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.