Friday, March 30, 2007

One Crazy Recap

A few signs suggest that the Mavericks-Suns matchup this Sunday might not be as exciting as we would have hoped. The first is that Avery is considering benching both Dirk and Howard with ankle sprains tonight against New York, and based on the way he's talking, we might not be surprised if he sits them against Phoenix as well. After all, Dallas’ seven-game lead over the Suns with 11 left to play appears safe enough that Avery can avoid giving Phoenix a chance to gain any psychological momentum over the Mavericks with a hard-fought win this weekend.

On top of that, the recap of the Suns’ loss to Golden State last night might suggest that they aren’t sweating the rest of the season either.

Three points in the story caught my attention.

First, the article picked on Phoenix for their porous defense: “And with every open shot the Phoenix Suns allowed, the Pacific Division champions exposed what's probably their biggest flaw heading into the postseason.”

While that may be true (especially since they showed the same problem in losing to Sacramento the other night), this is essentially the same kind of thing people were thinking about the Mavericks after their loss to the Warriors. It was a bad night for Phoenix, but Golden State is one of those teams that gets hot once in awhile. No sense in blowing this loss out of proportion.

Second, I love this quote and comment about Don Nelson: “ ‘It doesn't matter that we almost blew a lead,’ said Nelson, who used his league-high 36th different starting lineup. ‘The only thing that is important is that we got a win that we needed against a good team.’ ” Huge offensive bursts? (the Warriors scored 45 in the first quarter.) Blown leads? 36 starting lineups in one season? Does any of this sound familiar to any Mavericks fans?

A third point may just bust the balloon of what could have shaped up to be a great game this weekend. D'Antoni watched his bench overcome almost all of a 25-point second-half deficit, but even as it got close in the final minutes, he didn’t bother to put Nash, Marion, or Stoudemire back in. His quote after the game was patronizing and telling:
We've got to be a little careful," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. "They're fighting for the eighth spot, and we're not. Sure, we're trying to stay ahead of San Antonio, but when they come out like that and have that juice, and the crowd is behind them, it would have been hard for anybody."
For a coach who had just conceded a late-season loss to a bad team, I take the comment as an admission that the Suns aren't sweating the rest off the season. This seems odd since home-court advantage against the Spurs is at stake (with the Suns up only two games), but otherwise it’s hard to explain leaving Nash on the bench after calling a time-out with a minute left and his team trailing by only six.

The really depressing thing about this is that the Suns are the only reason Dallas has for, well, trying the rest of the season. Granted, Avery wants to keep the team in good playing form, but sitting key players in a game or two might be in his plans for preparing for playoff action.

If this is the case, 70 wins is looking like a remote possibility. Which means that all we have to look forward to are the playoffs. I feel nervous already.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

What two-game losing streak?

The Hawks game today wasn’t televised in Boston, so here’s my box score analysis. It doesn’t look like the Mavericks made it very easy on themselves, completely blowing a 20-point lead before getting the win. A few gaudy stats from the game:
  • Dirk, Howard, and Terry combined for 83 points (28/28/27) on 29/46 (63%) FG. Of the three, Dirk had the worst shooting performance, hitting only 10 of 17. Unfortunately, however, the Mavericks’ top three logged 41, 39, and 39 minutes, a heavy workload for the fifth game of a six-game road trip and a game against a bad team.
  • The Hawks shot 49 free throws (making 40) on 32 Mavericks fouls. That’s an average of 3.6 fouls for each of the 9 Mavericks who played at least a full minute.
  • Jason Terry had 3 steals but 8 turnovers.
  • Devin Harris, after big offensive showings in three of the last four games (22/17/18), only managed 6 points today; however, he still managed to fill his share of the box score with 6 assists, 4 steals, 3 rebounds, only 1 turnover…and 6 fouls.
Perhaps the biggest news today for the Mavericks is that Phoenix lost to the Kings this afternoon. Mike Bibby scored 35 and hit 9/12 three-pointers, including two in the last couple of minutes to seal the win. Phoenix dropped to 52–17, which sets them on a pace to win a modest (for them) 60.8 games.

