Sunday , Mar , 07 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

The Last Days in Dallas

In what has become a yearly tradition, the Dallas Mavericks seem to have the loftiest of expectations going into the season, then like a recurring nightmare, they fall apart in the playoffs. While it may seem like the Mavs are just subject to repeated spells of bad luck, there is, in fact, a method behind their badness. The pitfalls which plague them in the postseason can be traced back to their off-season acquisitions and their defensive inabilities, which will once again be revealed come late May.

While last year’s second place finish in the beastly Western Conference is nothing to be ashamed of, Dallas’s off-season moves made them a worse team. Nash, Nowitzki and Finley may get all the adulation, but it was the departed Nick Van Exel who carried the Mavericks to the Conference Finals. Both a selfless player and a reliable backup to the oft-overworked Steve Nash, Van Exel was a sparkplug off the bench who could put up big numbers, just the type of player that Dallas needed. In exchange for Van Exel and Raef LaFrenz, Dallas received an undersized power forward in Antawn Jamison, a defensive pariah in Antoine Walker and a one statistic non-factor in the board crashing, Danny Fortson. Neither these trades, nor the acquisition of journeyman Scott Williams make up for the interior toughness that was lacking in the last year’s playoffs. The Mavs new additions may offer more offensive firepower, but their weaknesses defensively are more exaggerated than last year.

The regular season and the postseason are two completely brands of basketball, Dallas’s approach offers neither the types of players to compete in such a system nor the mentality. The Mavericks utilize fast breaks and quick shots to outscore their opponents. However, in the playoffs, defenses step up their intensity which makes for fewer fast breaks and tougher half-court possessions. While they have demonstrated that they can still put up big numbers in the postseason, Dallas cannot afford to have a bad shooting night. As the first half of the March 5th contest against the Spurs proved, without any offensive production, the Mavs had no way of putting up a battle, getting outscored 33-59. The defensive intensity that the Spurs showed will be the norm in the postseason, and it will serve as a harsh wake-up call for Dallas. Rather than the January defenses that allow the Mavericks to routinely drop C notes, Nash and Company will have to work for every bucket, and buckle down defensively, two facets of playoff basketball that they have yet to grasp.

Without the personnel to guard the Western Conference’s low post elite on each possession, the overmatched Mavs will not stand a chance come playoff time. Dallas was undersized last year with Raef LaFrenz in the post, but at least he had the ability to block and alter shots. Shawn Bradley and Williams are big bodies, but will be put through a clinic led by Garnett, Shaq, and Duncan in the postseason. Moreover, Antawn Jamison lacks the desire to battle down low while Antoine Walker’s playoff track record includes two abusive relationships with Kenyon Martin. In the backcourt, Dallas had the luxury to rely on hard-nosed Eduardo Najera and Raja Bell in the crunch time in 2003, but Najera is hampered by a nagging injury and will probably be a non-factor, while Bell is now making a name for himself in Utah. Although rookies Marquise Daniels and Josh Howard have shown the ability to play defense, they are still learning the pro game and are probably a year or two away from making a significant impact. Dallas may be perfecting the 3 on 2 fast break drill during the regular season, but without the foundations of the half-court defense in place, opposing teams will be free to score at will.

Just because the Mavericks are not the prototypical team does not necessarily mean that they are doomed in June, but they have to play with offensive consistency every game. This possibility is not too far-fetched; as they showed in last year’s playoffs, they have the capacity to score triple digits on any given night. However, with many of the Western Conference teams making improvements in the off-season, it will not be easy for Dallas to duplicate last year’s success. Historically it is usually the stronger defensive team that succeeds in the playoffs; if the Mavs do not either go on an offensive tear in the postseason or make significant philosophical changes, then they are in danger of becoming an annotation in the annals of history.