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The Dallas Mavericks, Truly Deserving…

June 13, 2011 Leave a comment

And there it is… after 11 years of Mark Cuban being basketball’s (sports?) most iconic, outspoken, bad boy owner, his franchise has finally come away with the prize.  And good,

Mark Cuban

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

he deserves to win.  Has any owner – other than the eponymous James Dolan – spent more money on his franchise over the last decade?  No, probably not, and unlike Dolan, Cuban has done some very heavy lifting when it comes to advancing the NBA generally and his franchise’s status in north Texas specifically.  While Dolan has continually embarrassed basketball, bringing scandal and incompetence to one of the league’s premier franchises, Cuban’s greatest (only?) crime is caring about his team so much that he bitches and moans from the sidelines, in the press room, and on his blog (well, until recently that is…) – well… that and he’s got a thing for overpaying plodding centers (maybe he’s just been trying to find the “next” Shawn Bradley?).  Meanwhile, he built one of the NBA’s premier arenas, has been beloved by his players and has presided over a team that has won 50 or more games every season in which he’s been the owner.

That’s what Cuban has been responsible for: establishing the Mavs as a premier franchise, one of the NBA’s elite teams, who we expect to be in the playoffs every year.  It’s hard to remember now, but the Mavs used to be like the TWolves, or (gulp) the Clippers, a team you just expected to be bad.  In the ten years before Cuban bought them, they won 40 games exactly once (his purchase season).  They lost a lot.  In 1992/93 they lost 71 games.  The following year they lost 69 times.  It was that offseason that they drafted a young point guard out of Cal.  Kid by the name of Jason… Kidd.  But despite Kidd, the Mavs continued to lose and eventually they traded him.  They were known as losers, a laughing stock as a franchise, and a team nobody expected to amount to much.

Cuban changed all of that.  No, not single handedly, but if we’ve learned anything from James Dolan, Donald Sterling and Bob Johnson/Michael Jordan, it’s that organizational incompetence resonates from the top.  It is no different with organizational strength.  Cuban has been on the cutting edge of basketball’s stat movement, he’s invested in the very best facilities, and he’s spent to get the very best players.  Cuban’s club has won 620 games over his full 11 seasons in charge, more than any other team in hoops except the Spurs, and that success starts at the top.  Mark has brought the Mavs to the mountaintop and this year, they managed to scale the peak.  No owner deserved this title more than Cuban.

Speaking of deserving, you have to be happy for Rick Carlisle.  I’ve long thought that he got a raw deal in Detroit.  His first year in charge of the Pistons, he won 50 games and led them to the second round.  The following year, he again won 50 games and this time he went to the Eastern Conference Finals, but then in a Riley decapitating Van Gundy kind of move, Joe Dumars canned Carlisle for the suddenly available Larry Brown.  Brown’s a legend, and he did lead the Pistons to a title, but it always seemed like Rick got a raw deal.

His star was bright however and Larry Bird believed in him, so he was quickly hired to lead the Pacers, where he again drew the short stick.  He took over a young talented team and in his first season in charge they won 61 games.  They lost in ECF to his former team, still the following year were seen as favorites.  But on November 19, 2004 his Pacers defeated the defending champion Pistons in the Palace of Auburn Hills.  The same Pistons team that he had coached only two years before.  The same Pistons team that had somewhat unreasonably tossed him aside.  The same Pistons team that had defeated his Pacers in the playoffs the previous Spring.

Carlisle’s Pacers won handily.  The budding rivalry between the two teams got chesty, a skirmish broke out… and a fan tossed a beer on the combustible Ron Artest.  And that was it.  That was the end of Carlisle’s championship aspirations in Indiana.  He dragged that suspension laden team to 44 wins, which might have been his most impressive coaching feat ever, but the baggage of the Malice in the Palace was too much for the franchise to overcome.  Carlisle lasted two more years, but eventually a parting became in the best interests of both parties.