More importantly, Phoenix is now six full games behind Dallas with 13 to go for both teams. That means Dallas (58–11) only needs an 8–5 record to guarantee the top seed in the west. If Dallas can win their next three against the Hornets, Bucks, and Knicks (combined 86–120 record), then a win at Phoenix on April 1 could make for their fourth separate double-digit win streak this season. Plus, it would clinch the tie-breaker for Dallas over Phoenix and reduce the Mavericks’ magic number for clinching the west over Phoenix to 2.

So now, riding a 6-game win streak, the Mavericks’ win streaks for the season are 17, 13, 12, 8, 6, 1, and 1. Since Dec. 13 they have won 44 of 48 (91.67%), or 11 of every 12 games for the past 101 days. Since Nov. 9 their rate is not much worse, having won 58 of 65 (89.2%). Current pace overall is 68.96 wins.

Staring into the Void

Going to the Mavericks–Celtics game Friday night at the Banknorth Garden (how badly do I wish the Celtics still played at the original Garden?), it was interesting to see someone wearing a Celtics Jersey with “Durant” on the back. It really showed how sad things have gotten for Boston, that the best thing for Celtics fans to get excited about is losing games so they can get a top draft pick for the future.

It also highlights something remarkable about this year’s Mavericks: not only are they not thinking about future draft picks, but when the whole lineup is healthy, it’s difficult to even point to a place where they would want to improve. Sure Austin Croshere has his problems, but then how good do you need your tenth man to be?

All this leads to the awful predicament that the Mavericks find themselves in.

Let me start with an interview Bill Simmons did a few months back with Malcolm Gladwell, a bestselling author who is especially interested in why people do what they do. One of the questions he takes on is, “Why don't people work hard when it's in their best interest to do so?”
The (short) answer is that it's really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn't work hard. It's a form of self-protection. I swear that's why [pro golfer Phil] Mickelson has that almost absurdly calm demeanor. If he loses, he can always say: Well, I could have practiced more, and maybe next year I will and I'll win then. When Tiger loses, what does he tell himself? He worked as hard as he possibly could. He prepared like no one else in the game and he still lost. That has to be devastating, and dealing with that kind of conclusion takes a very special and rare kind of resilience.
Even though, as the commercials say, there’s always next year, looking at this season’s Mavericks suggests that next year can’t get a whole lot better. As an organization this season, it seems that the Mavericks have literally done their best, putting together an almost perfect season with a well-balanced team that has already tied or set records for most wins in a 45-game span and in a 55-game span. It’s hard to imagine them preparing more thoroughly or performing more successfully.

That’s why Dirk loses sleep when the Mavericks lose to Phoenix. He can’t say the rest of his team wasn’t good enough, like Lebron might say after a loss if he were really honest; Dirk probably has both the best teammates and the best coach in the league. And he can’t say that he just needs to work more on his game, because he practices harder than most and has improved year after year; at 28, he’s at the age where most players hit their prime, and it’s hard to see his individual game improving much in the coming seasons. Dirk can’t say that his team lacks experience, because last year’s run through to the finals (through San Antonio and Phoenix) shows otherwise. And if he’s tempted to tell himself that the team just needs more time together, the Mavericks’ gaudy 57–11 record ironically suggests instead that they are at their ceiling.

Or Dirk might be tempted, if Dallas loses in the playoffs to Phoenix or San Antonio, to say simply that the competition was even more extraordinary, and that losing to them is no real disgrace. But as good as the Suns and Spurs are, both teams are flawed––San Antonio with its aging lineup and Phoenix with its poor defense. Dallas is younger than the one and better balanced than the other.

All of which means, if the Mavericks lose this season, both Dirk as an individual and the team as a group have no real excuse except that their best wasn’t good enough. As Gladwell points out, that is truly a terrifying prospect, and there aren’t many people who have the nerve to face it.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Coming up Roses

You know, at the Garden. Get it?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sweet! (only) Sixteen . . .

Notes and thoughts after the win over NY:

The Cavs lost to the Bobcats tonight, which you have to figure Lebron isn’t going to be very happy about. He managed 37 points, but he only shot 12/31 (38.7%), which (to put it in perspective) is just barely better than Adam Morrison’s percentage for the season. So we should probably expect James to explode against Dallas.

On the other hand, let’s remember that Cleveland just lost to the Bobcats.

