Thanks to a lengthy lockout, an abbreviated schedule and the apparently very confusing revelation that Asian-Americans play basketball, the NBA season is spiraling into chaos. The unrelenting schedules of 30 teams have sent the plodding progression of a typical 82-game season into a frenzied 66-game sprint, and right in the middle of it are your World Champion Dallas Mavericks, who two months after starting their title defense are halfway through their regular season. If you've blinked since Christmas, you've probably missed a game. Hopefully it was against the Raptors.
There's so much coming so fast that it's almost impossible to keep up with all the storylines, strategy and basketball intrigue. That's why we're here — to get you up to speed with 33 observations from 33 games, almost none of which have anything to do with Linsanity. Almost.
1 The Mavericks are Really, Really Weird. This is, first and foremost, a profoundly weird team. That's what you get when an entire roster of players is assembled to complement one of the league's most unorthodox stars. Dirk Nowitzki is Dallas' Rosetta Stone — every bit as valuable in translating his teammates' talents into a common language, and every bit as rare.
It's no surprise, then, that the Mavs looked so disjointed during Nowitzki's early-season struggles, nor is it a surprise that things are trending upward now that he is looking more like his goofy German self.
2 Never Mind the Standings. Even with their recent upswing in mind, the Mavs still aren't considered a legit title contender. But they have decent positioning within the glut of Western Conference playoff teams, a crop so deep and competitive that projecting how the West will unfold is a waste of time and chalk. The sheer number of dangerous teams in the playoff picture — San Antonio, Denver, Portland, both L.A. teams, Memphis, Houston and Minnesota — holds the potential to scramble any playoff run mid-stride. All the Mavs can do is keep improving and hope they're in the right place in their progression at the right time. For the second year in a row. With an entirely different team. That's not too much to ask, is it?
3 Rick Carlisle is the Best Coach in the League. Or one of them, anyway. The days of Mavs fans calling for his job are long gone, as Carlisle has now won a title and, maybe more impressively, recreated his championship formula with a completely different group of players. The roster turnover he inherited this year was astounding, and yet the Mavs aren't sitting that differently than they were a year ago. Statistically, the defense is actually better, and the added depth introduces some interesting wrinkles to the offense. That's not to say that a title is easily within the Mavs' grasp — it's just not — but Carlisle has done a phenomenal job of adjusting and integrating to keep his team in the hunt.
4 This Still isn't a Good Basketball Town. Never has been, never will be. So soak it in, Maverick faithful; the post-championship glow still hasn't worn off, and this may be the most hoop-centric this city will be for a long time.
5 It Gets Better. And By It, We Mean Brendan Haywood. There was a point early this season when every pass to Brendan Haywood was met with a collective eye-roll. Haywood is easily the most uncoordinated Maverick, yet Jason Kidd and his fellow guards routinely saw fit to rocket him passes he wouldn't be able to handle or set him up on fast breaks that would result in traveling calls that needed circus-music accompaniment. Yet over the last month or so, their confidence in Haywood has paid off. He's finishing dunks, he's cutting to the front of the rim, he's slowly filtering the tentativeness out of his game — and it's all because the Mavs guards kept going to Haywood despite those groans from the crowd.
6 No Fair, We Burned Our D-Fence Sign! Former Mavs assistant coach Dwane Casey — the architect of last year's defense — is gone, as is Tyson Chandler. Yet in defiance of logic and expectation, the Mavs rank fourth in the league in defensive efficiency.
7 Speaking of Stats ... While Brandan Wright is on the floor, 7.2 percent of the opposing team's shots end up on the receiving end of one of Wright's vicious swats.
8 Rodrigue Beaubois is Hosed. Beaubois has seen his opportunities come and go this season, as injuries to Kidd and Vince Carter temporarily meant regular minutes. But now that the Mavs are helthy again, Beaubois can't carve out much space for himself. Kidd, Jason Terry, Carter and Delonte West are soaking up the lion's share of minutes at both guard positions, leaving Beaubois with little time to get in the game and establish that ever-elusive consistency. He's in a tough place; when Beaubois is rolling, he can be a great offensive asset. But the Mavs simply have too many effective guards to live with Beaubois when he isn't rolling.
9 Oh My God Did You Hear Jeremy Lin Could Have Been a Mav?
10 Jason Terry and Ian Mahinmi Make Beautiful Music. The pick-and-roll chemistry between Terry and Mahinmi has been oddly phenomenal. They each manage the sequence beautifully, despite having run it no more than a handful of times before this season. It starts with Terry, who, as a constant pull-up threat, demands attention from defenders. That allows Mahinmi a vital window on his roll to the rim, as opponents, preoccupied with containing Terry, leave the center with a precious opening. Terry has been able to hit his mark reliably, and Mahinmi seems to be able to catch any pass in traffic with ease. From there, the play reaches its simple — though certainly impressive — conclusion: Mahinmi rises, hangs and finishes, whether by powerful dunk or contorting lay-in.
