better too.  

- Houston Rockets: Terrence Jones

Jones is a textbook case for the importance of internal improvement to a team’s success. If you lose a guy like Chandler Parsons in free agency, one of the most cost-effective ways to replace his production is to redistribute his shots to a younger player ready for a bigger role. Jones played 27 minutes a game last season and had only a 18.3 usage rating, but he was awfully productive in those minutes and he seems more than ready for a bigger role.  

He had a 19.1 PER and per-36 minute averages of 16 points, 9 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 blocks on 54% shooting. Jones is big, fast and very skilled for a guy his size - he can handle the ball like a guard and finish at the rim like a big man. Because he wasn’t taken in the lottery and he started his career as a role player on a good team, most people don’t realize how high his ceiling is. If given the chance to create his own offense, he could make a huge leap this season. 

- Dallas Mavericks: Jae “The Beast” Crowder 

For all of their success under Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson, the Mavs have had a fairly laissez-faire attitude when it comes to the draft - they haven’t developed a draft pick into a good NBA player since the days of Devin Harris and Josh Howard. They are more comfortable squeezing value out of older players or unearthing reclamation projects off the scrap heap. As a result, there aren’t many plausible options on their roster for internal improvement. 

The best bet this season is Crowder, a third-year swingman who will be given first crack at replacing some of the minutes given to Shawn Marion and Vince Carter. The Mavs need an athletic wing player who can come off their bench and defend multiple positions without being an offensive non-entity. The question is whether Crowder can hold off Al-Farouq Aminu, a former lottery pick on his third team whom Dallas thinks can thrive in Rick Carlisle’s system.

- Memphis Grizzlies: Jon Leuer

There aren’t many good young players in Memphis, a byproduct of four straight playoff appearances as well as a shift in philosophy that saw many of the previous regime’s draft picks shipped out on the first bus out of town. Tony Wroten, their first round pick in 2012, is an interesting young player, but a point guard who holds the ball and can’t shoot from the perimeter isn’t a great fit for the new analytics-minded front office that came into power in 2013.

The only plausible candidate for internal improvement on this year’s roster is Jon Leuer, a prototype stretch 4 who is in the league for one reason - he’s tall (6’10 230) and he can shoot 3’s. He hasn’t managed to get a ton of minutes in his first two years in Memphis, but he shot 47% from 3 and racked up a 17.4 PER in 49 appearances last season and he gives them an option of playing with more of a spread floor instead of their usual two-post look.

- New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis

The fact that Davis still has so much room to grow as a player after a year where he averaged 21 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks a game is one of the main reasons why New Orleans is such an intriguing team coming into the season. Still only 21, he can do a little bit of everything, as he can create his own shot, stretch the floor from the perimeter, clean the glass at a high level, defend multiple positions and generally wreak havoc all over the floor.

The next step for Davis is making his teammates better on both sides of the ball. If he can become an anchor of an improved defense on one end of the floor and command a double team and create shots for everyone else on the other, the Pellies can start rising up the ranks of the Western Conference very quickly. There’s no ceiling to how good he can be - he can continue to improve for the next 5-6 seasons and take the rest of the franchise with him. 

Why The Mavs Have A Shot Again

In the three years since the Dallas Mavericks won the NBA title, they have had 49 different players on their roster. In a quest to maintain flexibility, Dallas has reinvented themselves on an annual basis, preferring to gamble on short-term deals rather than build through the draft or commit to a core group of players.

“I guess we’re becoming a bit like Houston,” said Rick Carlisle in a press conference introducing the seven new players to this year’s team.

Along with Dirk Nowitzki, Carlisle was one of only two holdovers during that process. The constant turnover clearly wore on them, but there’s a different buzz and energy surrounding the team this season. One of the prodigal sons has returned home - Tyson Chandler is back.

“He has to be one of the most popular one-year players in the history of any franchise,” Carlisle said.

“He had a great year with us and everyone is excited to have him back,” said Nowitzki.

When the Mavs let Chandler walk in free agency in 2011, they became the first team since the 1998 Chicago Bulls to essentially punt on defending their championship. Most of the team came back the next season, but the magic was gone without Chandler. Dallas lost in the first round in the year before Chandler got there and they lost in the first round in the year after he left. He was the missing piece, the guy who took the franchise to a different level.

At 7’1 240, Chandler is a prototype defensive-minded center, with the ability to protect the rim, defend the post and the pick-and-roll and cut off dribble penetration as a help-side defender. His defensive versatility meant he was the perfect complement to Dirk on that side of the ball, since he could always take the tougher assignment upfront. In the 2011 NBA Playoffs, Chandler had to guard LaMarcus Aldridge, Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Chris Bosh.

