Where do the Mavs go from here?

In the Daily Dime, Marc Stein discusses the short-term future of the Dallas Mavericks after their first round loss last night to the Spurs.

Mavs owner Mark Cuban didn’t trade for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood in February, taking on millions in extra salary and luxury tax in the process, to make such a swift return to the early playoff misery inflicted by Golden State in 2007. Dallas became the first No. 1 seed in league history to lose a best-of-seven series in the first round that year … and just became the first No. 2 to lose in Round 1 since the NBA went to a best-of-seven format in 2003.

“We’re a failure,” Mavericks guard Jason Terry said. “We failed. There’s no other word but failure. That’s how we feel right now.”

Cuban himself acknowledged after the Mavs’ Game 1 triumph that the F word — yes, failure — was going to be the reaction all over town and all over the league “if we don’t win a championship.”

“We’ve got a great base,” Cuban said. “We’ll have a chance to work with each other [in training camp before next season]. You could see some of the uneasiness because we haven’t had a full season to play together, and that showed a few times, but we’ll pull all the pieces together and we’ll go at ’em again next year.”

Cuban’s “we’ve got a great base” comment implies that he’s not planning to blow up the roster. Dirk Nowitzki, however, is suddenly a candidate to join an already stellar free agent class this summer, though it’s still far more likely that he’ll re-up.

But back to Cuban — the whole we-haven’t-had-enough-time-to-gel line of reasoning is starting to wear thin. Butler and Haywood had 27 games to work the kinks out — how long does it take to develop the necessary chemistry? That’s an entire season for most college and high school teams, and most of them gel just fine. Chemistry can develop over time, but typically speaking, it’s either there or it’s not.

Complicating matters is Cuban’s tendency to drastically alter his roster. In February of 2008, he swapped Devin Harris and two first round picks for Jason Kidd. Last summer, he signed Shawn Marion. And this February, he pulled the trigger on the Butler/Haywood trade. Who’s to say that he’ll be able to control himself when a few more aging, expensive stars become available at the next trade deadline?

As long as Nowitzki is around, the Mavs will be competitive. If he returns to a team that already has Butler, Kidd, Marion, Jason Terry and Roddy Beaubois, Dallas will once again win 50 games and make the postseason. But with the way that they were worked over by an aging Spurs team, does anyone really think the Mavs will make another Finals appearance anytime soon?

It has to be frustrating to let a title slip through your fingers in 2006 and then spend the next three or four years trying to get back to that level. Under the current circumstances, the Mavs seem destined to be a Western Conference also-ran. I don’t blame Cuban for trying to build on what he has, but unless there’s a major infusion of talent — I’m talking a top 10 or 15 player acquired via sign-and-trade — it doesn’t look like the Mavs are a real threat to make the Finals.

That’s the nice thing about knowing that you’re rebuilding. There are no delusions of grandeur.


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The Spurs own Texas

The Spurs said they were going to treat Game 6 at home as if it were a Game 7, and that’s the right mentality. You want to close the series out at home if you can, because winning a Game 7 on the road is no easy task.

San Antonio jumped out to a big lead early in the game, and were up 35-16 in the middle of the second quarter when Mavs rookie Roddy Beaubois entered the game. Over the course of the next 16 minutes, Beaubois would score 16 points and lead the Mavs on a 45-28 run that would bring Dallas to within two points with 2:43 to play in the third quarter. The Spurs simply didn’t have an answer for him on the defensive end.

With the Mavs trailing by seven, Beaubois started the fourth quarter on the bench, and didn’t re-enter the game until there was 2:44 remaining in the game. Rick Carlisle wanted to get Jason Terry going, and while he did hit a six-foot runner to cut the lead to two with six minutes to play, that was the only shot he made all night. Mavs fans are left wondering what would have happened had Carlisle brought Beaubois back earlier in the quarter.

From the Spurs perspective, check out this series of scores in the fourth quarter:

6:33 Tony Parker makes 18-foot jumper
5:50 Antonio McDyess makes 13-foot jumper
4:47 George Hill makes 10-foot two point shot
4:07 Antonio McDyess makes 17-foot jumper
3:18 George Hill makes 23-foot three point jumper
1:28 Tony Parker makes 20-foot jumper

Notice anything? For a team that usually leans on Manu Ginobili drives and Tim Duncan post ups, the Spurs scored on jump shots on six possessions in just over five minutes. During that stretch, Tim Duncan didn’t take a single shot, Ginobili missed three shots and Parker missed a 16-footer. Otherwise, they were all made jumpers by McDyess, Hill and Parker. (Ginobili and Duncan did combine for five assists during that stretch.)

After a 29-point performance that essentially won Game 4 for the Spurs, George Hill scored 21 points tonight on 12 shots. Ginobili finished with 26, Tim Duncan had 17 and Tony Parker chipped in with 10. Hill gives the Spurs another offensive weapon to go to in crunch time when the Spurs’ “Big 3” need a break or just aren’t getting it done. As Reggie Miller noted, Hill was a great scorer in high school and college, so he can “score with the best of them.”