As the season winds down, JKnott sent me an email recently about the Mavericks’ seasons series against different teams, and I thought I'd check on where they stand now. Since Dallas beat Detroit and New York this week, Utah and the Clippers are the only teams remaining with a chance to join Golden State in winning the season series against Dallas this year. Those two teams, along with the Spurs and Suns, are the only teams who still might join the Warriors in beating Dallas twice.

It’s hard to deny that Dallas has had some very good luck related to other teams’ injuries. In addition to Phoenix losing 3 games in a row when Nash sat out with a bad back, here are the breaks Dallas has caught in just their past 14 games: they played Houston before they got Yao back, Miami just after Wade got injured, Cleveland without Larry Hughes, the Lakers just before they got Odom back, Detroit without Chauncey Billups, and now New York missing half of their best six players (who total an average of 42.1 points, 21.2 rebounds, and 8.5 assists).

What’s really important is that Dallas kept its focus and won all of those games (unlike, say, Phoenix who lost to Detroit even after Billups went down). But still, those six games were presumably all a lot easier than they would have been otherwise.

If the Nuggets would suddenly go on, say, a ten-game losing streak, then Dallas would have a chance to go the whole season without losing a single game to a non-playoff team in either conference. I wonder if any team has ever actually done that before?

Current pace: 68.3 wins.
To clinch the west: 12–4.
To win 65: 10–6.
To win 61 (new franchise record): 6-10.

And 70 wins, though improbable, could still happen.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sizing up the Competition

After a week of drama and worrying, we're back where we started. San Antonio and Phoenix each had a two-game losing streak to match Dallas’ (see my comments on the Suns’ losses), and the Mavericks’ lead in the standings appears safe again. So what does Dallas need to do to win the first seed?

Well first of all, since Phoenix is five games back in the loss column, Dallas obviously could clench by losing four or fewer games, meaning they would go 14-4 at worst for the rest of the season. If Dallas beat Phoenix April 1, then the Mavericks would gain a game in the standings and win the tie-breaker against Phoenix, which means they would only need to go 11-6 in the rest of their games (finishing at worst 65-17) to win the first seed.

But like Dallas, Phoenix can win lots of games in a hurry. And if they did––and if Dallas struggled for some reason––things could get tight, and tie-breakers could matter.

If Phoenix beat Dallas April 1, then the season series would be tied, and the tie-breaker would shift to the team with the best record against the western conference. So far Dallas is 33-8 against the west, Phoenix 25-11. Because Phoenix has a lot more games left against the western conference (in fact all 16 of their remaining games are against the west), it's a big stretch to predict how this tie-break would turn out. Assuming a loss to Phoenix on April 1, Dallas would have to win 9 of the other 10 games against the west to guarantee the tiebreak. But if Dallas played that well they'd almost certainly win the conference outright anyway (remember, they only need to go 14-4 overall), so it probably doesn't matter.

The next tie-break (if Dallas and Phoenix finish with the same record against the west) is record against western conference playoff teams; right now Dallas is 14-7, Phoenix 10-8. But those numbers could change depending on whether Golden State holds on to the eighth playoff seed, so they're also not worth worrying too much about.

Looking at the rest of the games for both teams:

Overall Dallas has 18 games left with 12 on the road, and Phoenix has 16 games with 8 on the road. Phoenix plays all 16 against the west, while Dallas plays 11 against the west, 7 against the east.

However, Dallas does get Utah and San Antonio at home, whereas Phoenix has to play both of them on the road. Dallas, however, has to play at Phoenix, as well as at Detroit and Cleveland as a part of a 6-game road trip, and then at Denver. So Dallas appears to have six tough games left: Spurs, at Suns, Jazz, at Nuggets, at Pistons, and at Cavs. Phoenix’s top opponents are perhaps just barely tougher: Mavericks, at Spurs, at Jazz, at Rockets, Denver, Lakers, and at Lakers.

Just to keep things in perspective, Dallas could lose every game remaining against a current playoff team, and if they won the rest they'd still finish 64-18. In that case, Phoenix would have to finish 15-1 to take the top seed.

