In the final installment of our off-season preview of the Western Conference's Southwest Division, we look at the Dallas Mavericks.
Avery Johnson's first full season as the Mavericks head coach was a raging success even if they did fall two victories short of ultimate glory. Avery won the Coach of the Year award and the Mavericks won 60 games for the second time in franchise history, coming just shy of winning the division as well.
The playoffs brought Dallas their first playoff sweep, followed by a thrilling seven game series over the San Antonio Spurs, and a six game defeat of former local star Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals. Despite all of their success, the Western Conference Championship banner is the only new banner that will be raised to the rafters for the upcoming season though.
After taking a 2-0 lead on Miami in the Finals, their season came crashing to an end as the Heat won 4 games in a row to claim the crown. So, for all of their success, the Mavericks enter the off-season hanging their heads just a little bit at having let a golden opportunity slip away.
Dirk Nowitzki racked up another All-NBA season as he elevated his game to yet another level this past season. Josh Howard continued to turn heads and gain respect throughout the league, DeSagana Diop and Eric Dampier handled the center position (a welcomed relief in Dallas), and Jason Terry had a stand out season as the starting point guard.
The brief Doug Christie experiment failed quickly and he was swept under the rug and hardly thought of again after Adrian Griffin got off his couch in Houston and took over the starting shooting guard spot. Jerry Stackhouse lead the bench brigade and was joined by Devin Harris, Marquis Daniels and Keith Van Horn.
With the third to last pick in the first round, number 28, the Mavericks will have to hope their scouting department has done a good job as they will try to find a sleeper in whatever is remaining at that stage. Hopes are buoyed by the success of Josh Howard who managed to slip to them with the last pick in 2003 (in an extraordinarily strong draft).
After gaining a reputation for scouting foreign players well, the Mavericks have shown a knack in recent years for making good picks (and free agent pickups) of home grown products as well. Josh Howard, Marquis Daniels and Devin Harris are three prime examples of their ability to scout US college players well.
Given the success they enjoyed this past season, the Mavericks top free agent priority will likely be keeping most of their own free agents. Jason Terry is the big fish that must be secured first. Mavericks fans can not feel great about going into yet another off-season with their starting point guard as a well regarded unrestricted free agent.
A couple of seasons ago, fan favorite Steve Nash was in a nearly identical situation and ended up taking the Phoenix Suns' money and running. Two MVP trophy's later, the fans in Phoenix are surely still snickering at that coup.
But the Nash deal came with the NBA nearing a potential lockout and major overhaul of the NBA salary cap structure. This year, team owner Mark Cuban knows exactly what the salary situation is for the near future and should not have any reason to let Terry get away for a price they will regret later.
The other free agents, Keith Van Horn, Darrell Armstrong, DJ Mbenga and Adrian Griffin present other challenges. Keith Van Horn displayed flashes of brilliance off the bench after his trade to Dallas in 2005. But this past season he struggled with injuries, looked lost throughout most of the playoffs and was a non-factor in the NBA Finals. He was grossly overpaid the last several season and will be taking a pay cut wherever he lands. But it seems unlikely that he returns to Dallas. Not impossible, but unlikely.
Adrian Griffin was unemployed when the 2005-2006 season started but after he anchored the shooting guard spot for much of the season in Dallas, he is sure to catch on with somebody this season. Avery likes his toughness and defensive presence. His offensive game is sufficient, but nothing to write home about. It seems reasonable to expect Griffin to be back next season.
Darrell Armstrong wants to play another season or two and then move into the coaching ranks. He could very well come back to play a player-coach role as the third string point guard again, or he could move on to a team he feels more at home with or will give him more coaching responsibilities.
Finally, DJ Mbenga's situation is difficult to foresee. He played limited minutes as the 3rd and sometimes 4th string center. He is still very raw, but his size, athleticism and enthusiasm will certainly catch the eyes of other teams. The Mavericks will surely want to bring him back, but they will have to hope that nobody offers him a large enough package and an offer for more playing time to lure him away.
If they can't keep Mbenga outright, the Mavericks may be willing to work a sign-and-trade with him to get something back for their investment. Giant center Pavel Podkolzin just finished his second year on the roster, but due to various medical issues has hardly played in either the NBA or the D-League. He was a project coming in and remains one now. But his size, potential and favorable rookie contract might draw some minor interest.
Marquis Daniels is a name that will show up in a lot of trade rumors. He has shown flashes of brilliance, struggled somewhat with injuries and taken a back-seat to in the rotation to Jerry Stackhouse. If the Mavericks want to bring in a quality veteran from another team, it is likely they will have to answer to calls for Daniels to be included in any trade package as other teams will hoop to cash in on his untapped potential.
As for trade targets, the Mavericks will likely be mentioned in just about every trade scenario that comes around even if most fans would expect the Western Conference Champions to try to stick together for the most part and hope the players mature together.
Mark Cuban's maverick reputation is one reason the team will be included in most rumors. The other is that the Mavericks have a well balance roster with multiple players at just about every position and not too many crazy contracts. Which makes it easy for fans and sports writers to come up with salary combinations that will work for the Mavericks and whatever trade they want to see happen.
After tasting the thrill of victory of their nemesis, San Antonio, in the playoffs, getting a little revenge on Steve Nash who knocked them out of the previous playoffs, and playing in the NBA Finals, Dallas players, coaches and fans will be expecting another run to the Finals in June of 2007.
But the path back will be even more difficult than ever. San Antonio will likely re-load and fill some holes in their roster and Phoenix should have Amare Stoudamire back in the line-up wrecking havoc on opposing defenses. The Houston Rockets will likely bounce back from a devastating season, the Clippers may be on the rise, the Grizzlies are hot on their heals and the Lakers will not go away as long as Kobe Bryant is shooting the rock.
Just winning the Western Conference in 2007 will be a huge victory for any team, and the Easter Conference, while not as deep, obviously has several potent threats given the two NBA Championships in the last 3 years.
The good news for Mavericks fans is that this team has been built to win, both now and in the long run. Their salary structure is in much better shape than a few years ago and they have several key young players in place to lead the team in the future. The future is bright in Dallas and they should contend for titles for several years to come.