Defense in Dallas? Oh Yeah, the Mavs Are Back
Kevin Garnett can't move anymore, and neither can Ray Allen. Pau Gasol is griping about touches, while Kobe has forgotten about the teamwork that epitomized the Lakers' title run last season.
Meanwhile, sitting quietly as the No. 2 seed out west is Dallas, always known more as a great team to watch rather than a great team.
Ever since the Mavs blew a 2-0 series lead over Miami in the 2006 finals, common belief has been that Dallas is more pretender than contender. Their colossal collapse the following season against Golden State only solidified such a sentiment.
But since the February 18 trading deadline, things have drastically changed in Dallas. For the better.
Enter Caron Butler. When Mark Cuban acquired him from a shattered Washington team, he not only got himself a shut-down defender who can score, he rid the Mavericks of the troubled Josh Howard, a talented malcontent who had worn out his welcome in Big D.
While Howard is a similar player to Butler, he doesn't possess the mental fortitude. Case in point: During the 2008 playoffs, he passed out flyers to his birthday party and admitted to smoking weed the night after a loss, causing severe unrest in the locker room, and unquestionably contributing to the Mavs' loss to the Hornets.
Jason Kidd -- the team's point guard and leader -- wasn't happy and neither were the rest of Howard's teammates. It clearly affected Howard's play, and despite shooting just 29 percent in the series, he was notably giggly during post-game interviews, laughing the matter off as meaningless and irrelevant. This is what we call a cancer.
What Butler has provided to this team cannot be measured in numbers, although those are pretty good too. Since his arrival, the two-time All-Star has averaged nearly 16 points and five rebounds while shooting a commendable 84 percent from the line. His 1.53 steals per game are second on the team, but it's his nastiness and grit that stand out the most.
When we compare him to Howard, we begin to see the positive effects Butler has had. In 31 games for Dallas, Howard averaged under 13 points on a mere 40 percent shooting from the floor. For his career, Butler averages more than one assist more than Howard. He's an unselfish player yet aptly assertive. Howard is an unreliable shooter full of cold streaks. He is another leader for Dallas, the type of leader Josh Howard never dreamed of becoming.
With Butler and J-Kidd on the floor, coach Rick Carlisle has an extension of himself in the starting lineup. Two trustwothy leaders complimenting a team already full of talent, but needing direction. In other words, there is no comparison. Butler is the perfect fit.
This is still Dirk Nowitzki's team, without question. But Dirk isn't always the takeover type of guy. His playoff struggles and shooting woes have been well documented, and rightfully so. Now that he has Butler though, it opens up the floor for him to work from the block, high post, or of course, the perimeter. He will still be the forefront of this offense, but now he has a true second option.
Dallas' attack ranges beyond these two as well.
Center Brendan Haywood has been somewhat forgotten as the other component to the trade with Washington, but he shouldn't be. He's a steady player who does everything a team as offensively proficient as Dallas needs from its pivot man. In essence, clog the paint and rebound.
While the enigmatic Erick Dampier offers a fluctuating effort and level of productivity, Haywood brings it every night. His consistent play (nine points, almost 10 rebounds, and over two blocks) trump what Dampier does, and gives Carlisle the ability to have a suddenly reliable five-man at his disposable.
The guard play for Dallas has been excellent, as well. Kidd continues to amaze with his marvelous wizardry of the basketball, threading needle after needle, leading one perfect break after another, and scoring just enough to keep defenses honest ... away from doubling Nowiztki.
Jason Terry's play has been stellar as well. The modern-day "Microwave" is averaging close to 17 points and four assists. And don't sleep on Rodrigue Beaubois, the jet-quick Frenchman who recently tallied 40 points on 9 of 11 shooting from three. In the month of March, he averaged over 13 points in under 19 minutes of action, while shooting 46 percent from three. Beaubois is just a rookie and still needs refining, but he has terrific end-line-to-end-line speed, and could be an X-factor spelling Kidd or J.J. Barea at either backcourt slot come playoff time.
Shawn Marion is another fine defender, a wing who can guard multiple positions with his length and feline-like quickness. Marion plays the passing lanes, help defends, and hounds the ball on every possession. And when you're shooting over 52 percent as he has this season, well that doesn't hurt either.
Talent-wise, the Dallas Mavericks are right there. The two other contenders out west are obviously LA and Denver (please discard Utah and Phoenix as fool's gold). However, while the Lakers have all but secured home-court throughout the west, they're a team teetering on an eruption of problems.
Obviously Gasol isn't happy, and he has every right to feel that way. Bryant has seemingly shifted away from the "new Kobe" we all grew to love earlier this year and deferred to "old Kobe," the disruptive scorer who doesn't pass in the final minutes of games unless he absolutely has to. Meanwhile, Andrew Bynum is hurt yet again (a disturbing trend for Laker fans), and Ron Artest has been awful of late, averaging just 11 points on 18 percent shooting from three, and shooting 59 percent from the line over his last five games.
Denver can officially go into panic mode. The absence of head man George Karl has clearly affected this team, as the Nuggets have lost five of six with things not getting any easier. In their final seven games of the regular season, Denver plays just one team (Clippers) with a losing record.
Carmelo Anthony is coming off one of the worst games of his illustrious career, where he scored just 10 points on 3-16 shooting in a loss to whom? You guessed it ... the Mavs. You can thank Mr. Marion for that one.
Is Dallas the favorite in the Western Conference as we approach May? Of course not. Until the champs lose, nobody will go against them, and understandably so. But for the first time since, well, ever, the Mavs possess a level of toughness and physically imposing nature necessary to make the type of run their talent level suggests.
Such is prevalent in their 17-4 record since acquiring Butler and Haywood. The Mavs have a terrific balance right now. They can run, work out of the half-court, rebound, and most importantly, they can actually defend.
Even if they can't hold court for the second spot, Dallas maintains a real shot at advancing to the finals. The best road team in the west at 24-14, the Mavs have clearly shown the ability to win anywhere. They are brilliant at home as well, with a 26-11 record, including recent wins over both Denver and the Lakers.
This is not the pushover Dallas team of the past. This is not the same team that squandered the finals away against Miami or got embarrassed against Golden State. The Mavericks are well coached and finally have the right personnel -- both in talent and mindset -- to win the vaunted Western Conference.