Carlisle’s star somehow, some way, was diminished.  When Cuban hired him, it was reported as an underwhelming, uninspired choice, which is bizarre given how professional sports franchises give second, third, and even fourth chances to coaches with far worse records than Carlisle’s.  It was not – however – an uninspired choice.  Once again, Cuban was ahead of the curve and Rick Carlisle was just the man to lead a Mavericks team centered around one superstar and eight role players.  The Mavs victory is going to be presented as a return to old fashioned team first basketball.  It’s the lazy narrative: “The Mavs are the good old fashioned team who bested the evil superstar laden Heat.”  It’s a lazy narrative and it’s also a narrative that diminishes what the Mavs actually accomplished.  The Mavs aren’t a return to anything, they are unique in the annals of NBA history.  A team that won with only one great player: Dirk Nowitzki.

The closest comparison might be that Pistons team that haunted Carlisle.  They won without any superstars, but they also had five players who likely start on this Mavs team.  Their starting five was perhaps the deepest in recent NBA history and what they lacked in upper echelon talent, they made up for in the next tier.  That’s not the case with these Mavs.  What they accomplished is all the more impressive.  Picked by many pundits as the most likely first round upset, the toppled Portland, swept the two-time defending champs, demoralized the young upstarts from OKC, before exacting their revenge form 2006 by extinguishing the Heat.  They did it by riding a player unfairly maligned in recent seasons, a player no longer considered among the elite, who clearly was this year’s best player.  They did it with hard nosed team defense.  And they did it by moving around the court, swinging the ball and knocking down open shots.  They were a true team and they deserve to be celebrated as such, but don’t try to harken back to something noble in past, because these Mavs were more interesting, more unique than that.

From top to bottom, these Mavs were truly deserving of the crown.

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Dirk Nowitzki Top Ten all Time…?

May 19, 2011 Leave a comment

How good is Dirk?  I mean really, how good is Dirk?  48 points on 12-15 shooting with 24 freebies from the line, that’s crazy like Charlie Sheen on a Tuesday with a Goddess and a briefcase.  It’s so good, that it makes me wonder whether we’ve missed the boat on just how incredible the big German really is.

Last week Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle named Dirk as one of the ten best players in NBA history, which on its face seemed absurd.  Well, maybe not absurd so much as just self serving.  It’s the kind of thing coaches do, propping up their own players, calling out refs, pacing the floor, and looking grim.  Any simple smell test would tell you that Dirk is great, but top ten…

In Bill Simmons’ Bible, he lists the ten best players of all time as:

  1. Jordan
  2. Bill Russell
  3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  4. Magic
  5. Bird
  6. Wilt Chamberlain
  7. Tim Duncan
  8. Jerry West
  9. Oscar Robertson
  10. Hakeem Olajuwon

Since relaeasing the book, I think he has moved Kobe from 15th into the top ten, above West, but below Duncan (I might be wrong about that order), but basically you get the point.  Now, I might quibble with some of the exact ordering – for instance Russell is being given far too much credit for playing on the greatest teams of all time – but generally I think we can agree that this is a decent starting off point for the discussion.

In the same tomb Simmons lists Dirk 37th.  Again, I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that since publication Simmons has said he would have moved up both Nash (38th) and Dirk.  Still from 37th to top ten is a big jump; that’s leaping over names like: McHale (35), Gervin (34), Dave Cowens (31), Willis Reed (30), Iverson (29), Robinson (28), Walton (27), Stockton (26), Pippen (24), Isiah (23), Garnett (22), Barkely (19), Malone (18), Dr J (16), Elgin Baylor (14), Moses (12), and Shaq (11).  Obviously that’s a Jordanesque leap and I don’t know if Dirk has those kinds of hops.