So if Dallas loses the top seed, it will be the least of their worries. Basically, the only thing that could stop the Mavericks from finishing the season with the league's best record would be a free-fall into medocrity that would appear to dash our title hopes anyway.

Incidentally, right now has the Spurs listed as the 4 seed behind Utah, even though the Spurs have the better record. I thought they were supposed to fix that this year, so that it can't be in Houston's best interest to drop from the fifth to the sixth seed so they can draw a team with a worse record in the first round. It also would mean, of course, that Dallas would have the best record but still have to play the #2 and the #3 team to get to the finals. Anyone know what's going on there?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Take a deep breath

It's true it was only the Celtics, but still it’s nice to see Dirk take what was shaping up to be a disastrous performance and turn it into 30/12/4 on 50% shooting. In about 13 minutes of playing time starting with 3:41 left in the third, Dirk went for 26 points and 7 rebounds on 8/10 FG and 10/11 FT. His 13-footer sealed the win by giving Dallas a 5-point lead with 4.8 seconds left.

As to the other night, I don't find it that hard to forgive the missed free throws and the missed jump shots at the buzzer––those things just happen sometimes, and Dirk hits the big free throws at the ends of games far more than he misses them. (Buzzer-beating field goals are another matter.) Besides, Dirk came up with huge defensive plays and rebounds at the end of both overtimes that kept Dallas in the game. And for all his heroics, Nash missed a shot in the last 40 seconds of each overtime (the first blocked by Dirk!) that would have practically sealed the win for his team. Turns out no one's perfect.

What scares me about Dirk is the late tech, which means not only that he gave Phoenix an extra point with two minutes left in double OT, but also that he was running down the court yelling at a ref when he should have been getting back to play defense.

In appropriately symbolic fashion, Dirk’s 11/28 shooting against Phoenix dipped him just under (as in, 2 FGM under) 50% shooting for the season. My hunch is, if it’s back above 50% after Detroit, Dallas will have won that game.

The latest numbers on what is still a dream season:
  • Current winning pace is 68 games, a total Phoenix (since they lost tonight to the Pistons) can’t get to even if they finish out undefeated.
  • Dallas has still won 39 of 43 (90.7%).
  • Not counting the current one-game streak (no way to know how long it will go), Dallas’ average win streak for the season is an astonishing 8.8 games.
  • Dallas can top their best record in franchise history by finishing just 8–10.
Clearly, Sunday’s game at Detroit will be an(other) important test.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Three games back in the loss column

Email from my brother: “Your post tomorrow needs to emphasize Dirk's laying an egg in 4th quarter and overtime. Forget the pick and roll. Suns shouldn't be in this game.”

Dirk's line looked pretty nice tonight, but I'm not going to repeat it here, because timing is everything –– as in late-game missed free throws, a stupid foul, a stupider tech, and back-to-back misses of shots to tie/win.

Mark April 1 on the calendar. Home-court in the playoffs might be on the line.

What “defines” a basketball player?

Seeing as how we're all thinking about Phoenix today, I want to raise a point of dispute with Eric Neel that I didn't really touch on the other day. My response to what he wrote involves, among other things, the best game Dallas has ever played against the Suns. Forgive me for getting melodramatic, but I loved last year's playoffs.

Specifically, Neel says that Dirk still doesn't have a “defining moment.”

There's no way to know exactly what Neel means, but I can think of at least two moments from last season's playoffs that emphatically define Dirk for Mavericks fans: one involved Manu Ginobili, the other Tim Thomas.

Dirk's Game 7 Layup

The first moment was Dirk's game 7 layup. The fact that every Dallas fan (and really, every genuine nba fan) who just read that sentence knows exactly what I'm referring to ought to be enough to label it a defining moment. Dallas, playing at San Antonio, had just blown a big fourth-quarter advantage, Ginibili's 3-pointer had just given the Spurs their first lead of the game with 32 seconds left, and Dirk was being guarded by Bowen, who has always given him trouble. Also consider that Dirk's Mavericks had never once bested San Antonio in regular-season record or gotten farther than them in the playoffs.

