Thursday, December 22, 2011

Time to Start Anew

It was properly pointed out to me yesterday that the Rangers and Mavericks, while both having the most successful years in their franchise's history, look at the upcoming "Opening Days" in their respective sports with entirely different viewpoints.

From a Rangers' viewpoint, they aspire to get 2012 going as soon as possible in an effort to go get what they feel is rightfully theirs. However large the odds are, you can understand the premise of thinking 2010 and 2011 need to be avenged and the only way to do that is to actually WIN the World Series this summer. Pretty high bar, but I already know baseball fans who are chomping at the bit to get after it. That is what finishing 2nd for 2 consecutive years will do to a fan.

But, the Mavericks view seems a bit different. At least from a fan perspective on the radio airwaves, it seems that the new season is not wildly anticipated. You wonder, in the minds of those fans who so badly wanted the NBA title last season, if given a choice Mavericks fans might vote to have the offseason go even longer before having to put that heavyweight title belt back in play.

It is fun being champion, but while the defense of that cherished crown officially begins on Sunday, many can't help but grimace at the thought of the title being somewhat conceded when the Mavericks brass decided to pass on the Tyson Chandler sweepstakes.

I know, I know. Lamar Odom is here. Vince Carter (gulp) is here. Heck, even Delonte West is here (you cannot write this stuff). But, if I am going to trumpet the title being largely due to dynamic attributes that Chandler brought to the table and his undeniable fingerprints on the Larry O'Brien trophy, then I think it would be beyond foolish to then argue that his exit will not be felt at the very core of what made this team special.

And that is why statistics cannot fully be trusted when you try to articulate what he meant to the Mavericks title. 10 points and 9 rebounds? Nice, but hardly irreplaceable. And yet, as the Mavericks enter the new year, I am convinced that the team is trying to find a plug for a irreplaceable hole. He was that important.

Protecting the rim. Attacking the rim. Calling a team meeting. Picking up a teammate. Sticking up for another. Giving everyone in his team's jersey muscles they didn't have when he wasn't around. Maybe the best example of how great he was here was on full display in the NBA Finals. Brendan Haywood left the finals in Game 2 with an injured hip. He did not play in Game 3, 5, or 6, and played just 3 minutes in Game 4. This put the team in an enormous pickle, especially given the number of times that Wade and Lebron attack the rim. No backup center? Chandler had to remain aggressive in his defense of the paint, but he also had to stay out of foul trouble and stay on the floor. That was a very tall order as guys who are trying to avoid foul trouble seldom can maintain their aggressive style. Tyson did it on the biggest stage and did it very, very well. Certainly he did not get the headlines from that series that some of his mates did, but his impact was clear to all around the series.

I don't believe Mark Cuban or Donnie Nelson would debate Chandler's impact to the title. Everyone knows what he meant to the squad, especially them. But, when it came time to marry their 2011 championship roster through 2015 or "keep the powder dry" under the new collective bargaining agreement, they opted for the latter. We will only know if they made the right call in a few years. Actually, maybe we will never truly know, because we can only guess what the 2011 Mavericks would have been able to do in defense of their own crown. Instead, Chandler is in New York. JJ Barea is in Minnesota (also not offered a long-term deal). And DeShawn Stevenson is off to New Jersey.

But, they are banking on having all of the cap space in the world available and thus will be able to go shopping at the finest stores in free agency this summer. One can only hope that the stores aren't all sold out of franchise players when the Mavericks arrive with a full wallet on July 1st. That is the gamble they are willing to take, so it is certainly a reasonable plan to let them prove they were correct to follow their guts. They certainly did not take the easy path at this fork in the road. I can't imagine anyone would have questioned them for bringing Chandler and Barea back. But, not bringing them back sets them up for 2nd guessing for at least 7 months and possibly years and years.

Meanwhile, the franchise embarks on one of the remaining years of Dirk Nowitzki's prime with a team that can be anywhere between pretty good and really good. Anyone who can project what losing Chandler, Stevenson, and Barea and adding Carter, Odom, and West can look like before we see it on Sunday is smarter than I am. I wonder if there is enough defense, rebounding, rim protecting, leadership, and of course, with Carter, are there even enough basketballs to go around?

The team certainly looks versatile and exciting. But, last year when the squad needed a stop, they could put a very impressive defensive 5 on the floor at the same time. Now, they are missing that last, and most vital piece of the mix. The guy who can protect the paint. Haywood will no doubt be sold as a suitable stand-in, and only time will tell. To this juncture of his Mavericks career, one might suggest that those flashes of paint domination have been rare and without regularity.

One of the other notes of interest is how the Mavericks squad that certainly has experience and age in abundant amounts can deal with the very unique circumstances of 2011-12. Usually, a champion must deal with the "short summer" and tired legs because of all of the playoff miles. That is completely taken off the table here with well over 2 months added to the summer vacation due to the lockout.

A 66 game schedule should help an aging team. But, compacting those games in a much tighter window should hurt. 20 back-to-backs will test depth and health, and that is why one should be pleased with how much depth they have assembled.

So, how good will the Mavericks be? Great question. The West is as competitive as ever, but the top end might be a bit lighter than usual. The Lakers and Spurs both appear to be flawed as well. The Clippers have to show their quality on the court, and that leaves upstarts like Memphis and Oklahoma City to prove that they can take that next step. All of these facts may argue that maybe the band should have been kept together, but as they used to say, "there is no point crying over spilled milk".

The Mavericks are ready to bravely defend their title with an all-new group. What makes it particularly odd is that this group may all just be passing through before the new, new group assembles for 2012-13. This is the new NBA, and we should all get used to it. Shorter contracts and less roster continuity seems to be one of the effects of the new CBA.

Whatever. The banner goes up on Sunday. And an irate Wade and LeBron will be watching and preparing to try to make a bold statement with the basketball world watching.

How good will the Mavericks be?

As someone who said "Portland in 6", my predicting rights have been revoked.

We shall all find out together on Sunday.

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