I do think that you could make a plausible argument that Dirk belongs in the high twenties, with Pippen, Isiah, and Garnett.*  Garnett for instance seems an interesting comparison point.  Both players were exceptionally young when they started their careers (20 for Dirk, 19 for KG), both guys broke barriers (straight from high school and awesome foreigner), both guys won MVP awards, both guys were truly unique in their abilities (best shooting big man, seven footer  capable of defending all 5 positions).  Of course, Dirk was an offensive force, while Garnett was a defensive one.  Frankly, I’d have loved to see them playing together, because they were both selfless and their skills would have complemented one another, but since we (and they) weren’t that lucky, lets take a look at their careers in a box:

Stat

Dirk

KG

Seasons
13 16
Points per Game
23.0 19.5
Rebounds
8.4 10.7
Assists
2.7 4.1
FG%
.476 .498
3FG %
 .381  .282
FT%
 .877 .788
All Star Games
 10  13
All NBA 1st Team
 4 4
All NBA 2nd Team
 5  3
All NBA 3rd Team
 2  2
PER – Career
 23.7  23.4
PER – Best Season
 28.1  29.4
True Shooting % – Career
 .583  .549
 True Shooting % – Best Season
 .612  .589

I think it’s safe to say that they are entirely comparable (albeit completely different) players.  Of course, as I said above, what Dirk is to big men shooting the ball, KG is to 7 footers defending.  KG certainly never shot as well as Dirk, but he did provide almost as much offensive value between his post play, mid-range jumper and passing.  On the other hand, Dirk has never made an all-defensive team of any sort, while KG has won Defensive Player of the Year and made 11 defensive 1st or 2nd teams.  Ultimately, I think that at their absolute peaks, KG provided more value, but perhaps Dirk’s peak will be longer.

* Interestingly, Simmons has LeBron at 20, which at the time seemed completely reasonable, but I wonder whether everything that’s happened in the last year would force Bill to reconsider that placement.  Not that I think LeBron isn’t likely to finish in the top ten, but just that right now, the benefit of the doubt that he was getting seems tenuous.

What I find more interesting about the two players, is that in different circumstances, we might  consider them legitimate top ten talents.  Until KG landed in Boston, the best player he’d ever played with was Sam Cassell or Latrell Sprewell.  That’s why he’d never made an NBA finals and why he missed the playoffs his last three years in Minnesota.  What if the T-Wolves had continued their trend of picking high school players and the year after taking Garnett had tabbed Bryant with the 5th pick (they took Ray Allen and promptly swapped him to Milwaukee for Stephon Marbury).  Doesn’t a Garnett-Bryant nucleus win at least three titles?  Is KG then seen as a no doubt about it top 15 player?  Possibly even a top ten player?

And what about that feisty German that Rick Carlisle believes is one of the ten best all time?

Dirk has certainly played on some great teams, his squad has won at least 50 games for 11 straight years and three times they’ve won more than 60, but since they lost the 2006 finals to Miami and were bounced in the first round of a 67 win season, Dirk’s star has diminished.  Yet, like KG, who is the best player that Dirk has ever played with?

The big German played with Nash, but before Nash peaked.  He’s played with Jason Kidd, but during Kidd’s decline years – and too many pundits still think that Jason Kidd is Jason Kidd, he isn’t.  The year the Mavs won 67 games, their second best player was Josh Howard, their third best player Jason Terry.  Look at the champions over the last decade and who their three best players were:

Year

Champion

Three

Best

Players

2010 Lakers Kobe Bryant Pau Gasol Andruw Bynum
2009 Lakers Kobe Gasol Bynum
2008 Celtics KG Paul Pierce Ray Allen
2007 Spurs Tim Duncan Manu Ginobili Tony Parker
2006 Heat Dwayne Wade Shaq Alonzo Mourning
2005 Spurs Duncan Ginobili Parker
2004 Pistons Chauncey Billups Ben Wallace Rasheed Wallace
2003 Lakers Shaq Kobe Robert Horry
2002 Lakers Shaq Kobe Horace Grant
2001 Lakers Shaq Kobe Glenn Rice

