Preview & Chat: The Dallas Mavericks

Kurt —  March 15, 2009

Olympics Day 8 - Basketball
Records: Lakers 52-13 (1st in the West) Mavericks 40-26 (8th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113.8 (1st in league) Mavericks 109.6 (8th in league)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.6 (6th in league) Mavericks 108.0 (15th in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Mavericks Jason Kidd, Jose Barea, Antoine Wright, Dirk Nowitzki, Eric “worst contract in the NBA” Dampier

Matadors, baby!!! My alma mater, Cal State Northridge, made the NCAA Tournament. And it is a great story — on Jan. 26 this team was 7-10, (4-5 in conference) when it’s leading scorer got kicked off the team for being a complete idiot. A few weeks later, the team’s point guard was in a car accident that gave him internal injuries and knocked him out for the season. I and a lot of fans had started to write the season off.

But they rallied around Rodrigue Mels, who after a year and a half of uninspired basketball took over the team and started being efficient ad hitting Kobeesque crazy shots. Combine that with a style good for a smallish underdog team — aggressive gambling defense and a shoot first and ask questions later offense — and they got hot. They won the Big West then the two games they needed in the Big West Tournament. This means I’m buying more Northridge gear to wear this week.

The Lakers coming in: One reason the Lakers offense is so good is it gets shots close to the basket. Against the Spurs, the Lakers were 22 of 39 (56%) in the paint. Gasol was 8 of 11. We all see the Lakers offense struggle some when they get away from going inside (or it is taken away from them) and it is because they just become a less efficient offense — when the ball goes inside the Lakers score a high percentage.

A sign of where Lamar Odom’s head is. Or isn’t. In March, he is 5 of 15 from the free throw line.

The Mavericks Coming In: The Mavericks are facing some injury issues, particularly at the three, where Josh Howard and Devean George are out.

Dallas is 7-3 in their last 10 games, the same record as the Lakers, and they are playing a little desperate. Dallas needs these wins – as the 8 seed they would get the Lakers in the first round, but they are only a game and a half our of the division lead and a top-4 seed with home court. And a better first-round matchup. It will not be easy, however, 11 of their remaining 17 games are against teams over .500, and the Mavs have not been a great road team this year. (The remaining Lakers opponents, by the way, have an average winning percentage of .460.)

How are the Mavs getting geared up for the playoffs? I asked Rob of Two Man Game for his thoughts:

I’m not sure that the Mavs’ recent approach is fundamentally different than it has been all season long. They still live and die by jumpshots, which affects their ability to play on both ends. When the shooters disappear, the Mavs’ defensive focus goes with them and things go from bad to worse. So when the Mavs are playing “well,” it typically means that they are uncharacteristically attacking the basket or the shots are falling. When that confidence builds up on the offensive end, this Maverick team really steps it up defensively. The rotations are more crisp, there aren’t as many long rebounds to jump-start opponents’ fast breaks, and the intensity on the glass seems to improve. So it’s not so much that the Mavs are gearing up for the postseason as it is that they’ve enjoyed some good offensive nights recently.

There is one noted area of improvement: in recent wins over Portland and Phoenix, the Mavs have shown more guts than they have all season. The loss to Golden State makes those games seem like distant memories, but it’d be a shame to discount two hard-fought wins. If the Mavs can somehow steal a win in L.A., I’d still consider the trip to be an incredible success. Even showing some defensive progress would be nice, but by now I know better; this team is what it is defensively. I’ll settle for a gutsy, close victory over a true contender, and that type of game will do more for the Mavs than a decisive victory either way.

Long term, the Mavs are at a crossroads, and it will be interesting to see how they handle it. Is this a team that, as owner Mark Cuban believes, is one Gasol-like trade away from contending again? Or is it time to blow it all up and start to rebuild? The Jason Kidd contract comes off the books this summer and the first-reaction thought is to let him walk. But the Mavs are already over the cap and pushing the tax for next year without him. Can they really get a better PG for the mid-level? The position they really need to improve is the three, do they try to go that way with a trade and bring back Kidd cheaply to run the show for a better roster?

Again, thoughts from Rob:

Obviously it depends on how big the ‘piece’ is. Any significant Mavs’ move is either going to come via trade in 2009-2010 or 2010 free agency. The 2010 angle seems nearly impossible without some serious cap maneuvering, so I consider it to have a pretty huge asterisk.

The current team has some glaring holes (shooting guard and center, perimeter defense), and unless the additions specifically address those weaknesses it’s hard to see this team becoming a legitimate contender once again. That said, the Mavs don’t need Dwyane Wade to jump into the top tier (although it wouldn’t hurt, that’s for sure). Even one of the 2010 free agents lingering just outside the spotlight could make a huge difference (paging Joe Johnson), provided they occupy one of those problem positions. So in short, I think it’s true. If the Mavs could add a good to great player without giving much up, it could definitely thrust them into contention.

To say that Mavs fans are conflicted wouldn’t cover the half of it. It’s easy to see that the Mavs are aging by the day, and many have already grown impatient with second-tier status. Whether that impatience translates to a desire to blow it up and start over seems to change by the game. If at the heart of the issue is ‘Can the Mavs become elite once again with this group?’, then smaller issues like Josh Howard’s tenuous place on the team and whether it’s fair to give up on Dirk serve as both clarification and complication. It’s not an easy situation to sort through, and the fans are feeling that. Generally speaking, though, I think most of the fans are content to stay with Dirk, trade Josh, and play the 2010 market.

Keys To The Game: Beware of the Ides of March. The Lakers just seem to have the Mavs number, having beaten then five straight times. That includes two wins this season, both by seven points. But the Mavs are a desperate team with a leader who is playing well, this is not going to be an easy game.

One of the key reasons is that the Lakers do a good job on Dirk — he has shot just 12 of 32 in the first two meetings this year against the Lakers. In those games, Gasol was on him most of the time because Bynum was in on Dampier. Tonight things will go to Lamar Odom, who also is long and has some success against Dirk. If that doesn’t work, the Lakers can go with DJ Mbenga on Dampier and move Gasol back over to the four. Nowitzk has been playing well of late, scoring 30 a game the last eight games shooting 51%, but the key is not to let him get too many shots in the paint, make him shoot contested jumpers. If the Lakers can continue to hold him in check it could be a long night for the Mavs.

If the Mavs get into the paint, it is on penetration, they rarely have post plays set up. Dirk likes the ball at the elbow, and they run a lot of pick-and-pop with Kidd or with Terry off the bench (but he often closes out games. The Lakers have to defend that well.

The Lakers must close out on shooters. Must. Close. Out. This is not a great team to play pack-the-paint against.

The Mavs struggle to match up in man-to-man with the Lakers, and in a game I caught some of the other night they went to a lot of zone. I expect the Lakers will see a fair amount of that tonight.

Where you can watch: 12:30 start at Staples, showing on ABC. After reading the comments from the last post, I know you’ll all tune in early to watch that ABC Studio show.

By the way, I am at today’s game, so expect more comments and twitters from me than usual.