Monday, March 12, 2012

How the Mavericks Made Me Think of U2

Watching the Dallas Mavericks crash and burn over the weekend in a 3-game road trip against teams that are more than beatable was not an easy thing to do for most fans of the defending NBA Champion. The fact that in the 4th Quarter of Friday's loss in Sacramento and Saturday's loss at Golden State there wasn't a single moment where the Mavericks trailed by less than double digits pretty much said all that needed to be said about such a horrid stretch. They were having trouble just staying competitive on the road again.

Heading into this stretch of 9 games in 12 nights coming out of the All-Star break, nobody had high hopes for the oldest team in the league. The idea was to do everything possible to remember that this is not vital and that minutes need to continue to be monitored. Stay the course and try to get through it with 4 or 5 wins and be happy. The one saving grace of the schedule is that they were going to play all of the bottom feeders in the Western Conference, so at least the schedule seemed to go easy on them. Unless, they would go to New Orleans, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Golden State and lose every single one of them (and at Memphis and Oklahoma City as well).

For good measure, they lost to New Jersey at home, too, leaving just home wins against Utah and New York to grab 2 wins in 9 games and to leave this stretch badly beaten and perhaps coming apart at the seams.

The Mavericks sit at 23-20 after only a few weeks back being a 21-12 team that had a measure of belief that they were on their way again. Now, they cling to the bottom of the playoff picture wondering if they can hold off the young and hungry teams nipping at their heels for the final playoff spots.

And it was during this weekend of watching the Mavs that I did what nobody else watching this team likely did; I thought about U2. That's right, my favorite band popped in my head as I watched a team that was everybody's favorite squad go through a very tough stretch. Could that possibly make any sense?

Recently, I watched a great U2 documentary, "From the Sky Down" about the band's reinvention after Rattle and Hum in the early 1990's that resulted in the album, "Achtung, Baby" and what has followed for the last two decades. For reasons of creativity and perceived staleness, the band wanted to "reinvent" everything they did and try to remain a top group by throwing out what made them successful and in their words, "go away for a while and dream it up all over again".

How could U2 and the Dallas Mavericks be categorized together in my head while watching a blow-out in Golden State? I recalled a quote from the documentary that seemed to fit. It was Bono talking about being in the middle of the old band and the new band and feeling like they were neither fish nor fowl: "You have to reject one expression of the band first before you can get to the next expression, and in between, you have nothing. You have to risk it all."

The premise was simple, if they were going to truly transform from what they were to what they were to become, they had to reject the old group and embrace what was ahead. But, in between was scary and unpleasant to say the least.

Now, here is where the comparison breaks down. The band members bought into the transformation, because they knew that if there was going to be a U2 moving forward, all 4 members of the band were invited to be part of the next phase.

With the Mavericks, the next phase of this basketball franchise will include only a small few of the group that earned a spot in basketball immortality in June of 2011. Which takes us back to last December.

Mark Cuban had a decision to make. A major, major decision. Would he keep his defending champions together now that the new collective bargain agreement was going to complicate that financially with a much stiffer luxury tax, or would he make the very difficult short-term decision to allow Tyson Chandler and JJ Barea to walk, thus allowing him to compete in the summer of 2012 for that next franchise player(s) and that next evolution of Dallas Mavericks basketball.

They were an old team that won the title. So old that people thought the age was their biggest enemy, as the young legs in Oklahoma City or Miami could wear them down in a series. But, it didn't happen. Now, Cuban could double-down and keep everything intact, or he could play the percentages and take his winnings and now try to turn the roster over for the start of 2012-13.

But, what would that mean for 2011-12? And more importantly, what would that make the next 6 months like for all of those warriors who battled for the prize last season, but knew all along that they were not part of the master plan moving forward? Surely, they would feel like the dumped girlfriend, but unlike the poor girl, you have to work with Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Brendan Haywood, and maybe even Shawn Marion, every day until the summer. They would be pros, but deep down inside they knew that you choose to turn the page instead of letting them properly defend what they earned until someone on the court took them down.

That is the natural order of these things. Bands seldom realize before it is too late that they are getting stale. They keep playing the same songs until nobody shows up at their concerts. They shrink the venues and the tours and embrace that all good things come to an end.

But, in sports, you know it is over when you are defeated. Only, the Mavericks weren't defeated. The 2011 Mavericks were champions, and then their owner decided that they would not defend their title in the name of the big picture. Only, the big picture would not include many of the players on the court - just the people making the decisions and a few select players would be invited to stay.

This is the difference between fantasy sports and real sports; In fantasy sports, when you make a move, you don't have to factor in how the locker-room will feel. But, in real sports, the locker-room knows that you are asking them to play a season while packing up their belongings to move wherever the league takes them when they are free in 2012. Play a season, play hard for each other, but Terry knows that he is looking for work when free agency opens this summer. Say nothing about the new guys, like, Vince Carter, Delonte West, and Lamar Odom, who are all likely playing in Dallas for what amounts to 4 or 5 months before they continue their careers at another locale. Sometimes, you would never know that there could be 12 different agendas in the room. They are paid to play hard and for each other and they should do what they are paid handsomely to do.

But, other times, they are the rejected girlfriend. They will simply go through the motions because they know you don't care to keep them around, and just like JJ, Chandler, and the championship team, you are going to replace them if you have your way in the summer when you can court a newer, younger model named Deron or Dwight (or both!).

Bono said, "in between, you have nothing. You have to risk it all." It appears this shortened 66-game season is the "in between". And it seems when watching this stretch of 7 consecutive road losses (the worst stretch since 1999) that the Mavericks are experiencing that feeling of nothing. They also seem to have risked it all to play in free agency in the summer.

Now, I have been wrong before. The Mavericks won the title in a year where I thought Portland would take them down. They can still get out of this mess by kicking their season in to high gear. But, last year they were playing for each other. This year, when you look at their faces, you wonder if they have a cause worth fighting for. Many know they are being discarded with full wallets and a ring on their finger.

But, aside from Dirk Nowitzki, who really knows they are being invited back?

Cuban was willing to risk it all. He obviously believes in his vision of where this franchise will be in 3 years. Only time will tell if he got this gamble right. In between, it is tough to watch.


Will said...

I understand the sentiment of future free agent as jilted girlfriend, but that idea contradicts how we always see free agency play out in all sports. Athletes nearly always peak in a free agent year because they are playing for that next contract. Also, last years team had several free agents (Tyson, Barea, Butler, Stevenson, Cardinal, Stojakovic) that almost all had career stretches in the playoffs and were rewarded.

Does Jet really lack motivation to defend his title because he is worried about next season? There is plenty wrong at the moment with this team, but uncertainty and doubters almost universally motivate athletes not demotivate them.

Keep up the good work Bob.

Mark said...

Great writing as usual Bob! Very well said. In a weird way, i kind of feel like the 'Championship Mavs' will always be immortal. We won't have to watch the championship mavs decline and get defeated....Cuban blew that team up, so it doesn't really exist anymore.

That title was won mainly with an 'us against the world' attitude and chemistry, whereas this mavs team is SOME of the champs, along with 'some guys'. So i don't quite see it as the defending champs.

It's more like the heavyweight champ retired and the title is open this year.