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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.

How The Morris Twins Will Be Phoenix's Major Contract Showdown

The still unresolved Eric Bledsoe situation has dominated most of the headlines surrounding the Phoenix Suns, but it isn’t the only contract extension question that the Suns are dealing with. Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris, the twin brothers taken at No. 13 and No. 14 overall in the 2011 draft, are up for extensions on their rookie deals. In their first full season together in Phoenix, the Morris Twins played a big role in the Suns unexpected success.

While they were drafted to be starters coming out of college, they seemed to find their niche last season, when they were the leaders of one of the bench best units in the NBA. They both had career highs in PER, with Markieff jumping from 14.2 to 18.4 and Marcus going from 11.3 to 14.8. Their size, athleticism and shooting ability allowed them to swing between all three frontcourt positions, recapturing some of the twin magic they shared at Kansas.

The Morrii, as they became known in college, are two of the most prominent graduates of Bill Self’s frontcourt academy at Kansas. Their roles gradually increased as they developed their games, from complimentary players as freshmen to featured players as juniors. Interestingly enough, while Markieff has had the better NBA career, Marcus was the unquestioned star in college, averaging more points and more minutes in all three seasons.

Few college coaches are better at developing big men than Self, who has stuck with a half-court two-post offense instead of going small and spreading the floor. As a rule, his frontcourt players know how to post up, play high-low and run offense through the high post. In their last season in college, the Morris twins were practically unstoppable, combining to average over 30 points and 15 rebounds a game and leading the Jayhawks to the Elite Eight.

At 6’10 240 and 6’9 230, Markieff and Marcus were mismatch nightmares at the college level. Markieff had the size of a center and the skill to play out on the perimeter while Marcus was a prototype combo forward who could out quick bigger defenders and bully smaller ones. They toyed with college frontlines - after a lifetime of playing together, they seemed to have a sixth sense for where the other was on the court and what they wanted to do.

That changed in the NBA, where they went from the biggest fish in a small pond to medium-size fish in an ocean. All of a sudden, Markieff was a slightly undersized PF with only average athleticism and Marcus became a guy who was too small to guard PF’s and too slow to guard SF’s. Markieff settled into a role as a complementary big men in Phoenix while Marcus struggled to find himself in Houston, shuffling between the bench and the D-League.

In one of their rare moments of lucidity, the Suns' previous management team reunited the twins two seasons ago, acquiring Marcus at the deadline for a future second-round pick. However, the move was lost amid all their other questionable acquisitions and Phoenix stumbled to a 25-57 record as one of the worst teams in the NBA. The disastrous season prompted a major housecleaning, with a new GM, front office and head coach coming in.

No two players benefited from the new direction more than the Morrii, who were reborn as a second-unit tag-team in Hornacek’s spread offense. With Miles Plumlee and Channing Frye starting upfront, Markieff was the perfect third big man, with the ability to stretch the floor next to either Plumlee or Frye. Marcus, meanwhile, could swing between the forward positions, spreading the floor and attacking slower forwards who come off the bench.

It was like they were back in school, as they once again had a physical edge on most of the guys they were going up against. Without great length or explosiveness, neither Morris twin will ever be able to match up against the NBA’s best players upfront, but they can more than hold their own against second unit players. When they came in the game, they kept the floor spread and they could create their own shot without taking the ball out of better players hands.

Their per-36 minute numbers spoke to their value in Phoenix - Markieff averaged 19 points, 8 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 48% shooting while Marcus averaged 16 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists on 44% shooting. Just as important, their versatility meant Hornacek could slide the two between in a number of different roles, as he could go big with both of them on the floor next to a center or go small with the twins sharing the frontcourt next to a wing player.

When they were healthy last season, the Suns were one of the best teams in the NBA, going 28-15 with Eric Bledsoe in the line-up. The Morris Twins played a big role in the career seasons for Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, as their ability to shoot the ball from the frontcourt meant that Phoenix was able to spread the floor for all 48 minutes, giving their star guards the driving lanes to attack the defense and get to the rim against lesser defenders.

This season, with Frye heading off to Orlando, Markieff will probably move into the starting line-up. He can provide a reason facsimile of Frye’s game, although he isn’t as good a shooter and isn’t as good on the defensive end of the floor. Marcus, meanwhile, will probably play as more of a pure PF, as the Suns have two lottery picks coming off the bench who will demand more playing time next season - TJ Warren at SF and Alex Len at C.

The twins' versatility means they can be plugged into a number of different roles in a rotation, but they are probably best suited for their roles last season, when they functioned as a second line that Hornacek could throw against weaker frontcourts. The Morrii are examples of guys who are better as great bench players than average starters, especially when they can play together and use their twin mind-meld as centerpieces of a second-unit offense.

The best analogy for what they can do might come from hockey, where teams field four lines that play in one or two minute stretches throughout the game. In that sense, the Morris twins are like lesser versions of Daniel and Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks. After playing together all their lives, the Sedins function better as a unit and have taken less money to stay together, signing identical contracts to stay in Vancouver their entire NHL career.