11 God Bless the Matrix. Shawn Marion was one of the few Mavs who actually seemed ready to begin the NBA season on opening night — Remember that? That blowout loss to the Miami Heat you tried to forget about? — and he hasn't been anything less than productive since. His sneaky offensive game and rebounding skills have a way of floating in the background, but his defense has been at the forefront of each of the Mavs' big wins. His ability to guard players of virtually every position, size and type has been a revelation; we all knew Marion was versatile, but the fact that he's able to defend speedsters like the Clippers' Chris Paul and the Nuggets' Ty Lawson — both point guards, mind you — has been extraordinary. And that beautiful jump shot!
12 Practice Makes Perfect; No Practice Makes Ugly. We all knew that a lockout-shortened season would make scheduling a bit hectic, but few basketball fans seem to grasp just how much a strain this pace puts on teams. It's not an exaggeration to say that there is virtually no practice time; an unusually light stretch might see a team squeeze in a few full practices here and there, but it's not unusual to see teams go weeks without practicing. Teams still have film sessions and "shootarounds," but the league-wide lack of practice time has done noticeable damage to the basketball. The NBA is still as dramatic and charismatic as ever. It's just a little uglier.
13 Although Sometimes Practice Isn't Necessary. Before every game, Haywood can be seen rehearsing an array of hook shots and jumpers in anticipation of situations that will never come. You have to admire his ambition, I suppose.
14 Tyson Who? For all of the talk of how much the Mavs would miss center Tyson Chandler, the bigs on the roster have managed to recreate Chandler's impact by committee. Haywood's not as dynamic on defensive, but he's long, active and mobile. Like Chandler, Mahinmi scraps for offensive rebounds and cuts through the lane for finishes around the basket. And 24-year-old Wright brings the vertical extension that stretches the court into three dimensions — the potential for lobs and high-flying dunks that capitalize on the mortal, floor-bound nature of most defenders. The alley-oops, the strong finishes, the aggressive defense — it's all there, even though Chandler isn't.
15 Jason Kidd is Getting Old. Kidd is almost 39, and his fight against Father Time has been admirable. How many NBA geezers could defend Kobe Bryant down the stretch of a crucial playoff series? Or Kevin Durant? Or LeBron James? Or Dwyane Wade? Kidd drew all those assignments during the Mavs' title run, despite the fact that his first NBA season coincided with Durant's graduation from kindergarten.
But let's be honest: Kidd takes a more conservative role on offense with each passing season. He still flashes impossible court vision at times, and he can still keep the trains running on time. But he largely floats around the perimeter these days, and very occasionally goes to work against a smaller guard in the post.
You can't help but wonder if this is the beginning of the end. If he starts blaming his third-quarter slides on his growing prostate or trying to change the channel on the scoreboard with his cell phone, we'll know there's a problem.
16 Let This be Known as the Year of Lobbying. Despite his disappointing start, Nowitzki made the All-Star team as a reserve, thanks to Carlisle's hounding of his fellow coaches. And owner Mark Cuban is pushing hard for Marion to get some consideration as an All-Defense selection, if not the outright Defensive Player of the Year. The latter is a pipe dream, considering that Dwight Howard is still Dwight Howard, but the former could be in the cards. We'll just have to see if Cuban's stumping is as effective as Carlisle's.
17 If There is a Cult of Brian Cardinal, Please Pass the Kool-Aid.
18 More of That, Please. The signature highlight of the first half was the potential-turnover-turned-alley-oop-dunk by Brandan Wright from Jason Terry against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The stars aligned that night. Terry happened to collect the ball at just the right time. Wright was able to soar and gather a crazy lob and finish with authority. Nowitzki happened to be sitting out the game due to injury (injury, conditioning, rust — it's complicated), and he happened to be doing an on-air interview when the play went down. The resulting highlight — complete with Nowitzki's response — is worthy of immediate YouTube viewing.
19 The Mavs are the Kings of the Post. A particularly fun byproduct of the Mavs' depth: the ability to post up damn near everybody. Nowitzki is obviously a fixture on the block, Kidd occasionally looks to exploit a mismatch, and the Mavs' use of Marion as a post-up threat is nothing new. But added to that mix are Carter — who has a size advantage in seemingly every game — and Odom, both of whom are credible scorers and playmakers from the post. That diversity of post-up options makes matchup advantages a virtual guarantee. It's just a matter of finding the right victim.
20 The Art of the Steal. With a slight tweak in approach and some minor personnel changes, the Mavs can suddenly do something they once couldn't: create turnovers.