Dirk's drive was strong, and after he lay the shot on the rim the world stopped for about three quarters of a second while the ball spun there before it dropped in. (You can see the replay at about the 3-minute mark of this youtube clip.) For every fan who had watched Dallas lose to San Antonio again and again, and who had watched Dirk struggle to come up with the big shot, that was about as good as it gets. Dirk hit the and-one free throw, and then as Dallas routed the Spurs in the overtime period, we all knew a new era was beginning for our team.

Fifty at Phoenix

But even though Dirk's layup turned in his team's favor what may have been the best second-round playoff series ever, it was only the second round. But that's ok––Dirk probably topped it the next series, beginning with a confrontation with Tim Thomas.

With 3:27 left in the third quarter of game 5 (series tied 2-2), Thomas hit his 6th 3-pointer of the game to give Phoenix a seven-point lead. Dirk was looking at just 21 points (6/16 FG) and 4 rebounds, and Dallas was looking at another crushing playoff loss: if they had lost game 5 at home, the Mavericks would have gone to Phoenix facing elimination in game 6.

But late in the quarter (right after that 3-pointer, if memory serves), Thomas glared at Dirk during a dead ball, mouthed the word “p***y,” and then blew him a kiss. The scene was simultaneously hilarious and utterly infuriating for a Mavericks fan. No self-respecting player can take something like that from an opponent.

So what was Dirk's response? First, he scored 7 points in the next two minutes as part of a 10-0 Dallas run that helped the Mavericks close the quarter with a one-point lead. And then, with the game (and likely the series) on the line to start the fourth, Dirk went for 22 fourth-quarter points (to Phoenix's 20) and turned the game into a rout.

Altogether, In 14 1/2 minutes of playing time after the blown kiss, Dirk went for 29 points (8/10 FG, 10/10 FT), and 8 rebounds, finishing with 50 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists, and only 1 turnover. I would bet there are a fair number of all-stars who would be proud to have a game that good at any point in their career, and Dirk did it to bag his franchise's first ever finals appearance.

I think for the time being, it's safe to call that Dirk's defining moment.

So what gives?

Which brings us back to Neel’s article, where I wonder if he's really saying what he means. The implication is that what Dirk did in those two series is effectively annulled by mediocre play in the finals.

Maybe so, but if Neel's real problem with the Mavericks is that they lost, perhaps he should just say so.

By my reckoning, Dirk stepped up on the road to win game 7 of one of the greatest playoff series I'll ever see, and then he scored 50 in what must be one of the best conference finals performances in history. So all I can figure is that Neel basically is saying that Dirk's not allowed to have a defining moment because he doesn't have a ring. But if that's the case, he should just say he doesn't love Dirk and the Mavericks because they didn't win the championship when they had the chance. All this talk about boring style and lack of defining moments, as far as I can tell, is just a red herring.

The irony, of course, is that it's actually Neel himself––not the Mavericks––that has nothing interesting of substance to contribute. Neel doesn't like Dallas, but the only real weakness he can find is that they blew the championship last year. Problem is (as Marc Stein noted yesterday) that everyone––including Dirk––has been saying that constantly for months now. That's hard to write about. So, lacking any real angle on why not to like Dallas, Neel makes one up.

Fortunately, nothing Neel could write really matters for Dallas fans. The NBA is an entertainment industry, and the Mavericks have put on a spectacular show for their fans the past two seasons. If that's not enough for Neel and fans from other towns, then I can't imagine that anything but a set of rings will change the way they feel.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Thanks, Marc

Marc Stein's daily dime story on Dallas today was great, and refreshing. I especially like the quote from Stackhouse:
"The first four games was the longest part of the season," Mavs swingman Jerry Stackhouse told me recently, referring to Dallas' 0-4 start. "Since then, the season has kind of breezed by."
JKnott and I were discussing yesterday how much longer Dallas can handle the kind of intensity Avery Johnson is holding them under. But I'm not sure we took into consideration what Stein brings up: winning almost every single game, as it turns out, is quite a lot of fun, and I'm sure it makes Avery's yelling a lot easier to take.

Monday, March 12, 2007


This is the espn shot chart for the first half of the third quarter of tonight's game. See all those little blue circles around the basket on the right side? Those are shots the Warriors made. See all those x's? (Well, ok, I guess there's three of them.) Those are their misses.

