When last the Golden State Warriors encountered the Dallas Mavericks, things might not have entirely been on the up and up for the home team but they had managed to say afloat even without star forward Dirk Nowitzki.
Like the Warriors they were hovering around .500 and looking to just find a way to maintain until their veteran leader could return to the lineup. As you probably recall, the Road Warriors escaped Dallas with a victory in overtime and followed that by winning 16 of their next 21 games to put themselves firmly in the thick of the playoffs. The Mavs, on the other hand, fell on hard times after that night, losing 4 of their next 6 and then struggling to find any consistency before Nowitzki returned earlier than expected back on December 23.
Obviously, with Nowitzki back in the lineup this is a different Mavericks team than the one that the Warriors saw in November: after their early season struggles, the Mavs are back to playing .500 ball with him in the lineup and have renewed hope of making the playoffs. Nevertheless, Mavs fans are still pessimistic about the direction of their team for a number of reasons.
For insight on the impact of Dirk's return and the direction of the franchise, I asked a few questions of Jonathan Tjarks formerly of SB Nation Dallas but now writing for SBN's Mavs Moneyball.
Q&A with Mavs Moneyball
1. Dirk is back now and the Mavs are 6-6 with him in the starting lineup. Obviously, he helps this team, but what do you think is the biggest boost he's given the team and is there anything that you think he's lost due to his injury absence?
Jonathan Tjarks: Dirk is still clearly not himself, which you can see in his career-low FTA's and rebounding numbers. He doesn't have much mobility on his knee and he struggles to move laterally. It's also a big issue on defense, as it's hard to hide a big man with his limited mobility, especially when he's playing with the equally lead-footed Chris Kaman.
However, his mere presence still makes the game so much easier for his teammates offensively, if they remember to use him. He's still a deadly shooter from any part of the floor, which opens up room for everyone else, particularly off the P/R. And in an end of the clock situation, Dirk can always create a makeable fade-away shot. Really the biggest problem is incorporating him into an offense that doesn't have too many familiar faces. Neither OJ Mayo nor Darren Collison is the best passer in the world and both go 1-on-1 far too often instead of involving Dirk.
2. In a Q&A back in mid-November, Kirk Henderson told us that he thought the Mavs simply aren't a very good team. Josh Bowe wrote just yesterday that the Mavs are still losers until they prove otherwise. On the flip side, perhaps the players proved that this unit is flexible, if inconsistent. But what do you think Mavs fans learned about what this roster needs - and perhaps the direction of the franchise - while Dirk was out due to injury?
JT: Dirk had been papering over a lot of holes in how the Mavs front-office acquires and develops players for years. Without him on the floor, the lack of talent across the board became very obvious. There's a reason Dallas has given significant minutes to four guys (Eddy Curry, Troy Murphy, Derek Fisher and Mike James) who wouldn't have got a sniff of playing time anywhere else. The only reason Dallas has (somewhat) managed to stay afloat is the strong play of Vince Carter and Shawn Marion, as well as OJ Mayo, whose been the only one of their one-year rentals to look like he could be a long-term piece. Frankly, there's a lot of pessimism surrounding the Mavs and it's very well deserved. They have a lot of cap room, sure, but whose really coming here to play with a team whose best players were drafted in the 1990's? It's the 2010's!
3. One player on the Mavs who I've been interested in since the 2012 draft is Jae Crowder, who showed flashes of promise in summer league. But it seems like he's gotten really inconsistent minutes for most of the season. How do you think he's progressing and how does he fit into this unit?
JT: Crowder isn't progressing at all and he's basically lost his spot in the rotation to Dahntay Jones. I'm not so sure that's the wisest course of action for a team seven games under .500 in the middle of January, but that's a different question.
His problem is simple: he doesn't really have a defensive position. He's a 6'6", 235 tweener forward who played at the 4 in college and there's just no way he has the size to for that in the NBA. Right now, at least, he doesn't appear comfortable defending out on the perimeter either. That means he has to impact the game as a scorer and a rebounder if he's going to see the floor and he's been slumping from the three-point line lately. If he was 2 or 3 inches taller, I think he'd have a long NBA career but I'm just not sure he'll be able to stick given his physical limitations.
4. For all the pessimism about the Mavs, they are still in the playoff chase. What would you say is the key to this team making a strong push for the playoffs (aside from seeing improvements from Dirk)?
JT: The key to what's left of this season is what Dallas gets from their C and PG positions. There's a reason Collison is on his third NBA team in five years. He puts up decent stats and looks good from a distance, but if you watch him on a nightly basis, his decision-making is enough to drive you insane. You never know what you're going to get from him on a nightly basis, which isn't something you want to say about your starting PG.
Chris Kaman has been a disaster upfront, especially now that Dirk is back. He's awful defensively and he's an absolute black hole on offense. He's currently out with a concussion which may be for the best, and I really don't like saying things like that b/c he's a nice-enough guy. If Dallas is going to make a push this season, it's going to be on the backs of their three other big men -- Elton Brand, Bernard James and your boy Brandan Wright. Brand is a savvy vet who gives you solid two-way play, while James, who has a fascinating backstory as a 27-year old former Army major, is their best defender/shot-blocker. Wright is a polarizing player in Mavs circles, but I'm firmly in his corner. The guy just gets buckets. If Carlisle can figure out a way to play the matchups with his three-headed center rotation, maybe Dallas has a chance.
5. A lot of fan bases would look at a season like the Mavs are having with aging starters and start clamoring for a tank. Obviously, the Warriors drew the ire of other fan bases for doing exactly that last season (spurred by the threat of losing their draft pick). What would you say is the feeling among Mavs fans about a youth movement or tanking with a playoff berth likely resulting in an early exit?
JT: Dallas hasn't won less than 50 games in this millennium so Mavs fans aren't used to even worrying about the draft. More importantly, neither is their front office. If you want a laugh, go look at what Dallas has done in the draft lately. No joke, but Josh Howard, whose long NBA career is probably over, was their last good draft pick. As far as tanking goes, the real question is, if you're letting Mike James take last-second shots, can anyone tell the difference?
6. If you were to pinpoint one key that seems to determine wins and losses for the Mavs, what do you think it would be?
JT: Asides from how frisky Dirk is feeling, the key to Mavs games, as I touched on earlier, is what they get from their 1's and 5's. If the Mavs PG's can avoid turning the ball over and get them into sets, and the Mavs C's can give them solid two-way play, they're a decent team who can put a scare into anyone. If they don't, they can lose to anyone too. It's been a fairly maddening team to watch, to say the least.
For more on the Mavericks, check out SB Nation's Mavs site Mavs Moneyball.