When you look at that chart, it’s not hard to see why Dirk has yet to win a title.  Howard and Terry are hardly the Wallace twins, let alone Ginobili and Parker.  In Simmons’ “What If” chapter from the Bible he writes,

30. What if the Mavs re-signed Steve Nash in 2004?

… If you’re throwing money around, throw it at Nash, over Dampier, right?  Dallas also fatally underestimated the rule changes that transformed Nash into a two-time MVP.  Had they kept Nash and Antawn Jamison (dealt for Jerry Stackhouse and Devin Harris) and still made the Antoine Walker/Jason Terry trade, that’s suddenly a monster roster (Nash, Nowitzki, Jamison, Terry, Josh Howard, DeSagana Diop, Veteran Free Agent X and February Buyout guy X year after year after year.

Doesn’t that team win multiple titles?  Doesn’t that change how we view Dirk?  It is the problem of judging players historically by titles.  We like to think that if you’re great you will win a title or two, but it just isn’t that simple.  Bird had McHale and Parrish, Magic had Kareem and Worthy, Jordan had Pippen and the Worm (not to mention Grant – who is grossly underrated by history).  Great players win multiple titles because they are paired with other great players.  I don’t think Dirk is one of the ten greatest players of all-time, but he very well might be in the 15-20 range and if he keeps dropping 40 points on night en-route to a title this year?  Well…

Memphis Grizzlies: Two Top Three Picks Away From Being Really Good…

March 4, 2011 1 comment

You might not realise this – and I couldn’t blame you if you didn’t – but over the last six weeks, the best team in basketball hasn’t been the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, or San Antonio Spurs, it’s been the Memphis Grizzlies.  Ok, maybe not quite the best (that’s probably the Dallas Mavericks, see below), but pretty freaking close.  In their last 20 games, the former Canadian franchise has won 15 times for a sterling .750 winning percentage.  Over the course of the season, that winning percentage would have the Grizzlies tied for second with the Celtics in the NBA.  It’s a winning percentage that translates roughly to 62 wins over an entire season.  Or, in other words, a winning percentage that is, very, very good.  Basically, what I’m saying, in my long winded, non-lyrical way, is that Memphis has a surprisingly strong team.

Memphis, like Phoenix, is making a late charge for the playoffs and unlike the Suns – who look like first round fodder, the Grizz, could actually take a bite out of any first round opponent.  I don’t think it’s likely that they’d beat San Antonio, Dallas, or the Lakers, but the point is that with Zach Randolpoh playing the best basketball of his career, solid production from the overpaid Mike Conley, and superlative wing defense from Tony Allen (Seriously go read some Grizzlie fan pages, he’s apparently the best cover guy since Deion Sanders.  It’s a bit insane…), the Grizzlies are a foe nobody wants to meet.

What’s interesting to me about this, isn’t that the Grizzlies are good, but rather that the Grizzlies are good despite getting virtually nothing from the second overall pick in the 2009 draft and the third overall pick in the 2008 draft.  Seriously, nothing.  This season the two top picks have combined to score 658 points for the Grizz, while grabbing 205 rebounds and blocking 34 shots.  That’s 10% of the Grizzlies points, 8% of their rebounds, and 10% of their blocks.  It’s a pittance for two top three draft picks, and frankly I was cherry picking their three best categories.

Of course, the Thabeet pick was so bad that it not only cost Memphis a chance at a productive player, but, when they had to send a pick to Houston to get the Rockets to take the clueless center off their hands, it cost them a pick in this year’s draft.  Two years after picking Thabeet the Grizzlies had to give up a first round pick to UN-pick him!  That’s basically unprecedented for a top three pick.  It’s so bad, that in a recent BS Report, Bill Simmons (2/25) postulated that it was the worst pick in NBA history.  His argument centered on what a team ultimately received for a terrible pick (ie, Kwame Brown might have been horrific, but at least he was eventually traded for Caron Butler) and I think Simmons certainly has a case.  For me, Bowie and Darko are still worse because of who was picked just after them, but I concede that Bill’s point about the absurdity of it costing you a pick to dump the number two choice in the draft, has merit.