I’ll write more about the Mavs tomorrow. As it stands, they just seem like they’ve been snakebitten since losing the 2006 Finals to Dwyane Wade and the Heat. I can’t imagine what is going through Mark Cuban’s mind right now after making several big acquisitions (Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood) over the past few years. He was expecting that this team would make a run to the Finals, but instead, they just lost Game 6 to their arch-rivals and are heading home in the first round. Ouch.


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Are the Mavs done?


With their 92-89 loss in Game 4, the Dallas Mavericks find themselves down 3-1 and facing elimination. This is hardly what owner Mark Cuban expected after pulling (expensive) trades for Shawn Marion, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood in the past nine months and watching his new-look team win the #2 seed in the West. But the Spurs aren’t your ordinary #7-seed.

If you would have told Cuban that his Mavs were going to hold Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to just 31 points on a combined 9-of-34 (26%) shooting in Game 4, I’m sure he would have felt pretty good about his team’s chances. But with George Hill’s 29 and Richard Jefferson’s 15, along with some old school San Antonio defense that held Dallas to under 42% from the field, the struggles of the Spurs’ Big Three didn’t matter much in the end.

With two of the next three elimination games in Dallas, the Mavs do have a chance to pull out this series, but they’re in for some tough sledding. Vegas now puts the Mavs’ odds of advancing at around 4-1, which sounds about right.

The question that Cuban doesn’t want to think about, at least not yet, is what does he do with this expensive lineup if it can’t even get past an aging Spurs team in the first round?

Part of the problem is that, at least against the Spurs, the Mavs can’t play their five-best players at the same time. Assuming Rick Carlisle wants his most trustworthy shot-maker, Jason Terry, at the two (alongside Jason Kidd), then that pushes Butler back to his natural position (small forward). So unless he puts Dirk Nowitzki at center, there’s no room for Marion, who spent much of the fourth quarter riding the pine. It doesn’t make sense to pull Haywood when he was doing such a nice job on Duncan, and Carlisle wisely doesn’t want Nowitzki guarding Duncan for long stretches. Regardless, the Spurs are controlling the matchups and forcing one of the Mavs’ best defenders to the bench.

If Dallas goes on to lose this series, we’ll be talking about what this playoff implosion means for a franchise that had a pretty good season. Cuban could elect to tweak the lineup around the edges, make a big change or two, or blow the entire thing up.

But, for now, he is just hoping that his team can win Game 5 and make this a series again.


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Welcome to San Antonio, Richard!

After a rather lackluster first season with the Spurs, Richard Jefferson made his presence felt in a positive way, posting 19 points and seven rebounds in the Spurs’ impressive 102-88 win in Dallas last night.

It was the kind of performance that the Spurs were expecting on more of a regular basis from the 29-year-old swingman, but after coming over in a trade from Milwaukee, Jefferson averaged just 12-4-2 on the season. But he did play pretty big minutes (31.1 per game) and shot pretty well from the field (47%). Digging a bit deeper, from his player page at 82games.com, he was a member of each of the Spurs’ top 20 five-man units and he outproduced his opponent by 1.6 in terms of PER. It’s tough for Jefferson to score consistently seeing as that he’s the fourth option when Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are on the floor as well.

To put his game into perspective, Jefferson scored 19 or more points just 11 times this season in 81 games. And his fine performance couldn’t have come at a better time. Game 2 is so important to the road team when they lose Game 1. A win completely shifts the momentum of the series heading back home, while a loss would have put the Spurs’ playoff chances on life support.


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Your quick and dirty NBA Playoffs preview

The matchups are set and the first round starts this weekend. In the East, the top four teams — Cleveland, Orlando, Boston and Atlanta — seem like good bets to advance, while in the West, I wouldn’t be shocked if the bottom four seeds — Utah, Portland, San Antonio and Oklahoma City — were to make the second round. Here’s a quick look at each series:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Cavaliers vs. Bulls
It’s not often that a team that had a 10-game losing streak end in mid-February recovers and makes the postseason, but that’s exactly what the Bulls have done, winning 10 of their last 14 to capture the final playoff spot in the East. Chicago has the tools to make this a series, and with Shaquille O’Neal coming back from a long break, there’s a chance this could go to six or seven games. But in the end, Cleveland should have plenty of firepower to put the Bulls away.

Celtics vs. Heat
If there’s going to be an upset in the East, this will probably be it. The C’s have limped into the playoffs, losing eight of their last 13 games. Meanwhile, the Heat went 18-4 in February and March, but were just 4-3 against teams with winning records. Boston swept the season series despite Dwyane Wade’s terrific numbers (34-5-9, 50% shooting), so if anyone else steps up, the streaking Heat have a good shot at stealing the first or second game and gaining control of the series.

Hawks vs. Bucks
If Andrew Bogut were healthy, I’d pick Milwaukee, but the Bucks are going to have a tough time winning a seven-game series against a pretty good Atlanta team that has won 13 of its last 19 games. The Bucks’ defense could keep the games (and the series) close, but the Hawks should have enough to move on.

Magic vs. Bobcats
Orlando is peaking at the right time, going 19-3 in February and March. However, one of those losses was at home against Charlotte. The Bobcats are playing well too — they’re 16-7 over their last 23 games. Both teams are excellent defesively; they’re tied for first in defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions), so expect a few tight games. But Orlando just has too much talent.

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