Under Robert Sarver, Phoenix has been notorious for pinching pennies and they might be able to take advantage of Marcus and Markieff’s desire to play together as they negotiate extensions. Given their struggles apart and their success as a unit in the NBA, it’s hard to see the twins wanting to be split up. How much money would you give up to play with your twin brother your entire career? It’s a question the Suns are going to want to find out.

NBA Limbo

The United States wrapped up their anti-climatic run through FIBA World Cup with another resounding victory over an overmatched Serbia squad. While this tournament emphatically demonstrated that teams around the world aren’t ready to compete against Team USA’s collection of stars, a few unheralded individuals on the outskirts of the NBA radar showed they are. That collection of players can pretty much be broken down into three groups: the ones who have been there and done that (Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navarro, etc), younger players with NBA ties (former first round pick, Petteri Koponen, 2013 second rick pick Joffrey Lauvergne and Joe Ingles) and finally those stuck in NBA limbo.

Limbo is the best way to describe the area where players whose skill and production have them vacillating back and forth between starring on the top teams in Europe or filling out the bottom half of NBA rosters. In this Basketball World Cup, Milos Teodosic, Emir Preldzic, Ante Tomic showed us (or reminded us) that they can contribute to NBA teams. For those three, it’s not so much a question of talent as it is a combination of fit, age, money and comfort, similar to the situation faced by some American players.

Three of those players -- Teodosic, Preldzic and Tomic -- are 27-years-old, a weird age when it comes to NBA prospects. No longer can stateside suitors view them through the lens of potential, as that age signals the beginning of a players prime. Teodosic, Preldzic and Tomic all can certainly get better and add things to their game, but for the most part they are fully-realized as basketball players.

At 7’2” with good mobility and a soft touch, Tomic, whose rights around held by the Utah Jazz, is ready to step in and boost an NBA offense. During this tournament with Croatia, Tomic reaffirmed that he can score in the post against other big men and cause problems for opposing defenses as a screener in the pick-and-roll. Were Tomic in the NBA, he would trail only Marc Gasol and Tiago Splitter when it comes to passing while rolling to the basket -- an extremely valuable skill given how good NBA defenses have gotten at preventing roll men from finishing at the basket.

Based off his strengths, it seems like a no-brainer for the Jazz (or another team who trades for his rights) to bring him over. However, Tomic isn’t a complete player. He would likely struggle with the more physically demanding NBA (both in terms of players and the schedule) and he’s not a great rim protector or rebounder despite his size and mobility. Factor in these warts and you get a player who likely tops out as a backup center for a team that will utilize his pick-and-roll strengths for short stretches. While NBA big men capable of making any type of positive impact can get rewarded with lucrative deals, Tomic’s age guarantees that his second contract -- when he could secure better money than he makes for his current club, Barcelona -- will likely come when he’s on the wrong side of 30. And that’s not even factoring that just to come over and test the NBA waters, Tomic would likely have to take a pay cut from the 3.4 million dollars he’s reportedly earning in Spain.

Money is also going to be the biggest obstacle for Teodosic as well, who is currently well-compensated by CSKA Moscow, an annual contender for the Euroleague crown.

At best, Teodosic’s combination of passing, shooting, pick-and-roll play and game management makes him an easy comparison to the Knicks new point guard, Jose Calderon. Calderon has long been an underrated offensive force but the Toronto Raptors spent his entire tenure there looking to replace him as a starter due to obvious defensive shortcomings. A similar fate could await Teodosic. Though perhaps an even better playmaker than Calderon, Teodosic’s allergy to defense may prevent teams from either ponying up the dough or giving him a role similar to the one he currently is enjoying overseas. If there’s not an intense desire to leave Eastern Europe for the challenge of the world’s best league, it’s extremely possible that Teodosic never suits up for an NBA team.

Where Tomic and Teodosic’s fit in the league is beyond a doubt, Preldzic doesn’t have the same clear cut role that awaits him. With the size to play either forward position (though maybe not the four full time), Preldzic is classic point forward, In four of Turkey’s six games, including their battle with the U.S., Preldzic had five assists. A 6’9” player that can handle, run pick-and-roll and pass like Preldzic is an extremely attractive player. But an NBA team won’t be crawling all over themselves to bring Preldzic over and hand him the reins to their offense, which he has for both Turkey and his club team, Fenerbahce.

Preldzic is talented and unique, but he’s not a star. And in the NBA, it’s the stars that will have the ball in their hands while everyone else adjust to life without out it. Wing players not named “James”, “Durant” or “Anthony” are primarily asked to do two things in today’s NBA: knock down 3’s and play defense. Neither of those two things double as a strongsuit for Preldzic. A forward-thinking NBA executive could try to carve out a situation where Preldzic handles the ball as reserve forward in a bench-heavy unit, but most front offices don’t cater to non-elite talents in such fashion.

America will long have a monopoly on basketball but will always look to import the best players from outside the U.S. and let them showcase their talents on basketball’s brightest stage. We like to think that the NBA will always contain the best of the best. But as Tomic, Teodosic and Preldzic used the FIBA World Cup to remind us, sometimes players with the ability to play in the world’s best league, won’t always get their shot.

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