Last season, the Mavs won 55 games, which was the second-best mark in the Bestern Conference and fourth-best in the league (behind the Cavaliers, Lakers and Magic). Then they lost in the first round of the playoffs for the third time in the last four years. Sure, it was a six-game defeat by San Antonio, but the Spurs were swept clean in the second round. So I'm not sure that speaks very highly of how good the 2009-10 Mavs actually were.
And check it: Despite being a top team in terms of wins and losses, the Mavericks ranked only 8th in Point Differential, 10th in Offensive Efficiency and 12 in Defensive Efficiency. I say "only" because those are decent rankings. But "decent" and "championship-caliber" are two very different things.
And these Mavs are not contenders. I mean, what's changed?
Mark Cuban re-signed Dirk Nowitzki (four years, $80 million) and Brendan Haywood (six years, $55 million), and he traded Erick Dampier's expiring contract (plus Eduardo Najera and Matt Carroll) for Tyson Chandler's expiring deal (and Alexis Ajinca). Lesser (read that, meaningless) deals included drafting Dominque Jones and signing Ian Mahinmi to a one-year contract.
Other than that, all the Mavericks did was get older. The age of the team's top six players ranges between 30 (Caron Butler) to 37 (Jason Kidd). Dirk Nowitzki is still churning out points at a fairly efficient rate, but the rest of the crew seems to be in slow decline.
Why should we expect this squad to get any better?
Okay, there is a wee smidge of hope. Between Butler, Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson, Cuban has $27 million in expiring contracts. And you know what that means: Mid-season trade! Dallas could almost certainly pick up one or two key players with that kind of money. But unless it's a high-caliber All-Star or Superstar-level player -- which seems doubtful -- I don't see the Mavs leaping from also-ran to major player.
This team has finished with at least 50 wins for 10 straight years, and they'll either reach that mark or come close again this year. But another first round exit -- or, if they get a favorable matchup in round one, an elimination in the conference semis -- is about as optimistic an appraisal as I can muster for these guys.
Which means more Mark Cuban facepalms!
This never gets old. Never.
The Houston Rockets
During the 2009-10 campaign, the Rockets were the little engine that almost could. Despite losing Yao Ming to injury and Tracy McGrady to fail, Houston managed to win 42 games with a bunch of gritty role players giving their best. It was a true underdog story. [Insert uplifting music here -- maybe Queen's "We Are The Champions" -- and feel free to shed a single, dramatic tear.]
Unfortunately for the Rockets, they weren't in a movie. So instead of the happy ending where a group of scrappy misfits bust the odds to defeat a group of vastly superior athletes, the team got an early vacation.
So how did the Rockets improve over the summer? They locked up Luis Scola for five years (overpaying him with a $47 million contract), drafted Scola's backup (Patrick Patterson), overpaid ($24 million!) for backup point guard Kyle Lowry, overspent on Brad Miller ($15 million!) for Yao insurance, and traded Trevor Ariza for Courtney Lee.
Other than the Ariza trade, those moves don't look all that great on paper do they? Or a computer screen. Or an Etch-A-Sketch. But I keep hearing about what a crazy-mad genius Daryl Morey, so I'm sure these were championship moves. Now please wait a moment while I mop up all this dripping sarcasm.
Still, if Yao can stay healthy for once, the Rockets have two legit inside threats (Ming and Scola), a great young point guard (Aaron Brooks), a crack perimeter player (Kevin Martin), and a group of solid role players/shooters (Lee, Shane Battier, Chase Buddinger, etc.). The Rockets have talent. They definitely have talent.
What they also have is a franchise player who's body is made of broken glass covered in soggy marshmallow and tissue paper. Meanwhile, their second best player (Martin) is more of a crispy papier-mâché, having missed 88 games over the past three seasons. Oh, and two speedsters (Brooks and Lowry) surrounded by a bunch of guys who have the quickness of a thick paste (Battier, Ming, Miller, Scola, Chuck Hayes, Pat Patterson). It's kind of hard to fast break when most of your team takes 10 seconds or more to cross halfcourt.
Doesn't another Yao injury, 40-45 wins and a brave but ultimately futile playoff chase sound about right? Yeah, it sounds right to me, too.
The Memphis Grizzlies
The general consensus among NBA fans is that the Grizzlies had what was, for them, a wildly successful season last year.
Reality check: That success equated to a 17th place finish in Offensive Efficiency, a 24th place finish in Defensive Efficiency, 40 wins, and yet another year of watching the playoffs from the lavish comfort of their own homes while covered in Victoria's Secret models and hundred dollar bills. Or maybe fifty dollar bills.
When the 2009-10 season was about to open, some Basketbawful readers suggested an "Assist Watch" for the Grizzlies, who opened the year with Allen Iverson, O.J. Mayo, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph on the roster...notorious ball stoppers one and all. Sure, Memphis sent Iverson packing when he started ranting about minutes -- which happened after the first game, mind you -- but that still left the Griz with a "Big Three" who live by the motto "I will go down shooting. And then shoot from my grave."
