As tough as a postseason-less 2013 was on the Dallas Mavericks and their fans, just three years ago, having a high-seeded playoff team didn't feel any better.
The 2010 Mavs were the latest disappointment in what felt like an endless string of them. Dallas was just four years removed from an epic playoff collapse against the Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals, and three years away from losing as a 67-wing number 1 seed to the 8-seed Golden State Warriors. The 2009-2010 Mavericks had recently reloaded the team, bringing on former All-Stars like Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd in addition to incumbent All-Stars Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry. They took a very good 55-27 record and a 2nd seed into the playoffs, but like their predecessors, were unceremoniously dismissed; this time it was a first round loss to the 7th seeded San Antonio Spurs in 6 games. Even as solid as their regular season was, the future didn't look terribly bright for Dallas. The ghosts of their past playoff failures seemed to haunt the team every spring, which included an aging core of Nowitzki (31), Marion (31), Brendan Haywood (30), Terry (32) and Kidd (36). Suffice to say, the Mavs weren't getting much younger. Not all was lost--after all, Dirk was still an All-Star, the team had a very good and very underrated coach in Rick Carlisle and an excellent owner that took annual financial losses to make sure his team had everything necessary to remain competitive. However, few expected that the team was close to having the makings of a championship core. 2010-2011 was supposed to be just another year in which the Mavericks were a potent squad, but ultimately an also-ran in the race for the chip.
But after a shrewd series of moves in the summer of 2010, and then into the season, the pieces for a championship contender had quietly fallen into place:
September 27, 2010: Signed Brian Cardinal as a free agent.
January 24, 2011: Signed Peja Stojakovic as a free agent.
At the time, none of these moves were considering even close to resembling significant transactions. Chandler was coming off an injury-filled year in Charlotte, and even worse, was traded to the Mavericks for the mere price of Erick Dampier's expiring deal. The prevailing sentiment that summer was that Dampier's eight-figure contract would be a key asset in claiming another star to prop up Nowitzki. Though Chandler was considered an upgrade over Dampier's rapidly degrading corpse, he wasn't nearly the player that made him into a Defensive Player of the Year seasons later, and thus was thought of as a rather underwhelming acquisition considering the expectations. The pair of 33 year-olds in the Immortal Brian Cardinal and Peja Stojakovic were both on their way out of the league, and few thought they could continue to contribute.
By the end of June, it was clear that these acquisitions were more important than any Decision that had gone on in the summer of 2010. Chandler was the key, quarterbacking a stout defense that ranked as the league's 8th most efficient per 100 possessions. Shouting out instructions from the paint, Tyson, as well as Marion and DeShawn Stevenson created a deceivingly tough inside-out D that bulldozed their way to a solid 57-win season and an eventual 4-2 victory over the Miami Heat in the Finals for the franchise's first title. That year's edition of the Mavericks weren't the most athletic cats in the world, but Chandler was so excellent defensively that he often made up for the shortcomings of his teammates (a premonition for his future tenure with the New York Knicks). The Mavericks were the oldest team in the league (average age of 30.9 years), but they didn't resemble the porous Dallas teams of old--this team was tough as hell, physical and very, very intelligent.
Though it was clearly the defense that propelled the Mavs to a chip, there's no denying how spectacular the offense was. They finished 1st in offensive efficiency that postseason, led by resurgent Finals MVP in Nowitzki, whose 27.7 points on .485/.460/.941 shooting is one of the great overall performances of all-time. But even more than Dirk, Dallas shot the lights out that postseason: five guys hit over 37% of their three-point attempts, which didn't include an unbelievable JJ Barea, but did include unexpected offensive contributions from Stojakovic (.377), Kidd (.374) and Stevenson (.397) (DeShawn in particular was fantastic, and may go down as the last man in NBA history to talk serious smack to LeBron and live to tell the tale).
The Mavericks formula was quite simple on paper, but extremely hard to replicate in regards to finding the personnel. They first needed a great defensive coach, who could rally his players to continue to play hard no matter who the opponent or what the score was at any point in the game. Second, they needed a transcendent scorer who was lethal from anywhere on the floor. Third, the Mavs had to have an elite defensive center that was so excellent that he'd be able to make up for the shortcomings of everyone around him. Fourth, they needed a three-point barrage that could dependably break down any opposing defense. Oddly enough, the Mavericks resembled their 2006 Finals opponents in the Miami Heat, who rode the very same formula to the title. Easy enough to identify and map out, yes. But to find that perfect mix under the terms of the modern NBA salary cap? Not so much.
Unless you're looking at the potential of the 2013-2014 Los Angeles Lakers.
Odd as it seems, the 7th seeded "woe is me" Lake Show isn't too far off from the model that won the Mavericks a championship. It's not terribly visible to the naked eye, but next year's team could very well have a lot of the same ingredients that propelled the seemingly cursed Dallas organization to a chip. Let's go down the grocery list and check off the items:
1. The Coach
Well...I didn't say they had everything, did I?
A couple weeks ago, I examined everything that went wrong with the 2012-2013 Lakers coaches. While a lot of the burden of failure falls on a savage injury bug, even at near full strength this wasn't a great Lakers team and in turn, not a well-coached team. Mike D'Antoni wasn't by any means a terrible defensive coach, but he certainly wasn't a good, much less great one. The Lakers need a master strategist in the mold of Rick Carlisle to make this a reality.
