When the Dallas Mavericks let stalwart defender Tyson Chandler go after winning their first NBA championship, there was a big hole in the middle and plenty of questions about how drastically it would affect them.
Especially going into a season with a compressed 66-game schedule and limited preseason workouts.
Article continues below ...
Well, guess what? The Mavericks have been quite defensive, even without Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson on the roster. And they still have 11-time All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd leading them on offense.
Dallas (21-13) goes into the All-Star break as one of the league’s top defenses and still among the Western Conference’s best teams.
”I really had no idea what to expect and you still really don’t know how things are going to play out,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. ”We’ve had to really depend on our defense, so it’s changed us some. So I think that’s where our depth has really helped us, because can keep on bringing competent bodies that really know how to play and are willing to defend.”
The Mavericks started their four-day break Thursday as the NBA leader in holding opposing teams to .416 percent shooting from the field and they are fourth allowing 90.8 points a game. Those numbers are better than their championship season.
”I think we could have definitely been better,” said Shawn Marion, who has again been one of the Mavericks’ top defenders and the only one to play in all 34 games. ”But give and take with the circumstances and the way we had to just get it together so quickly, I think it’s not bad at all.”
Chandler got a $56 million, four-year contract with the New York Knicks in a sign-and-trade that was part of a three-team deal at the start of training camp. Letting Chandler, J.J. Barea, Caron Butler and Stevenson leave as free agents helped Dallas get some salary-cap flexibility under the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement.
Among the potential free agents next summer are Dwight Howard and Deron Williams. But that’s after this season.
Dallas acquired Lamar Odom in a similar salary dump by the Los Angeles Lakers, and Brendan Haywood moved back into the starting role at center that he had expected to have before Chandler’s arrival last season.
Even with the personnel changes and shortened training camp, coach Rick Carlisle didn’t lessen his emphasis on defense. He instead is depending on it more.
”We sell it. We sell it,” Carlisle said. ”We haven’t had the time to really spend a lot of time on our offense. We play a lot of basic concepts. … Our emphasis is the defensive end, because we feel our flow game offense is good enough to where we can create shots. But that doesn’t happen if we don’t get the stops.”
Asked how he gets players to buy into that defensive emphasis, he responded with title talk.
”The evidence of what we accomplished last year makes it an easy sell,” Carlisle said.
That didn’t keep the Mavs from having a rocky start this season, losing their first three games and giving up at least 104 points in each of them. They rebounded after that by setting a franchise record when they held 15 consecutive opponents under 100 points.
”Dallas has turned into an incredibly good defensive team,” Denver coach George Karl said.
There was another stretch where 10 opponents in a row didn’t reach 100 points. The Nuggets last week were held 20 points below what was then their NBA-high scoring average of 104.
The Mavericks have even overcome times without Nowitzki or Kidd.
Nowitzki, who this week hit No. 20 on the NBA career scoring list, had a planned four-game hiatus late last month to strengthen his sore right knee. Kidd, No. 2 on the career lists for steals and assists, is back from missing six games because of a strained right calf muscle after being out four games earlier with a strained lower back. Newcomer guard Delonte West is out a few more weeks after he broke his right ring finger on a defensive play last week.
When the Mavericks play Tuesday night at home against New Jersey, it will be their first of nine games in 12 days. That span includes a March 6 home game against the Knicks when Chandler will get his NBA championship ring.
”We’ve got a better record than I thought we would at this point, but we haven’t played great basketball yet,” Cuban said. ”We’ve shown that we’ve got the pieces to be great, but we haven’t done it yet. A lot to like, a lot to look forward to.”