The OJ Mayo pick wasn’t quite as bad, but they still were trying -desperately it would seem – to ship him to Indiana on deadline day, in a deal that might have gone through if Mark Cuban hadn’t complained about collectively owned New Orleans taking on money in a previous trade.  What’s worse, is that the second or third best player from the 2008 draft was actually selected by the Grizzlies, when they picked fifth and took Kevin Love.  But then, in typical Chris Wallace fashion, they traded Love and Mike Miller for third pick Mayo.  Hard not to dream about what would have happened if they’d just kept Love.  They could have kept Gasol and had a front-line of Rudy Gay, Kevin Love, and Pao Gasol.  I’m not sure what defense they’d have played but they sure would have been pretty to watch.  Of course, if the Grizzlies had really desperately wanted to deal with Minnesota, they could have had the Wolves pick Russell Westbrook, who went fourth…

Anyhow, If the deadline day deal with Indiana had been completed, that would have meant that just three years out from two top five picks, the Grizzlies would have nothing to show for them.  Actually, they’d have worse than nothing, because they owe Houston that pick.  So, they’d have a first round debit to show for two top three picks.  That’s pretty shocking.  Absurdly shocking even.  Clipper-esque one might say.

Look, there’s no doubt that Michael Heisley is in the pantheon of bad NBA owners (and it’s starting to become something of a squishy club), so it’s possible that he thinks that’s what you’re supposed to do with great draft picks, but if I owned that team, I’d be pretty damned pissed that I didn’t have Kevin Love (or Westbrook) and Steph Curry to show for my 2008 and 2009 drafts.

Of course, if I owned the team I wouldn’t have Chris “The Yang to Red Auerbach’s Yin” Wallace as my GM… and the Grizzlies would also still be playing in the most beautiful city in North America… So, yeah.

Unrelated… and possibly only interesting to me (and Mark Cuban)

Did you know that when Dirk Nowitzki went down with his knee sprain against the Oklahoma Zombie Sonics, the Dallas Mavericks were 24-5.  That was two days after Christmas.  On New Year’s Day, having already lost two straight without their best player, Caron Butler went down to a season ending knee tear.  Thus began a streak where the Mavs, largely without their two best players, lost 10 of their next 13 games.  Things looked bleak in Mavs-ville, but then Dirk finally convalesced and the Mavs rattled off 10 straight win.  They finally lost at Denver on February 10th, but then they recovered to win another eight straight.  If you eliminate that 13 game stretch in which they were missing either Dirk, Caron, or (mostly) both, the Mavs have won 42 of 48 games.

That boys and girls is a .875 winning percentage.  Do you know how many teams in history have had an .875 winning percentage?  One.  You might have heard of them.  They were the 1996 Chicago Bulls and they won 72 games.  I’m not saying the Mavs would have won 72 games if Dirk and Butler don’t get hurt, I’m just saying it might be time to sit up in class and pay some attention to the Dallas Mavericks.  They are good, perhaps crazy good.

Whenever  we – the collective infinite “we” – list the potential title contenders in the NBA, the Mavs are usually on the outside looking in, or at best they’re the “and, oh maybe, I guess, the Mavs…”

Everybody loves the Spurs, because they actually have the NBA’s best record; everyone loves the Celtics and Lakers because, obviously, they’ve won the last three titles; they love (or, more accurately, love to hate) Miami because they’ve got two of the five best players; and they love the Bulls and the Zombies, because they are shiny, new and young, but man, you had better keep an eye on those Mavs, because even without Butler, they are playing ridiculously good basketball.  Watch out for them.

And for the love of all things holy and sacred, would somebody outside Dallas please start mentioning Dirk in the MVP conversation with Derrick Rose and LeBron James.  Seriously, without him in the lineup, the Mavs are 2-7, with him they are 43-9.

Just sayin’

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