Incidentally, a really bizarre stat: the Mavericks utterly and thoroughly dominated the Warriors on the boards tonight, 50-28. For the game, Dallas pulled down almost as many rebounds of their own shots (20) as the Warriors did (23), and on the Warriors' end Dallas outrebounded them 30-5. That was about the only thing Dallas did well tonight.

See the comments for the chat a couple of us had during the game.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


9:59pm (ET)

Kobe Bryant's biannual quest to embarrass the Mavericks in LA seems to have ended with 3:09 left in the first quarter. Kobe had already scored 13 while Dallas was missing its jump-shots, and the Lakers had jumped to a 20-13 lead. Dallas fans were taking a collective deep breath.

From that point, though, Kobe missed 4 straight shots and Dallas outscored LA 28-10 up to 5:50 left in the second. Then Smush Parker (the Lakers' second best player in uniform!) got tossed at 9:28. And then, 19 seconds later, Kwame Brown (second best of those remaining?) airballed a free throw.

I don't think it's a stretch to predict that this will turn ugly.

I love that the Mavericks' post defenders aren't afraid to use their fouls this game. The Lakers have gotten the ball near the basket a number of times, and the Dallas defenders have almost without exception forced them to shoot free throws.

Here's hoping this post doesn't need a revision before the night's done.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Mavs versus What Sports Fans Want

Oh boy. Eric Neel, if you were hoping to stir up a hornets’ nest of desperately defensive Mavericks fans, this was indeed the way to do it.

While I love my team, it's true that Dirk's not a Jordan or a Bird or a Dr. J. Dirk's game has far more substance than style, not unlike Duncan's (though surely Dirk has a little more style), whereas Jordan and Erving shared a captivating combination of athleticism and grace, and Jordan and Bird had an edge to their attitude. Dirk, on the other hand, comes across as simply hard-working and kind of normal.

It seems to me, though, that style isn't the real reason people like Neel don't care about the Mavericks. After all, Dirk's shot is beautiful, Terry plays with a kind of infectious glee, Howard explodes for big plays often enough to keep you guessing, and Stackhouse had enough attitude to knock Shaquille O'Neal into the stands during last year's finals.

I think, instead, that people don't care because they don't see in Dirk (and thus in the team) what they would call Greatness.

My impression is that there are two totally different reasons for caring about a team, depending on whether it's the home team or another city's team. For home-town fans, the point is participation in the process of growth and development of excellence; home-town fans revel in their team's rise from mediocrity to success, and emotional energy they invest early on leads to a great payoff when their team finally wins it all. This is why Dallas fans are ecstatic, if a little guarded, this season.

But if fans from another city are going to embrace a team, they're not interested in development or perserverance. If a fan looks outside of his own city for a team to love, he's looking for an association not with excellence, but with Greatness.

Neel actually uses the word great to describe the Mavericks, but I think he's really talking about what I would call excellence. Excellence is about success, but Greatness attains a kind of transcendence. Excellence is something you work for over time via trial and error, but Greatness is an eternal quality you either have or don't have. Fans want not just a winner, but a Winner.

There are some stipulations, of course. It's ok if your (lack of) team prevents you from winning a title (Lebron, early MJ), as long as you get one eventually. And it's ok to lose occasionally in the face of another instance of Greatness –– so for example, neither Magic nor Bird could win every title during the 80's, but that was ok because each was facing an equally unstoppable opponent.

And if Dirk had gone for 30/10 every game of the finals last year and had lost a close series (without the opening 2 7/8 game lead), my money says people outside of Dallas would see the Mavericks differently this year.

But to play like a mortal, as Dirk did, is virtually unforgiveable in the minds of most NBA fans. He had his chance to win the hearts of the nation, and he didn't do it. If Dirk (and Dallas) were Great, people assume, they would have won –– or at least not have blown a huge advantage to cough up the series. And if they aren't Great, then most people have other places they'd rather direct their devotion.

The notion of Greatness is why Wade is the darling of the NBA, because his finals performance had a sort of super-human quality that people want to grasp hold of. The notion of Greatness is also why Peyton Manning was so despised before he won the Super Bowl –– and I'll wager a degree of scorn will linger among many for the times he failed.

