The Dallas Mavericks are slated to play Sunday, where they’ll face one of the NBA’s best, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
As much as this is a potential first round matchup, this game also pins two teams going in different directions.
After defeating the Thunder during the 2011 Western Conference Finals (4-1) and ultimately winning the Championship, the Mavericks would no longer be able to consider themselves in the same class as the Thunder.
The Mavericks transitioned from Champion to fringe playoff team, where 50+ wins was the norm to .500 being the goal, and going from title contender to hoping to just being able to compete with the NBA’s best.
The Mavericks decent from the top was a quick one. Making the playoffs once during the last two seasons, and getting swept in the first round of the 2012 playoffs by the same Thunder team they took out the prior season. Including the four game sweep, the Mavericks are just 1-12 against OKC, since having the confetti fall on them from the American Airlines Center’s rafters.
As the Mavericks can tell you, reaching the top isn’t quick and simple, but the fall can be an easy one, and in the Mavericks’ case, it happened in a blink of an eye.
The Thunder were viewed as the young pup, learning the ways to become a champion. The team would keep stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and key players Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins, and Thabo Sefolosha. The Thunder would learn, grow, and build their identity and continuity as each season passed by. Most importantly, they’d allow their players to do it together.
The Thunder’s plan was put in place after back to back playoff defeats to the Los Angeles Lakers and Mavericks. Two teams that relied on their nucleus, structure, veterans, and most importantly, their chemistry.
As the Thunder were implementing the blueprint put in front of them by the like of the San Antonio Spurs, Lakers, and Mavericks, the Mavericks would trash it.
During the 2011 season, the Mavericks were built around their franchise player Dirk Nowitzki and key role players Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, and Shawn Marion, while also implementing key veterans Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood. Though Chandler was added during that offseason and Butler, Stevenson, and Haywood were added the previous season, the Mavericks’ foundation would not be compromised.
It’s no shock to see the Mavericks make changes. Over the seasons prior to 2011, the Mavericks have seen the likes of Michael Finley, Steve Nash, Josh Howard, Devin Harris, Eric Dampier and Jerry Stackhouse come and go, but these moves never altered who the Mavericks were.
All that disappeared after finally being able to raise the NBA trophy up high. A team built on its continuity and structure would drastically change.
While the Thunder still have six of their of their top seven (James Harden trade to Houston Rockets) rotation players intact from that 2011 defeat, the Mavericks are only left with Nowitzki and Marion.
Long are the days of Kidd hitting timely shots and coming up with big defensive plays. No longer do we see Terry coming off a Nowitzki screen to hit a pull up jumper. The Mavericks we’ve become accustomed to would no longer take the court.
With the new CBA and an aging roster, change was bound to happen, but we weren’t expecting this.
To replace Kidd, the Mavericks have shuffled between Darren Collison, Mike James, and Derek Fisher before inking Jose Calderon this past offseason. The center spot has always been a game of “Duck Duck Goose”, having sported Shawn Bradley, Raef LeFrentz, Dampier, and Haywood, till finally finding their savior in Chandler. The hole Chandler filled lasted a mere season after the Mavericks elected to not ink him to a long-term deal. The Mavericks have now transitioned from Haywood to Chris Kaman to Elton Brand to Brandan Wright to current incumbent Samuel Dalembert. If constantly changing two roster spots isn’t bad enough, the Mavericks have also courted a total of TWENTY-SEVEN new players during the last two seasons, highlighted by O.J. Mayo, Monta Ellis, Collison, Jae Crowder, and Calderon.
With all these changes, the Mavericks didn’t just lose players, they lost their identity. The blueprint the Spurs implemented with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, the Lakers used with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom, and the Mavericks used to get them to 2011, was abandoned.
The Mavericks will always belong to Nowitzki, but to expect him to be the lone foundation to the Mavericks is unrealistic. A house is held up by multiple supports, the same way a team is maintained by multiple pieces. As long as the Mavericks continue to change the supports, the house will never be able to stand tall.
The Thunder followed the path of the Spurs, Mavericks, and Lakers to reign atop the West, now the Mavericks must follow in the steps in the Thunder to climb back into contention.
In a league of “Super Teams”, it’s easy to overlook the importance of continuity, chemistry, and stability. At the moment, the Mavericks are fighting for their playoff lives, we are left to wonder how many of today’s Mavericks will actually be part of next season’s team.
The Thunder keep adding pieces to the puzzle, as they look to reach the finals for the second time in three seasons, while the Mavericks continue to start from scratch in an effort to make the most out of Nowitzki’s final seasons.
When the Mavericks face the Thunder this Sunday, they’ll be facing the same team they’ve beaten just once over the last two-plus seasons, while the Thunder will face a completely different Mavericks squad again.