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NBA Sunday: Mavericks Are Contenders

With Tyson Chandler, Dirk Nowitzki and good fortune, the Mavericks may surprise the NBA. Again.

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When Dirk Nowitzki received Jason Kidd’s pass from the top of the key, he immediately realized that Chris Bosh—the man who he had dominated all series long—was out of position.

With nine seconds on the shot clock and the Miami HEAT desperately trying to salvage the game—and their season—Nowitzki made his move.

He pivoted, drove to his left and picked up his dribble. Udonis Haslem closed in, but Nowitzki gently put his head in the sternum of Bosh and knocked him off balance.

It was a long 13-year wait that Nowitzki decided had lasted long enough.

He rose up over the out-of-position Bosh and connected on a rainbow jumper on the baseline. There was 2:30 remaining in Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals, but this was the nail in the coffin.

On this night, Notwitzki led his Dallas Mavericks to the promised land.

With any luck, in 2015, he will have another opportunity.

Nowitzki is a bit wiser, has a bit more mileage and is a bit more, say, ripe than he was in 2011. But back then, when his Mavericks shocked the world, he succeeded thanks to a talented supporting cast that augmented his skills and helped him play to his talents.

Being fully aware of the NBA’s new economic era that was on the horizon, Mark Cuban made the somewhat controversial decision to put his championship in his pocket, look forward, and make some difficult decisions that saw key cogs of the championship take their talents elsewhere.

J.J. Barea left for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Corey Brewer headed to the Denver Nuggets, Caron Butler found himself as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers and DeShawn Stevenson and Tyson Chandler—two of the team’s starters—became a New Jersey Net and New York Knick, respectively.

It’s been a long three years.

Combined, the Mavericks have gone 126-104. In 2013, they failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2000—the year Cuban purchased the team. And even though they rebounded last season with a 49-33 campaign, they couldn’t get past the San Antonio Spurs in the first round, despite being the only team to take the eventual champions to a seventh and deciding game.

Now, three years later, with the riper version of Nowitzki, the Mavericks have reassembled a strong supporting cast around him that will enter 2014-15 as one of the dark horse teams in the Western Conference. The recent dominance of the Spurs, the continued toiling of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the emergence of the Golden State Warriors and the improvement of the Los Angeles Clippers have helped contribute to a growing belief that the Mavericks are a team of yesteryear.

That’s far from true.

———

Injuries are a part of the game.

It’s a somewhat trite expression, but that doesn’t make it false.

The Washington Wizards know that well, as they will be forced to begin their season without Bradley Beal. The Spurs have shut reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard down for the remainder of the preseason due to an eye infection and reigning league MVP Kevin Durant’s Jones fracture could have him out until Thanksgiving.

In Chicago, Derrick Rose is still trying to get himself and his body back to 100 percent so that his talent-laden team can have an opportunity to fulfill their potential.

Indeed, injuries are a part of the game. Along the way, players get hurt, and sometimes, a team that was quietly waiting in the wings—quietly toiling when nobody was watching—pounces and seizes opportunity when it presents itself.

That could be the 2014-15 Mavericks.

Last season, the Thunder’s playoff hopes were dashed when Serge Ibaka suffered a left calf injury.

The season before, in 2013, they lost All-NBA performer Russell Westbrook after he suffered a meniscus tear in the team’s first round playoff series against the Houston Rockets.

In 2012, it was Rose’s tearing of his ACL that changed the landscape of the title chase in the Eastern Conference, but key injuries to the likes of Joakim Noah and Iman Shumpert played a role, as well.

In 2011, Amar’e Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups were hobbled, and the New York Knicks were D.O.A.

Clearly, not all of the aforementioned teams were actually championship contenders, but as we enter 2014-15 with Durant, Leonard, Beal and Paul George on the shelf, we can also easily recall the fact that many players who do play for Eastern contenders—Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Pau Gasol and Kyle Lowry, for example—have had their fair share of health woes in the recent past.

Out West, aside from Durant and Leonard, there is copious concern amongst fans of the Golden State Warriors over both Andre Iguodala and Stephen Curry. The same can be said of Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers.

The unfortunate truth is that players get hurt and teams who were long thought to be over the hill and outside of contention—a team like the Dallas Mavericks—are presented with an opportunity to rise up and surprise a few people.