That leaves the Mavericks with a daunting task, if their fans are ever going to enjoy the adoration of the NBA. Last year's failure will not be quickly forgotten, even if Dallas takes the title this year. Having a chip on their shoulder might be a good way to win, but as long as people remember their failure, there's no mystique to capture the imagination, as Neel puts it. My guess is it will take at least back-to-back titles, maybe even three in five years for the stigma to pass.

In the NBA, it seems, Greatness is an all-or-nothing prospect, and apathy from fans is worth about the same as contempt.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Just in case you missed it . . . cites the Elias Sports Bureau:
The Mavericks made history on Tuesday night -- not just team history, not just NBA history, but major North American pro sports history. With their 102-89 victory over the Nets, the Mavericks became the first team in NBA history to earn 51 wins in a 56-game span within a single season.

No team in the NHL or in Major League Baseball has done such a thing, either. (And in the NFL, no team has ever amassed 51 wins over any multiple-season stretch of 56 regular-season games.)
Just to be fair, that kind of a stretch isn't really realistic in baseball, where the best regular season team usually wins 100-105 games (61.7%–64.8%), whereas the NBA almost always has at least one team win 60 (73.2%). And in the NHL the top record of any given 82-game season is usually closer to 50 than to 60, largely because most teams end up with 10+ ties as well.

What remains, though, is something that's never been done, and that's pretty impressive even if it's only judged within NBA history.

All of which leads into Sunday's game at LA.

With the Mavericks playing so absurdly well, I can't help but think of Dec. 6, 2002, when Dallas showed up at LA with a 17-1 record and went into the fourth quarter with a 27-point lead before getting outscored 44-15 and losing by 2. LA hit 16 of 18 shots that quarter, and Dallas looked like they had forgotten how to play. It was something like the 24th straight loss at the Lakers for Dallas. In what had looked like a dream season, from that game on, I knew deep down that Dallas wasn't good enough to win the title.

It also reminds me of Dec. 20, 2005 at LA, when Kobe personally outscored dallas 62–61 in the first three quarters before sitting out the fourth quarter of the Lakers' blowout win. Dallas was 18-6 (75%) going into that game, and although it wasn't as crushing as the loss in 2002, it was still a rough one to sit through.

The Mavericks' title hopes don't quite hinge on a victory Sunday. However, I have a feeling Kobe (playing at home and televised nationally) is planning to make a statement, so maybe this would be a good time for Dallas to beat him to the punch.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

GM for the Ages

Maybe y'all saw the story about how Kevin McHale was ranked the #1 general manager in professional sports this week by Forbes magazine, who rated GMs according to improvement in their teams' records and certain payroll factors.

Problem is, Kevin McHale is widely recognized as one of the worst GMs in the league, particularly in light of an under-the-table deal he tried to make a few years ago that got his franchise penalized three consecutive first-round picks, a move which certainly hasn't helped the Timberwolves put new talent on the court to take advantage of Kevin Garnett's prime.

Folks in the sports media are understandably having quite a laugh at this one.

So let's contrast McHale with, say, Donnie Nelson (#40 out of 98 on the Forbes list), who has worked in various roles for Dallas since 1998 including the past four years as President of Basketball Operations. Under his watch (here I'll oversimplify several complex trades), Dallas got Dirk for Robert Traylor, got Jason Terry for Raef LaFrentz, got Jerry Stackhouse and Devin Harris for an aging Nick Van Exel, drafted Josh Howard with the 29th pick, and signed Desagana Diop and Erick Dampier as free agents.

Add to that the fact that they got Van Exel and LaFrentz for Juwan Howard and Tim Hardaway (who almost immediately retired), and that means Nelson (if I've got my facts correct) helped Dallas acquire their top 7 players from (basically) Robert Traylor, Juwan Howard, and a late-first-round draft pick.

So Forbes picked a set of numbers and allowed them to overrule common sense. I wonder what Hollinger would say about that?

(By the way, took that same gibe at Hollinger today too, but since I wrote this post yesterday before I read db, I'm not plagiarizing anyone.)

