At 36-19, the Mavericks have posted their best winning percentage at the All-Star break since the 2010-11 season, and second-best overall since the 2007. Dallas sits just one game out of third place in one of the best conferences in league history. But, in this crazy, crazy Western Conference, the Mavs are also just one game ahead of seventh-place San Antonio. This is a conference with 10 above-.500 teams and eight on pace to win at least 52 games. It’s insanity.
Surviving it all, however, have been these Mavs. Battered and bruised with virtually a completely new roster, Dallas has navigated its way through 55 difficult games and stands on solid ground heading into the second half of the season. The team which stars a supposed past-his-prime seven-foot 36-year-old and a 6′ 3″ iron man shooting guard apparently without a jump shot somehow, someway, is one extended winning streak away from gaining home court advantage in perhaps the greatest conference (and best division) the league has ever known. These Mavs, man.
Let’s revisit how it’s happened and then take a look ahead at what’s to come.
The Mavericks came screaming out of the gates to start 2014-15, beginning the season on an offensive tear which put them on pace to be one of the best offenses in league history. Behind leading scorer Monta Ellis, Dirk Nowitzki, and new acquisitions Tyson Chandler, Chandler Parsons, and Jameer Nelson, the Mavs’ starting five demolished teams during the season’s first month. Through Dec. 1, the Mavs were scoring 113.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, 3.2 points better than second-place Toronto at that point in the season.
Dallas was playing offensive basketball at an unimaginable clip, in many ways simply making the game look too easy. However, the defensive end remained a weak spot, as it was last season, and eventually the front office needed to break up the gang to acquire some talent on the other side of the ball. More on that later.
DIRK, THE ALL-STAR
Playing alongside multiple guys who can carry the offensive load for the first time in some time, Dirk has seen less action on the ball this season than in years past. However, he’s still averaged 18.3 points per game through the first 55 games, good for 23rd in the NBA.
This has been a season of milestones for Nowitzki. In addition to scoring his 13th All-Star appearance, the Big German has also moved from 10th to seventh on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, most recently passing Moses Malone for seventh all-time.
Nowitzki Passes Malone
Dirk Nowitzki buries a tough 3-pointer in the overtime win over Brooklyn to move into seventh place on the NBA's all-time scoring list.
He likely won’t pass Shaquille O’Neal for sixth place until next season. But hey, he’s not having too bad a season, huh? Per MavsOutsider’s Christian Clark, Dirk is literally having a season for the ages. He’s just the fourth unique player in NBA history to average 18 points per game in his 17th season.
Because Nowitzki has played such few minutes compared to the other names on the list (he’s averaging below 30 minutes per game this season for the first time since his rookie season) it lacks a bit of context. Per 36 minutes, however, Nowitzki stacks up more favorably, sitting fourth-place among that group — ahead of both of Karl Malone’s season. So, if you wanted to make the claim, Dirk is having the most prolific 17th season of any power forward ever. It’s an awfully short list, but hey, we’ll take it, right?
TOO MUCH MONTA
Don’t look now, but this will likely be the first season since 1999-2000 in which Nowitzki isn’t the leading per game scorer for the Mavericks. That’s because of how magnificent Ellis has been this season. Monta is scoring 19.8 points per game this season and, once again, hasn’t missed a single game despite suffering a few in-game injuries throughout the course of the season.
He’s carried the offense for entire games throughout this season, often displaying the ability to create something out of absolutely nothing. Take his buzzer-beater against Milwaukee from earlier this season as an example.
Taco Bell Buzzer-Beater: Monta Ellis
Monta Ellis drills a deep 2-pointer as time expires in the fourth as the Mavericks take down the Bucks.
There’s nothing there! How did he get that shot off? How?! The guy is unbelievable. Mavs proprietor Mark Cuban made it a point before the season to say he hopes this team doesn’t have a 20-point scorer. Ellis might very well not reach the 20-point plateau, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less valuable than a 20-point scorer would be. For so many years, Nowitzki has been the driving force of the offense. That’s no longer the case. While Dirk might be at the center of many plays, Monta is the man at the wheel. Offensively, at least, this team goes where he goes.
THE RAJON RONDO TRADE
Despite the team’s offensive brilliance, the Mavs needed to make a move to shore up the point guard position, especially on the defensive end. Christmas came early, then, when the team acquired Rajon Rondo from Boston for Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, and Nelson. Rondo was sensational on the defensive side of things with the Mavericks before sustaining an orbital bone fracture during an accidental collision with teammate Richard Jefferson.
Rondo has allowed 0.684 points per possession in 209 defensive possessions with the Mavericks. That mark ranks first in the NBA among players with at least 200 possessions played. Dallas looked to correct its biggest weakness — defense at the point guard position — and did exactly that by trading for Rondo. Hopefully Rondo’s facial fractures don’t keep him sidelined beyond the All-Star break, as his perimeter defense is too valuable to lose in a league stacked with destructive perimeter players. To wit, the Mavericks will face Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kyle Lowry, and Jeff Teague in four of their first five games after the break.
The offense has taken a step back since the Rondo trade, but the odds of one team maintaining that level of efficiency throughout an entire season is truly unprecedented. However, really, really basic numbers show that Rondo’s impact on the offensive side of things has actually been positive. Below are his on/off numbers in key areas along with the Mavs’ team averages since his Dec. 20 debut.
If there’s one truth across all sports, it’s this: Offense comes and goes, relatively speaking, but defense is a constant. The Mavs upgraded on the end they needed most while staying top-10 on the other side. You don’t see many teams improve so much in one category mid-season.
As the Mavs have fought through trading away key players off the bench and injuries to starters, depth has suddenly become tested. However, the play of Al-Farouq Aminu, Charlie Villanueva, and JJ Barea, the last three players the Mavs added to the roster (Barea signed with the team after the regular season had already started), has been a godsend. Villanueva’s three-point stroke has changed the feeling of many games — his shooting against the Lakers and Heat earlier this season arguably won both of those games. Barea, meanwhile, has been earning the starting minutes since Rondo suffered his injury and he’s been holding his own. He was the team’s leading scorer in Wednesday’s win against Utah.
Aminu might have been the biggest revelation of them all, however. After playing a lot toward the beginning of the season, he played sparingly from mid-December to mid-January. Since then, though, he’s been tremendous, averaging 6.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.7 steals, and 1.6 blocks in 11 games since returning to the rotation. His defensive versatility is key to this team, especially because he’s played every position from small forward to center and has guarded all five positions already this season.
Rick Carlisle’s mantra for reserves is stay ready. Stay ready, stay ready, stay ready. The bench might not be packed with the same type of instant-offense guys Dallas has had in the past — players like Jason Terry, Vince Carter, and Wright — but the three players above, along with Devin Harris, Richard Jefferson, and others, have all stepped up at various points throughout the season to give the Mavs some big minutes in important games.
TYSON CHANDLER, DESTROYER OF WORLDS
The best stat I can think of to demonstrate Tyson Chandler’s importance to this team is 27. That’s the number of rebounds the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan was able to grab once Chandler suffered an ankle injury against the Clippers on Monday night.
The big man has been called “the heartbeat” of the team by his head coach and seems to have the respect of just about everyone in the NBA. Heck, Clippers forward Blake Griffin used Chandler as the primary example in a piece he wrote for The Players Tribune about perfecting his jump shot. He’s one of the most feared and respected players in the league, and he’s earned it.
Chandler has in many ways been the MVP of this team, and for as much as the team needs Rondo to get healthy as soon as possible, the same can be said for Chandler. It’s hard to find a big man in this league who’s more valuable to his team than Chandler is to Dallas.
So what happens now? The Mavs will have a week off (except for Nowitzki, who has a game to play) before attacking the final 27 games of the season. Fortunately for Dallas, 15 of the remaining 27 games on the schedule will be at the AAC. After an extremely road-heavy January, it will be nice for the players to have a chance to get some extra sleep at night in their own homes.
It’s hard to identify the most pivotal stretch of games remaining on the schedule, because they’re all pretty difficult and equally important. Every single game is going to matter from here on out, which makes for very fun — and very stressful — watching. But rest easy knowing that in Carlisle’s first six years of coaching the Mavericks, his teams have had a better second-half record than first-half mark five times. Once everyone returns healthy after the week-long break, the Mavs should be in good shape to win some games and hopefully position themselves for a nice playoff run.
All of the pieces are starting to come together for this team. Once Chandler and Rondo return from injuries — which will hopefully happen right out of the break — Dallas should be in good shape moving forward. It’s going to be difficult and exciting and stressful and fun and agonizing and unforgettable, but ready or not, the rest of the schedule is waiting.