The NBA's regular season is so often discarded as an insignificant enterprise, though for reasons that are largely flimsy at best; there's real value to be gleaned in that initial 82, whether about a team's overall offensive or defensive aptitude, a coach's substitution patterns, the compatibility of certain player combos, or the skill development of a particular prospect. Within those exhausting regular season slates is a mountain of knowledge that need only be parsed and refined.
Yet this season -- and with this Mavericks team in particular -- every game seems to be fit with an asterisk. This regular season will ultimately count the same as any other; even with conditional treatment, this is still a basketball season in which all teams are experiencing roughly equivalent conditions, however straining they may be. But the value in the regular season this year is so hyper-specific and so buried in mitigating factors that it would be easy to get caught up in false projections.
That's not to say that this regular season is at all useless. It just requires even more care than normal as we try to make sense of its events. With that in mind, here are a few things to consider as we assess the Mavs' greatest triumphs and failures in a season unavoidably impacted by the lockout:
1. Injuries may be no more common in a lockout-shortened year than any other, but the impact of those injuries is magnified by the season's pace. We've already seen that in Dirk Nowitzki's brief (though injury-less) absence, Delonte West's unfortunate break, Shawn Marion's vacation via exhaustion and Brendan Haywood's knee strain.
When players go down for injury or any other reason, they not only miss more games than they would in a standard season, but they also have minimal (or no) practice time as they try to work their way back. There's barely a sample size of games where both teams were at anything resembling full strength, which means the playoffs could bring some surprises.
2. Teams are not only victim to the games they play, but the order and timing of those games. It's not just the back-to-back-to-backs; NBA teams are often playing their third game in four nights or ninth game in 12 nights on the occurrence of a particular matchup, justifiably tainting the results by fatigue. These games count the same as any other (every team is subject to scheduling hardship, after all), but they may not move the needle of a specific matchup as much as one might think. It still matters when Dallas beats San Antonio on the Spurs' third game in four nights, but that alone doesn't tell us that the Mavs have some advantage over their long-time rivals.
3. Coaches like Rick Carlisle have more reason than ever to budget minutes and experiment with their rotations. Carlisle encourages his players to always be ready, and for good reason; though fans pine for a team with defined roles that's easier to understand, innovative coaches use the regular season as a laboratory.
Carlisle is especially good at that, as he gradually tweaks his playbook and his approach over the course of the year based on how his team responds to certain situations. This season, Carlisle has had to conserve some of his team's best defensive lineups for the sake of jump-starting its offense; with Nowitzki's early-season struggles, Lamar Odom's nonexistence, Jason Kidd's slow start, and Jason Terry's occasional mid-game diversions, Carlisle wisely sought to address the more immediate problem. He's not alone in this, as teams across the league are occasionally going away from what works in favor of finding out what else might. That changes the dynamic of an unbelievable number of regular season games, without much for regard for how it might alter our understanding of how two particular teams play one another. We'll just have to find out in the playoffs.
Rob Mahoney runs The Two Man game, an ESPN-affiliated Mavericks blog, and writes about the NBA for The New York Times. He occasionally writes about basketball for Unfair Park.
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