Winning a title in the NBA has to be a really weird experience.
You prepare for it your entire life (unless you’re Andray Blatche of course) with years of training, fine-tuning, and mentally soaking up the ups and downs of what works for you and your peers and what doesn’t. You’re a sponge for everything good. This guy uses this move and it works. This team communicates this way and they’re successful. You’re also constantly trying to expunge everything that doesn’t work. This set doesn’t work against this type of defense, and this matchup isn’t advantageous to our team so we need to cover it.
As soon as the blood, sweat and fears have turned themselves into winning 16 playoff games in one postseason, everything changes while staying exactly the same. Immediately, you get thrust into the discussion of whether or not your team matters on an all-time orchidometer of sorts. There is little time to sit back and celebrate. You now have to start figuring out how to defend your title and how to tweak a roster that just proved to be the best in the league over the course of nine months. You work so hard to be able to celebrate and revel in your own accomplishment, only to have it pushed aside as something that needs to happen again to immediately validate it.
When the San Antonio Spurs won the 2003 championship, there were concerns over how they could make their team better, even as the run was happening. Much like with concerns in their 1999 title run, the point guard on the roster wasn’t supposed to be good enough to take the Spurs to the promise land. Tony Parker was just 20 years old and in his second NBA season. He was lightning quick, couldn’t shooter a jumper to save his baguette, and didn’t exactly run the team like a traditional point guard.
Parker had a lot of potential and was good enough to start for Gregg Popovich in all 82 games that season. He played the second most minutes on the team behind Duncan. But with David Robinson retiring after the season and no real long-term commitments coming up outside of Duncan, the Spurs were in place to add a big-time free agent if they wanted to. And Jason Kidd was about to be the biggest free agent on the market.
At the time, Jason Kidd was the best point guard in the NBA and I don’t know that it was even up for debate. Despite his poor shooting, he kept a mediocre New Jersey Nets team in contention year after year. His defense was devastating and the put more pressure on a defense without being able to shoot than almost any guard in history. Putting him next to Tim Duncan could have been an all-time combination with two of the best ever at their respective positions teaming up.
But alas Jason Kidd decided to stay in New Jersey and the Spurs opted to keep Tony Parker as their point guard. Parker was just good enough to help them win a title and he was only going to get better under Pop’s tutelage.
The way the Spurs have managed not only their roster from year-to-year but the way Popovich has managed his team’s style and minutes on a game-to-game basis over the years reminds me so much of what Rick Carlisle is doing with his current Dallas Mavericks team this season.
The Mavericks won the title roughly nine months ago, and because of the NBA Lockout and everybody’s desire to dissect how historically short the Miami Heat were coming up and would always come up because we needed something to freak out about, it was one of the least celebrated titles from a league-wide standpoint since the Detroit Pistons upset the Lakers in 2004.
Gregg Popovich has always been known to have the bigger picture in perspective. He will forgo victories to rest his players. He will pull his starters early in certain regular season games instead of fighting for a potentially inconsequential attempt at victory. He will cut his players’ minutes early and sacrifice their personal stats and honors so that they’re prepared and rested enough for a playoff run. His hand never wavers; his eyes never stray from the mission at hand.
Rick Carlisle isn’t quite going to this extreme, but he and the Mavericks’ brass are keeping the long-term goals in perspective while still managing his current construction with the short-term goal in mind. They decided not to bring the band back for a reunion tour this season and the subsequent seasons after winning the 2011 title. Tyson Chandler was allowed to leave for the big city lights. JJ Barea went up North. DeShawn Stevenson… well… I don’t think anybody cares where he went but he left, nevertheless.
The roster was allowed to deteriorate because the Mavericks have a chance to surround Dirk Nowitzki (as he assumedly enters his twilight) with Dwight Howard and Deron Williams this coming offseason. Whether this actually happens or not, Dallas decided to leave themselves flexibility to continue the evolution of this team with Dirk’s career. They could have allowed themselves to defend the title with the same crew and set up short-term relevancy instead of thinking about longevity.
Now, with the Mavericks trying to juggle a roster in transition, Rick Carlisle seems to be preparing them brilliantly for another run through the West. The Mavericks started slowly as a team, and yet they find themselves slowly getting better as the season progresses. They didn’t panic and overhaul the makeup of the team because of the slow start either. They just dealt with it as if it was a lull in the middle of a long season and kept reinforcing their team values.
Other than Cleveland and Utah, Dallas is the only team in the NBA that doesn’t have a player (mostly their best player) averaging at least 33 minutes per game. They’re also one of just a handful of teams that doesn’t have multiple players over the 33 minutes per game mark. Dirk is averaging 32.6 minutes per contest, and Jason Terry joins Shawn Marion as the only players on the team getting more than 30 minutes per night.
Rick Carlisle and his staff have found ways to make Brandan Wright and Brendan Haywood to be more than serviceable. They’ve found ways to get Vince Carter, Rodrique Beaubois and Delonte West to make up for the loss of Barea and the poor shooting of Jason Kidd. They have never panicked with Dirk’s slow start or with Odom’s inability to pull himself together yet after a tragic and trying summer. They just continue to plug guys into the system, wait for the shots to fall and let defense be their calling card.
Carlisle’s view toward the season seems very Popovichian because he has never let the day-to-day rabble get to him or the team. They know they didn’t win the title in the first couple months of last season. And they know that while there could be pressure on most title-defending teams to dominate the following season, that has no bearing or influence on how they treat this season and the roster moving forward.
If the Mavericks do manage to pry Dwight Howard and Deron Williams to the Lone Star State, they will extend Dirk Nowitzki’s incredible impact for half a decade or longer. They will attempt to fill in with role players around these guys – shooters who need open spaces and crisp passes to replicate what we saw last spring. If they don’t manage to pull off such a coup, they won’t be hamstrung to contracts that may run past a player’s effectiveness because of an overwhelming sense of loyalty. They made smart/tough basketball and business decisions and they made them properly.
They haven’t exactly given Carlisle a roster of assumed worthiness for defending their trophy, but they’ve given him the flexibility to be creative with how he shapes what they have.
Whether or not this ends up working out for Dallas in the short and/or long-term, it’s refreshing to see an organization take the less sexy path of building a contender and follow the process of a franchise that has always thought smarter instead of harder.
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