Monday, March 5, 2007

Can't crack the rankings

I'm kind of bitter this morning, because I submitted a comment that I thought Hollinger would practically have to post on his rankings:

I wouldn't mind so much (after all, lots of people submit these things), except for what he posted instead:
Heather (Austin)
The Mavs can match any teams' style of play. It doesn't matter if it's a solid defensive struggle or a run and gun offensive game. The Mavs can play any style of basketball and still prevail.
It's my impression that pretty much every day they post the most inane, generic comment they can find, usually having nothing specific to do with the Mavericks' most recent game.

I don't get it.

Also pretty silly was the comment they posted for the Spurs today:
Jerry (Phoenix)
The Spurs are playing their best ball and will only continue to improve as they head into the playoffs. Watch out Mavs the Spurs aren't ready to concede the best team in Texas title yet.
It's true, of course, that the playoffs are a whole new game, and no self-respecting former championship team is going to give up on championship hopes. But considering that the Mavericks are (1) toying with becoming one of the two or three best teams in NBA history and (2) showing signs only of improvement, I don't think the Spurs are in a position to concede or not concede much of anything just because they've finally strung together a decent winning streak and a had few blow-outs.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Peaking early and middle . . . how about late?

Kind of quaint: glancing through an SI from January 29, they had this to say in their "Who's Hot" feature about Phoenix's play at the time:

“The sizzling Suns had won 29 of 31 –– that's 29 of 31––after thrashing the T-Wolves with a 46-point third quarter on Sunday.”

In case anyone has lost count, Dallas has now won 35 of 37.

Also, TNT pointed out something that's pretty encouraging during the Cavs game Thursday night. Here is Dallas' record by month so far this season:
  • November: 11–4 (7l.l%)
  • December: 13–3 (81.3%)
  • January: 14–2 (87.5%)
  • February: 10–0 (100%)
That means Dallas has improved every successive month of the season, with their monthly losses numbering 4, 3, 2, and then 0. Now, unfortunately Dallas can't keep improving in terms of percentage, although maybe if they lose to Orlando tonight we can count it as a February game (since it was a short month and had the all-star break) to make the pattern more consistent and give them something to shoot for.

Or they could just not lose any more games at all, in which case I don't guess anyone would care about the pattern all that much.

Either way, the constantly improving record bodes very well –– and suggests that people who worried about peaking too soon didn't anticipate how good the Mavericks could get. Of course, there's plenty of season left, and Dallas has some tough games in the next couple of weeks.

All in all, though, the constant improvement suggests that this year will be different than the Mavericks' break-out season in 2002-03. That year, they started out with a team-record 14 straight wins and had a gaudy record for most of the year. I don't have the exact figures, but in early March of 2003, I sent an email to a friend (JKnott) noting that Dallas' road winning percentage was 70%, which was equal to the next best team's (San Antonio's) overall winning percentage. (For what it's worth, right now Dallas' road winning percentage is 78%, which is better than any other team's overall record, and only a half game behind the next best home winning percentage [Phoenix's] in the league.)

Unfortunately, despite a great winning percentage––and a great point differential––early on, the '02–'03 team trailed off toward the end of the season and somehow made a team-record 60 wins feel extremely disappointing.

That year no one in the league really had much respect for the (Nash-led) Mavericks, and for good reasons––they were coached by Don Nelson, they were soft (except for Nick Van Exel), they lacked a presence at center (remember Raef LaFrentz?), they relied heavily on jump-shooting, and they didn't defend anyone. Sure, in the playoffs they hung 84 first-half points on Sacramento one game and then took San Antonio to six games in the western conference finals even though Dirk sat out the last two with an injured ankle. But they didn't really seem to have the goods, and we all feared constantly when the bottom would fall out.

This season that's still a possibility, but the feel now is quite different.

Incidentally, the cover story from that January 29 Sports Illustrated was about how Peyton Manning finally got his team to the Super Bowl. After that cover he got them the trophy as well. As it turns out, things change, teams improve, and some superstars just need time to learn how to get the job done.

Friday, March 2, 2007


Marc Stein said this about the Dallas-Cleveland game, a comment that is too true (at least of me):
James almost single-handedly derailed a juggernaut that freaks out its fans if it doesn't win in a walk.
The game included Lebron making what I would describe as the best game dunk I've ever seen. (My brother thinks I need some perspective, but I'm not sure.)

But don't worry –– Stein still takes Dirk as his MVP.