By Robert Scalice
Going into the 2012-13 NBA season, hardly anyone could have known what to expect from the Dallas Mavericks.
After the dissolution of their 2011 championship team followed by a mediocre 2012 regular season that ended with a thud in a first round playoff ouster, the Mavs found themselves in a very unfamiliar position: no longer among the leagues’ elite teams.
After losing both Jason Terry and Jason Kidd to free-agency, all that remained from the Mavericks’ title-winning squad was Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and a boatload of unanswered questions. Dallas was quite possibly looking at, for the first time in recent memory, a season of also-ran status with their best hope a favorable position of ping-pong balls in the draft lottery.
And then Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson rolled up their sleeves and got busy: in rapid-fire succession came the signings of O.J. Mayo, Chris Kaman, Darren Collison and Elton Brand. Though there’s not a superstar in that group, the Mavericks suddenly had an All-Star caliber shooting guard, a speedy multi-talented shooting guard and a pair of proven low-post scorers to add to the greatness of Dirk.
With the new additions, the Mavs appeared to, on paper at least, avoid the ignominous downward spiral that many foresaw while managing to achieve that most delicate balance of rebuilding while staying competitive. But when Nowitzki, “The Franchise,” underwent knee surgery that would cause him to miss most of the first two months of the season, the restructuring plan took a major hit – no one in their right mind could expect the Mavericks to lose a player of Dirk’s caliber and recover effectively.
So now Dallas wouldn’t be able to pair it’s best player with it’s new arrivals to start the season; wouldn’t be able to effectively gauge what it had going forward.
Then came the beginning of the new season and a 4-1 start, followed by the Mavs losing eight of their next 11. Nowitzki returned for game No. 29, which the Mavericks lost in humiliating fashion to San Antonio by 38 points.
Dallas bottomed out at 13-23, and just when it looked as though the most dire predictions for the team were indeed coming to pass, Dirk and his new teammates began to mesh and at the time of this writing, Dallas has strung together a modest but all-important four-game winning streak.
Reason for hope or “fool’s gold?”
The question now becomes: have the Mavericks turned the corner on their new season in time to become serious players in the Western Conference playoff picture, or is their recent improved play just the law of averages working itself out over the course of an 82-game season? Is this merely the case of a sub-.500 team managing to string together a few victories – one that will soon return to it’s losing form?
The answers to those questions will undoubtedly be made clear before too long but the signs that all hope is not lost are certainly there.
It can be argued that the Mavs have actually BENEFITTED from having to play without Nowitzki – not having their leader on the floor with them has forced the Mavericks to depend on each other in ways they wouldn’t normally have had to. His absence allowed them to learn each other, blend their talents and play with greater freedom and recognition of who they are as basketball players.
Mayo steps up
And no one on the roster has flourished under the circumstances more dramatically then O.J. Mayo. Dirk’s absence allowed Mayo to play more relaxed without having to worry about deferring and he’s blossomed, becoming the team’s leading scorer after spending the majority of his career as a backup in Memphis. He’s had the confidence of head coach Rick Carlisle from Day 1, who essentially told Mayo “You’re our guy.”
Playing starter’s minutes and being his teams’ main scoring option has also toughened Mayo, who’s had to learn to adjust to the fact that he has a bull’s-eye on his back as the player opposing teams are game-planning for and trying to stop night in and night out. Moreover, he’s developed his game and become an excellent all-around player; tightening up on defense, become a more skilled passer and is even hitting the boards.
No one can argue that as the Mavs’ leading man, he’s now perfectly equipped to take a step back and settle into his role to buttress Nowitzki and be “1A” to Dirk’s “1″ and give the Mavericks that second dependable scoring option and game closer to complement No. 41.
Now that “The Big German” is back in the fold and scraping more and more rust off his game each time out, it becomes the equivalent of Dallas making a trade and acquiring an All-Star power forward.
As his teammates are adjusting to him and vice versa, perhaps this current win streak is the byproduct of this new cohesion we’re witnessing and represents just a hint of what’s to come for the Dallas Mavericks.