However, it's important to give MDA credit on this front: these Lakers never truly quit on him, no matter how ludicrous the injuries got. They played hard down to the very last game of the season, and seemed to play best when the odds were stacked against them (see game #80 versus the Spurs without Kobe, home against the Oklahoma City Thunder and away without Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard in Indiana).
The Lakers can't check this item off the list right now, but the offseason hasn't even begun. It's not too far-fetched to imagine a new coach in the fold come fall, is it? D'Antoni needs to go, but his mustache can stay. That thing is magical.
2. The transcendent scorer
This article was much better supported in my head a month and a half ago, wasn't it?
A lethal offensive player that could tear apart defenses from the post to the perimeter? Until his Achilles ruptured, there was little doubt that Kobe Bryant could replicate Dirk's 2011 postseason. This injury could put a serious kink in this scenario, in addition to ruining my day whenever I think of it. Dirk Nowitzki had changed his game from 2006 to 2011, becoming a much sturdier post threat, as well as a continued killer from beyond the three-point line. He single-handedly carved up any Miami defender that came his way, and if ever doubled, was able to pass out to a cadre of willing shooters.
If Kobe comes back healthy and makes the proper adjustments towards becoming a top-notch offensive option, which many suspect he could, then item number 2 remains viable.
3. The defensive center
Like the previous two, this box might not just remained unchecked--it could completely disappear off the docket.
This might come as a surprise, but Lakers center Dwight Howard is a free agent this summer. Yes, this shocked me too when I read it on basketball-reference.
A healthy Howard doesn't just serve as a stand-in for Tyson Chandler here--he could be an even better and more effective version of him. Lakers fans everywhere got a glimpse of the player Dwight is when not hampered recovering from surgery in his stellar last 10 or so games of the regular season. He blew up pick and rolls with regularity, dominated the boards and scared off any driving guard who had the temerity to look up at the rim. While he was vocal with his teammates throughout the year, he continued to be the general on defense, but also had the ability to back it up on his end. In short, Howard was an absolute terror while guarding the rim and more than made up for the defensive lapses of all his aging, somewhat immobile teammates.
Howard's potential fits 2011 Tyson Chandler exactly, from his capabilities to the personnel surrounding him.
4. The three-point shooting
Today, Jason Kidd is old as hell and can't scorer a lick. He went scoreless in his last 9 playoff games this postseason. But 3 years ago, he was still old as hell and could at least stroke the three-ball. Aided by Stevenson, Stojakovic and Stevenson that helped shore up the long-range bullpen, the Mavericks always had a bailout option for a posting Nowitzki or a driving Marion and Barea.
To replicate this sort of production, the Lakers must have healthier seasons from Steve Nash and Steve Blake, steadier shooting from Jodie Meeks and continued improvement (and confidence) from Darius Morris, whom I suspect will be a big part of LA's rotation next season. Except for the crapshoot of health, these aren't terribly unfair expectations for these players. Meeks has the stroke and trigger to be an elite gunner, and though Morris' lock and load shot is very slow, he has the ability to hit 37% or better. For Blake and Nash, the obvious question here is whether or not they can get on the court, but again, it's the luck of the draw at that point. It's important to note that the 2011 Mavericks got 80 games from Kidd (37), 82 from Terry (33), 80 from Marion (32) and 73 from Nowitzki (32). It's not out of the question that the Lakers could simply be as lucky next year as they were unlucky (and old) this year.
Of course there's also the miscellany that connects the two teams. The 2012-2013 Lakers were the oldest squad in the league, exactly like the 2010-2011 Mavs. That Dallas team also had it's fair share of dramatic veteran personnel additions like this year's Lakers, including Kidd and Marion. Most importantly, the league and it's pundits had largely written off the Mavericks as title contenders after so much disappointment. Almost no matter what their moves this offseason, it's hard to see the Lakers interpreted as anything but a fringe contender, at best.
This isn't a perfect formula, nor is it a perfect comparison. Kobe's injury puts a gigantic wrench in the blueprint, especially seeing the dour results from any player trying to regain elite form after such a devastating malady. Howard's return is far from a lock, especially if you believe Ken Berger's article from Sunday. Mike D'Antoni might have a solid chance to return as coach, which could effectively punt the possibility of a top-10 defense from the Lakers' future. The 2011 Mavericks also had the extreme fortune of playing LeBron James before his transformation into a true, postseason world-beater. The Lakers would almost undoubtedly have to go through the Heat in order to win next year's crown, and the way that Miami and James are playing, even following the plan of the 2011 Mavs might not be enough.
The most salient point here is that the Lakers could come very close to replicating a championship team without having to do much heavy lifting behind a very restrictive CBA. LA is roughly $30 million into the luxury tax for next year, but the good news is that the Lakers could still fulfill these checklist items: Howard could be re-signed, Kobe can rehab back to form, the shooters are already on staff and a new coach can be hired and fired at management's leisure.
Make no mistake--the odds of everything here falling into place like so, and then being blessed to make it through the postseason unscathed injury-wise is very unlikely. But the fact that there is hope for success without completely starting over, cutting a living legend like Kobe Bryant or losing Dwight Howard to free agency should be emboldening to Lakers fans everywhere. Unlike a future with Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, or having a need like "an elite scorer", LA has very few requirements that would get them close to resembling a team that won the title just two seasons ago. That's not half bad.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino