No, Really, Mavs Fans. It'll Be OK. We Think.
This isn't your typical championship defense. The Mavs made it clear in the off-season that they weren't content to merely bring back all of the components of last year's team, and essentially chose to surrender its position as a true title contender before the season even began. Change was prescribed. Adjustment was inevitable. And a period of painful growth -- which has begun with two blowout losses at home to the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets -- was all but certain.
In place of Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, and Caron Butler, Dallas added Lamar Odom, Vince Carter, Delonte West and a pair of young bigs in Sean Williams and Brandan Wright. This isn't a matter of fitting round pegs into square rotational holes, but reconceptualizing the pegs down to their most basic specifications. The Mavericks, who tip-off at 7 tomorrow against the Thunder, are a very different team this year than they were in 2010-2011 or have ever been before, and Rick Carlisle is working to figure out the most sensible ways to combine a group of versatile, unique players into a complete product. It's more difficult than it seems, and it could result in plenty of losses before Dallas is finally able to turn a corner.
That day is coming, even after the implosive start to the season. The Mavs will get more and more comfortable with each other and with the way their team operates on the whole, and they'll improve by leaps and bounds over the course of the year. I believe that. But while this team has a championship under its belt -- and a literal championship belt, for that matter -- they're no longer poised to be a top-tier title contender. With the direction the franchise has taken, it was just never meant to be; Dallas is doing its absolute best to compete under the circumstances, but Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson still made the decision to forgo re-signing Tyson Chandler in order to save the team's long-term finances.
It may be too early to say, but letting Chandler walk seems like the right move. Not necessarily because the Mavs will have a shot (and only a shot, regardless of Dwight Howard's interest and Deron Williams' local ties) at landing a premier free agent, but because Chandler could have potentially contributed to a nightmarish financial situation a few years down the line. Dallas would look better this season with Chandler as the starting center, but don't confuse that immediate hypothetical improvement with what lies in the best interests of the franchise.
The Mavericks have played some pretty miserable basketball thus far. There's just no way around that. There's no way to downplay their 25th-ranked offense, their 24th-ranked defense, and their underwhelming start in virtually every statistical measure. They've lost both of their games in the first half, and struggled to even save face. They've blown their first two games in a fashion unprecedented for a defending champion, suggesting rather strongly that this team is not made up of the same title-worthy fiber of last year's squad.
These are truths that have been made more real with two huge losses, but they're precisely the early trials that should have been expected for this team. It gets better; with a roster this flexible and this talented, it has to.
Rab Mahoney runs The Two Man Game and writes about the NBA for the New York Times' basketball blog. He occasionally writes about the Mavs for Unfair Park.