That is far from false.

———

This past offseason, we were witnesses to something quite rare. The Mavericks and Nuggets explicitly admitted making mistakes when the teams reacquired players that they had previously traded. For the Nuggets, it was Arron Afflalo and for the Mavericks, it was Tyson Chandler.

After being signed-and-traded to the Knicks back in December 2011, Chandler was just as good as advertised for his first two years in New York City. Last season, though, Chandler became frustrated with the franchise for its lack of leadership and direction, suffered through multiple injuries and simply had trouble being as effective as he once was.

With Phil Jackson taking over in New York and the team hell-bent on installing a triangle offense, Chandler didn’t seem to fit. Jackson opted to trade Chandler back to the Mavericks and Cuban was more than happy to welcome Chandler back.

With Nowitzki and Chandler reunited, the hope for Rick Carlisle’s team is that they can recapture their past glory and play an offensive system that was similar to the one utilized by their 2011 title team. Nowitzki and Chandler will be asked to play themselves, but it is Monta Ellis and Chandler Parsons who must take their games to another level if the Mavericks are to have any sort of sustained success.

Ellis, entering just his second year with the club, has already shown good chemistry with Nowitzki. Eerily similar to Jason Terry, Ellis found his way to Dallas with a reputation of being a somewhat selfish, shot-happy miniature combo guard.

Jameer Nelson, Devin Harris and Raymond Felton probably lack the collective talent of Jason Kidd and J.J. Barea, but so long as the trio can help maintain floor spacing and avoid turnovers, Carlisle will probably be content with having Ellis handle the ball more often than Terry did since Ellis is more adept at getting to the basket.

Eventually, Al-Farouq Aminu and Brandan Wright could emerge as impact rotation pieces and if one of either Jae Crowder, Gal Mekel or even Richard Jefferson can find a way to give this team something every single day, the Mavs will be in business.

The Mavericks may need some help in the form of a key injury or two in the Western Conference, and they may need one more piece between now and February’s trade deadline, but to not consider them as a team capable of surprising many people this season?

That would be a major mistake.

———

In the end, as usual, it will all fall on the head and shoulders of the franchise player.

Now, at 36 years old, Nowitzki’s tires are well worn, but they may still have some tread left, even though that was up for debate as recently as one year ago.

A balky knee caused Nowitzki to appear in just 53 games during the 2012-13 season, where he averaged just 17.3 points and 6.8 rebounds. One would have had to go back to Nowitzki’s second year in the league (2000) to find similar numbers.

However, last season, with Ellis as his running mate, Nowitzki played 32.9 minutes in 80 of the Mavericks’ 82 games. He shot over 49 percent from the field for the just the third time in his 16-year career and managed to score 21.7 points per game.

This season, splitting shots with Ellis and Parsons, Nowitzki’s numbers may decrease, but his efficiency and proficiency are still there.

Together, with Chandler, the two hope to recapture their past glory.

The last time Nowitzki and Chandler shared the court as teammates was on June 12, 2011.

With about 30 seconds remaining until the Mavericks solidified themselves as basketball royalty, ahead by nine points, Nowitzki received a Kidd pass on a cut and gently converted a left-handed finger roll over the outstretched arm of Chris Bosh.

It was the same exact game-winning shot that Nowitzki converted to help the Mavericks pull of an amazing Game 2 comeback in this very same building—the AmericanAirlines Arena.

With LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Bosh all standing in the paint, Nowitzki had effectively risen up, over and above Miami’s Big 3.

As he and Chandler retreated down the court on the game’s final token defensive possession, in unison, they raised their arms in triumph.

After Chandler corralled a loose ball on the HEAT’s final possession, he and Nowitzki, in unison, put both of their hands on top of their heads.

Gasping, teary eyed and overcome with emotion, in unison, Chandler and Nowitzki locked eyes and marveled at their accomplishment. They had toppled the dynasty.

Together, they defied father time and even Las Vegas. Together, they became champions.

That was the last time Chandler and Nowitzki shared the court with one another.

Now, as they suit up together yet again—each a bit older and wiser—together, they hope that they can turn back the hands of time.

With a new supporting cast and brilliant front office management, the Mavericks will attempt to surprise everyone this season.

And if they do, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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