No team -- save the Cleveland Cavaliers, for obvious reasons -- has had a more pleasantly surprising offseason than the Dallas Mavericks. They filled a glaring hole, added a rising star and filled the margins with cheap, veteran production.
With Dirk Nowitzi still hanging on as a dark horse MVP candidate and Rick Carlisle functioning as the second best coach in the league, Dallas is perhaps once again on the brink of another title run. But how they got here makes things all the more impressive. No disrespect meant to Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson or the honeymoon effect Carlisle and Nowitzki have on just about every player who crosses their path, but pulling this transformation off was a minor miracle.
Before they wrestled Chandler Parsons away from a bitter in-state rival and welcomed Tyson Chandler back into the fold courtesy of a semi-surprising trade with the New York Knicks, it was starting to look like the Mavericks would never get back to the top with Dirk as their first or second-best player. Last season was a definite step in the right direction -- with Dallas' offense steamrolling opponents after the All-Star break and pushing the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs to a seventh game in the first round --but they were still an eight-seed in the brutal Western Conference, with no young assets, draft picks or easily identifiable way to get significantly better.
Four years ago, the Mavericks were NBA champions, a passing comet layered with brilliant shooting, veteran leadership, impenetrable will, genius coaching and a German Hercules. But their exit from center stage was as swift and surprising as their appearance in the first place. In light of the league's new Collective Bargaining Agreement and its punitive luxury tax, Cuban prioritized long-term cap flexibility over a short-sighted title defense. Chandler was too expensive and J.J. Barea (hahaha) fled to the highest bidder. Debates will forever rage about whether letting those guys/primarily Chandler go was the right decision, but what's far more interesting is the subsequent course they went down to try and keep the team competitive.
Each summer since 2011, Cuban and Nelson swung for the fences, but never on a 0-2 count with two outs and the bases empty. Even with a first-class reputation, five-star facilities, Dirk, Carlisle and a freaking championship banner still visible in the rearview mirror, Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and every other free agent superstar said thanks but no thanks.
Mavs brass instead spent the next three years supplementing Nowitzki with veterans on affordable, tradable contracts. Wasting the end of their aging franchise icon's career by sticking him on a middling playoff wannabe was a very realistic scenario all involved parties had to realize and be cool with.
"Tanking" was never an option, and the team either chose not to hoard assets perceived to hold immense value by the rest of the league or were never in position to gather any. Cuban zigged while the league zagged, rebuilding on the fly with the likes of Vince Carter, O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Elton Brand, Chris Kaman, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon and Devin Harris.
Not all worked out (Odom!), but the Carlisle/Nowitzki duo helped the majority, especially Ellis, whose reputation as a disruptive offensive weapon was revived last season. And now here they are, with pieces in place to, at the very least, give themselves a puncher's chance over the next two postseasons.
Dallas' defense wasn't their strength last season, and their inability to protect the rim against San Antonio was ultimately the biggest crutch that did them in. The not-so-scary defensive foursome of Sam Dalembert, DeJuan Blair, Brandan Wright and Dirk allowed the Spurs to shoot 62.5 percent at the basket through those seven games. No playoff team did worse. (For a comparison: the Timberwolves allowed opponents to shoot 55.6 percent at the rim during the regular season, which ranked 30th out of 30 teams.)
Chandler turns 32 on Oct. 2. He battled several injuries last year, and wasn't nearly the same rim-protecting presence who won Defensive Player of the Year in 2011-12, or served as the anchor for Dallas' title-winning squad one season earlier. Opponents made over half their shots at the rim with him directly protecting it last year, according to SportVU, a disappointing figure compared to the league's more intimidating bigs.
But Chandler is playing for a new contract this season and putting work in a system he's more than familiar with. It's unlikely he ever resumes his status as one of the league's best defensive players, but Dallas just needs him to be better than what they had, which isn't outside the realm of possibility.
In a vacuum, Parsons' contract is terrible; $46 million over three years for a defensively clueless forward who turns 26 in October and has never sniffed an All-Star game. But it's not like he's bad. Parsons can create off the dribble, slaughter defenses in transition, run a nice pick-and-roll without turning it over and knock down three balls with his eyes closed. He's a good passer and effective rebounder. In Dallas, he'll go from Kevin McHale to Carlisle, is removed from Dwight Howard post-ups clogging his driving lanes and has magical Dirk dust sprinkled atop his well-coiffed, handsome head.
These positive factors alone still don't make Parsons' deal acceptable, but Nowitzki's massive pay cut changes everything. The best International player in league history recently turned down max offers from the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets for a relatively dirt cheap three-year, $25 million deal. The two will combine to make approximately $22 million next year -- a.k.a. only $2 million more than Williams' bill with the Brooklyn Nets -- and both have player options in 2016, when the NBA could potentially unleash its most impressive free agency class of all time.
Parsons is still improving, but the Rockets weren't comfortable making him the third-wheel on their Howard-James Harden bicycle, and that makes sense. But Dirk and Carlisle change the context for Dallas. Both should help him become even more versatile and efficient.
Defense remains a problem, but Parsons was always better on the ball than off it -- he tends to freeze guarding screeners on the pick-and-roll. But he's a smart player who could show improvement in an environment that holds players accountable for their actions.
Richard Jefferson and Greg Smith
Richard Jefferson, come on down! The 34-year-old is actually not totally washed up, and is quietly coming off a Comeback Player of the Year worthy season with the Utah Jazz. In 78 starts, he shot 40.9 percent from the three-point line and 49.1 percent from the corner, and nearly half his total shot attempts were from beyond the arc, too, which is exactly what Carlisle will ask of him. Jefferson can't create off the dribble quite like Carter did, but who knows? Maybe the NBA's own Shangri-La will draw stuff out even he didn't know was there.
Greg Smith is a huge dude whose had unfortunate injury issues the last couple years. But when healthy, he's an efficient scorer near the basket (his dunks hurt people) with gigantic hands and fantastic rebounding technique. Smith's picks crush bones, and on defense he can provide competent backup minutes at an affordable price.
Both of these players were signed to veteran minimum deals (they made an effort to bring Rashard Lewis into the fold as well, but voided his contract after learning he needed knee surgery), and they'll do their best to replace pricier pieces like Carter and (possibly) Shawn Marion. That's a good dose of veteran leadership, shooting (something they'll also miss from the departed Calderon) and defense that Dallas will lose out on, but their overall overhaul definitely makes them a better team.
The Mavs could still use some point guard depth, and have the room mid-level exception to splurge on someone like Jameer Nelson, Mo Williams or Jordan Crawford. That position isn't a deal breaker for their championship hopes, though -- not with Ellis handling the ball as much as he does, and Parsons looking to play a little point this season. Raymond Felton is somehow still in Texas, and if any situation is conducive to him playing like a basketball player it's this one.
Dallas' roster isn't perfect. Its defense probably won't be in the top-10 at any point next season, and health is a major concern for several key pieces who are long past their 30th birthday. But if everyone's on the same page come April, with Dirk able to log 35 minutes a game, Parsons reaching his All-Star potential and Ellis continuing to pin-ball his way to the rim at will, this offense will be one of the NBA's toughest to stop; at times, it'll teeter on unguardable.
Do they have enough to get through the Western Conference? Maybe. But the mere thought that we're even asking that question right now is a testament to the fantastic job Dallas has already done rebuilding its team.