The two 7’0 worked just as well together on offense. The combination of Chandler rolling to the rim on the pick-and-roll and Dirk spotting up on the perimeter put the defense in an impossible bind. Either they had to leave Dirk open for a jumper or they could have only one defender protecting against the alley-oop to Chandler. He could catch the ball and knock down free throws, two skills which seemed to elude most of the centers in Dallas before him.

The Mavs had been searching for a player like Chandler for well over a decade. Since drafting Dirk, they had spent over a quarter of a billion dollars on centers like Shawn Bradley, Evan Eschemeyer, Raef LaFrentz, Erick Dampier, DeSagana Diop and Brendan Haywood. Dallas won at least 50 games for 11 straight seasons, but without a consistent source of two-way play from the center position, they were never able to get over the hump in the playoffs. 

Chandler, meanwhile, had not been able to find a home in the NBA before coming to Dallas. The No. 2 overall pick in 2000, he never lived up to his draft position in Chicago and then spent several successful seasons in New Orleans before medical issues sent him to Charlotte. “It’s funny I spent only one year in Dallas and everyone thinks I spent my whole career here. Even guys around the league, they think I was here five or six seasons,” Chandler said.

No one on the Mavs quite knew what they had when they acquired him from the Bobcats and there was even doubt as to whether he would beat out Haywood for a starting job. However, as soon as Chandler and Dirk started playing together, magic happened. The Mavs stormed out of the gate and established themselves as one of the best teams in the NBA. Were it not for a nine-game stretch without Dirk where they went 2-7, they would have been a 60+ win team.

They were even more dominant once the playoffs started. Dirk and Chandler formed a two-headed 7’0 Voltron - in every series, they had a size, skill and athletic advantage on the other team’s frontcourt. Bigger teams couldn’t bully them and smaller teams couldn’t run them off the floor. They had a 7’0 who could stretch the floor, a 7’0 who could pound you inside, a 7’0 who could control the glass and a 7’0 who could lock down the paint. 

When all was said and done, the 2011 Mavs racked up a very impressive collection of scalps. They beat an Oklahoma City Thunder team with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden in five games. They beat the two-time defending champions and they beat the team that would win the next two championships. They ushered Phil Jackson into retirement and sent LeBron James to one of the darkest places of his career.

It was a magical run that required all the puzzle pieces to fit together perfectly, but the foundation was the combination of Dirk and Chandler. They were the perfect buddy cop duo, the gangly white guy from Germany and the fashionista from Compton who grew up on a farm. They were better than the sum of their parts and their games fit together perfectly. “The last time I was here, I thought this is where I would finish my career,” said Chandler.

In his entire career, Dirk had never played with a 7’0 who was nearly as good at defense as Chandler. Conversely, Chandler had never played with a 7’0 who was nearly as good at offense as Dirk. Both have had great individual seasons without the other, but neither has been able to match the success they shared together. Even though Mavs were going to have to make some changes to the 2011 team, they could have kept their Twin Towers together.

Unfortunately, instead of focusing on the bird in hand, Mark Cuban was too busy dreaming about two in the bush. With Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Chris Paul all on the trading block and potentially becoming free agents in the summer of 2012, Dallas refused to commit to a long-term deal with Chandler, watching him sign a max-contract with the New York Knicks and then spending the next three seasons wandering in the wilderness.

They went 36-30 in the lockout-shortened season and were swept out of the first round by the Thunder. The next season, Dirk got injured and they learned the downsides of one-year deals from the play of Darren Collison, OJ Mayo and Chris Kaman. If Monta Ellis had not opted out of his contract and sat on the market for weeks, the Mavs might never have gotten out of the hole they dug themselves into when they started clearing out their roster.

Chandler, meanwhile, stuffed a whole career’s worth of drama into three seasons with the Knicks. He was there for Linsanity, the fall of Mike D’Antoni, a brief resurgence into relevance under Mike Woodson and last season’s epic collapse. He won a Defensive Player of the Year Award and made his first All-Star team, but he never got enough credit for the number of holes he plugged in New York. Just like in Dallas, he won’t be missed until he is gone.

This time around, the Mavs are saying all the right things. Cuban even admitted he made a mistake in the press conference that reintroduced Chandler. The question is whether it’s three years too late - Chandler and Dirk aren’t the guys they were in 2011. Dirk is a 36-year old whose minutes need to be managed very carefully, while Chandler is a 32-year-old with a checkered medical history. There’s no guarantee that either makes it through the season.

However, as long as those two are on the court, the Mavs have a chance against anyone. Even at this stage in their careers, Dirk is the best offensive 7’0 in the NBA and Chandler is one of the best defensive 7’0. Chandler covers up Dirk’s flaws on defense and Dirk makes Chandler a much better offensive player. If I was one of the top teams in the Western Conference, I sure wouldn’t want to face those two and Carlisle in a seven-game series.

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