The result: According to ESPN's John Hollinger, the Grizzlies had the lowest percentage of assisted field goals last season. And according to Basketball-Reference.com, Memphis finished with only three more total assists than the 12-win New Jersey Nets.
Shock. Awe. More shock.
For all their "success," the Care Bares were a shot-happy, defenseless bunch who probably would have won only 30-35 games if they hadn't led the league in offensive rebound percentage (KBAs, baby!).
Don't worry. It gets worse.
During the offseason, owner Michael Heisley made a series of mystifying moves, like way overpaying ($81.6 million!) for Rudy gay, letting Ronnie Brewer walk (after having acquired him from Utah for a first round pick), immediately insulting two smart draft picks (Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez) by offering them 20 percent less than the maximum specified by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and then selling the 25th overall pick in the 2010 draft to the Dallas Mavericks.
Oh, and he signed Acie "One and a half feet in the NBA grave" Law.
The Grizzlies have a beastly frontcourt in Randolph and Marc "Why am I still so underrated anyway?" Gasol, a couple streaky perimeter players in Gay and Mayo, and...Mike Conley at point guard. Ugh.
Adding Henry, Vasques and Tony Allen will improve the team's depth, but I wouldn't trust this bunch any more than I would trust Eddy Curry to guard my ham sandwich. This team won't make the playoffs. Heck, they probably won't win 40 games again. Maybe ever.
Chris Paul is begging, crying, and even screaming for some help. And if the Hornets don't give it to him, he's probably going to leave.
Well, no worries, Chris: Help is on the way!
Here you go: Trevor Ariza, Marco Belinelli, Craig Brackins, Quincy Pondexter, Mustafa Shakur, Jason Smith, Jerryd Bayless! And Aaron Gray!!
Oh dear God. CP3 is so gone.
I mean, the starting five -- Paul, Ariza, David West, Emeka Okafor and Marcus Thornton -- is solid (if not spectacular) enough. But there's no depth. None. The New Orleans bench is like one of those old NBA Live games where the reserves were just a bunch of faceless guys who cheered and clapped in an endless loop. Even if everybody stays healthy and Chris Paul plays like a miniature Godzilla pumped up on Super Soldier serum, this team's ceiling is, what, 40-45 games? Unless coach Monty Williams turns off fatigue so the starters can play 48 minutes a night...oh wait, this isn't NBA Live.
The only winner here is going to be the Knicks when they trade for Paul at the deadline. Just kidding. But not really.
The San Antonio Spurs
Look, can we just agree that the window has closed?
Yeah, yeah. I know, I know. A lot of Spurs backers are pointing at the Tiago Splitter signing and using that as proof that there's still a glimmer of hope. Maybe even more than a glimmer.
I said it before and I'll say it again:
Look, I'm not trying to get lazy with my analysis here. But the Spurs aren't contenders for one key reason: Tim Duncan is in decline. It's hard to tell. I mean, he's played at least 75 games in each of the last five seasons (including 78 last year). His PER has been standing pat at 24+ for the past four seasons, including a fifth-place mark of 24.7 last year (which is only three-tenths of a point off his career PER of 25.0). And he's still in the top 10 in categories like Rebound Percentage, Defensive Rating and Win Shares.
See, that's how freaking amazing Tim Duncan is: Even in decline, he's awesome.
But he's not what he was. He's not. If you have an HD television, you can practically watch his knees creak. And even though he's still amazingly efficient and as smart as ever, he doesn't dominate the way he used to. He doesn't own games like in the old days. And when he has bad nights -- often against the better teams -- they're stinkers. Take his 5-point, 1-for-10 performance in a 110-84 loss in Orlando. Or his 6-point, 2-for-11 outing in a 92-83 home loss to the Lakers. Or even his 4-for-23 brickfest at Indiana.
Everybody has bad nights. And Duncan still has more good nights than bad ones. For instance, he had a 27-rebound game in a win over the Hawks and grabbed another 26 rebounds in that Indy game. But you can't automatically pencil TD in for total domination anymore. Which is a problem, because he's the foundation of San Antonio's offense and defense.
The Celtics can get away with Kevin Garnett's semi-gimpy knees because he anchors their defense but is only a happy addition on offense. Duncan is responsible for everything. Sure, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (assuming their health holds out) take pressure off on the offensive end. But the O begins with Duncan and the D ends with him.
Unfortunately, Duncan is 34 years old and his NBA odometer reads 977 regular season games and 35,577 game played, plus another 170 playoff games and 6,740 minutes played. Timmy has spent the last decade-plus carrying the Spurs on his back -- and make no mistake, Duncan (not Kobe, LeBron, or Shaq) was the best player of the 2000s -- and I just don't think he has it in him to keep doing it and win a championship.