Historically, the Mavs' defense has been built on grinding down the shot clock and forcing bad shots. But this year's defense has been able to rack up steals without sacrificing those crucial defensive fundamentals. Gone are positional defenders like J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson, and in their place are the long, active arms of West and Beaubois, who, together with Kidd, are among the league's elite thieves.
But the key is depth. Last season, only two regulars (Kidd and Terry) had steal-per-possession rates of 1.9 percent or better. This season they have five.
21 Lamar Odom Philosophizes. Example: "It's humbling. It's a humbling game. It's a humbling experience. Life is the same way. You can win the jackpot, and then lose somebody close to you. Basketball is life. I'll continue to live, be a better man and be a better basketball player as well."
22 Um, Jason, Where Were You Throwing That? One amusing development of Kidd's season: the all-too-frequent bafflingly bad pass. It's apparently become his mission to throw one terrible pass every other game (bonus points if it results in an embarrassing turnover). He'll try to thread a full-court outlet through three defenders. He'll pass in anticipation of feeding a back-door cutter, only to see no Maverick cutting and his pass fly out of bounds. They get worse as they go, each an apparent effort to upstage the last. Hey, even a short regular season is long. Maybe the best way to make it manageable is to create a game within the game.
23 I'll Kill What He's Killing. I'm not sure what poor animals Carter is sacrificing to the pagan god of dunks to maintain his incredible hops, but I'll have two of 'em. Some things in life are just worth senseless, ritualized slaughter, and jaw-dropping slams happen to be one of them.
24 Hey Lamar, It's Cool with Us if You Want to Sit By Khloe During the Fourth Quarter. Oddly, Odom hasn't really cracked the Mavs' late-game rotation. Nowitzki, Terry and Kidd are naturally staples, alongside Marion or Carter. But rather than lean small with Odom at "center" (positions hardly matter on the final possession), Carlisle has consistently chosen either Mahinmi or Wright. There's nothing wrong with that, but considering the hype and Odom's delicate temperament, it's worth watching.
25 More Videos, Please. The American Airlines Center is a cathedral of modern in-game entertainment. Yet hidden among the endless stream of distractions is the true gem of the entire package: the Mavs' own creative department, responsible for some of the most fantastic and well-produced video segments in the sporting world. Dramatic readings of bad pop songs, weird videos with bad pop songs — if you hear shitty pop music, rest easy that the Mavs are lurking somewhere with iMovie at the ready.
26 Reunited and it Looks So Good. The mercenary dynamic of pro sports has created an illusion that players are "plug-and-play" components of a team concept, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Team chemistry is organic; it can't be rushed, faked or created on a whim. It comes when it comes. Yet Carter's arrival in Dallas came without issue or delay — as if his chemistry with Kidd back from their shared days in New Jersey had been bottled and distributed among the roster for convenience.
27 Actually, They're All Old — Let Them Rest. There's no glamour in the distribution of NBA minutes, but Carlisle deserves credit for managing to rest all of his players despite Dallas' rough start. It would have been easy to overreact and ride his top contributors out of desperation, but only two Mavericks — Nowitzki and Terry — are averaging more than 30 minutes a night. Age and the pace of the season were working against the Mavs, but Carlisle's early-season restraint should keep the Mavs' legs fresh for all those cool late-season videos they're planning.
28 Dude, Get That Looked At. For the squeamish out there: Don't pay too much attention to Marion's left pinky finger. Nothing to see here. Move along.
29 He's Aliiiiiiive. There's no joy in watching Nowitzki struggle, but it was interesting to watch him gradually piece together his patented fadeaway jumper over the course of the first half. On opening night, Nowitzki was clearly in no position to carry the burden of an entire offense; he managed 21 points, but he struggled to create his own looks, and seemed oddly incapable of hitting wide-open jump shots. Something was amiss, and about a month later, the Mavs pulled Nowitzki so he go through the prep that he was denied by the shortened preseason.
When he returned late last month, he still didn't bear much resemblance to 2011 Dirk. Instead, the process of his revival came gradually over the course of four games, as he returned to form layer by layer. He started finding his comfort zones at the top of the key, the elbow and the wing. He worked more diligently to back down his man, and started to look comfortable employing his patented spin moves and pump fakes. He started to put the ball on the floor again to keep defenses honest, a move that creates more space for that crazy, fading jumper. Bit by bit he recreated a familiar world where the jumper, the drive and the drawn foul exist in perfect harmony.
30 Hi, Yi Jianlian? We're Going to Need You to Stop Taking Mid-Range Jumpers Now. Thanks!
31 Judgmental? Moi? Mahinmi's sense of post-game fashion is as indisputably ridiculous as it is indisputably French. Wait, is that redundant?
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
32 The Oklahoma City Thunder are the Best Team in the West. But you know what? These guys aren't far behind.
33 Seriously? We Could Have Had Lin?