This season has been an odd one for the Dallas Mavericks. Certainly it hasn't been typical of a defending champion. The NBA has more repeat champions than other sports largely because once a team's talent core matures and reaches championship level, it becomes difficult to break it up, and you're only talking about 4-5 key pieces at most. It's only through eventual age and attrition do these teams yield their place on the league throne. You might not have the same teams winning the Finals every year, but the cast of contenders is usually pretty consistent from season to season.
There were concerns that the Mavericks' core of Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry had already grown too old to win a title before last season. Then they added Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion re-emerged as a relevant player and the next thing you knew, Mark Cuban and company was raising a banner to the ceiling of the American Airlines Center.
But Cuban and his management staff knew that change was in the air. If he attempted to lock up last year's aged roster, Dallas could have been stuck with another expensive roster, only one with nothing but downside. Changes to the CBA after last fall's contentious negotiations left Cuban feeling that flexibility was essential in the new order of things. So he let Chandler go, acquired some stopgap veterans like Lamar Odom and Vince Carter and hoped to straddle the line between a legit defense of his title and keeping enough future cap space clear to make a run at some high-impact free agents.
We don't know how this approach is going to work out long term, but the first part -- making another title run -- is looking unlikely. The Mavericks have clinched a playoff spot but haven't inspired many to believe a repeat is imminent. Anything can happen. Just look at what the Mavericks accomplished last season. Right now, though, there just seems to be too big of gap between the Mavericks and the top teams in the West.
That's doesn't invalidate Cuban's strategy. If he's able to secure younger, championship-level talent to pair with Nowitzki for his declining years, it will all have been worth it. As for the short term, that might have worked too, if not for some disappointing performances from some of Cuban's longest-tenured players. It hasn't all been bad news, though, which is why we're focusing on Dallas as we see how some of the Mavericks have performed against our projections.
Our projection system SCHOENE forecasts a full suite of our favorite metrics, but the bottom-line number to watch for is WARP (Wins Above Replacement), which measures how many more wins a player adds to his team's total than a freely available guy plucked off the scrap heap. While no single number can capture everything that happens in an interdynamic team sport like hoops, WARP points you in the right direction. When you see a WARP number that surprises you -- and remember, we know when to be surprised because we've predicted all these WARP scores -- the next step is to ask why.
BETTER THAN WE THOUGHT
PF: Brandan Wright, Mavericks
Projected WARP: 0.6; Current WARP: 3.2
It's amazing how much time we spend fawning over lottery-caliber college talent, then we forget about these diaper dandies once they hit the pros. Except for a select few, many top young players join the NBA and become an afterthought. We look at their single-digit scoring averages and forget about how much potential we saw to begin with.
Wright is still just 24 years old, but he's been with four organizations already, if you include his draft day in 2007 when he was taken by Charlotte at No. 8, then traded to Golden State. He then went to New Jersey, had some injury problems, then landed with the Mavericks as a low-level free agent. All along, he put up solid per-minute numbers. This season, he's been outstanding. Sometimes all it takes is an opportunity.
By focusing on opportunities in which he can exploit his athleticism, Wright has been one of the most efficient players in the league. According to MySynergySports.com, his 1.19 points per play ranks third in the league. He's been used primarily as a cutter and screener in pick-and-rolls, but also stands out in transition and does well when he used on the block. He doesn't qualify, but if he did, Wright would rank in the league's top five with a .616 true shooting percentage.
Even more impressive is Wright's emergence on the defensive end. He's blocked 6.6 percent of opponents' shots while he's on the floor, which would rank fourth in the league if he qualified. He's more than doubled his SCHOENE projection in this category and is blocking shots about two percent more often than he's ever done before.
Overall, the Mavericks have been 3.9 points per 100 possessions better with Wright on the floor. It might be damning with faint praise, but he's been the best of Dallas' offseason pickups.
WORSE THAN WE THOUGHT
PG: Jason Kidd, Mavericks
Dirk Nowitzki's season has gotten the most scrutiny, but Kidd's decline from a top-shelf player has been an even bigger factor in Dallas' slide back toward the middle. Look, it's inevitable. Age gets us all. Kidd is 39 years old and playing in his 18th NBA season. No one lasts forever. So it's not that surprising that his PER (13.3) is a career-low and he's going to finish with barely half the WARP we projected for him and he's had a hard time staying healthy.
Projected WARP: 7.2; Current WARP: 3.8
Kidd is still a great passer, but he no longer gets around well enough on the court to really be the pure point guard that we've admired for so long. This season, he's spent only about two-thirds of his minutes running the offense. He's spent the rest of the time off the ball and, really, his still-solid 3-point shot is about the best offensive weapon he has left.
Even though Kidd isn't asked to do as much as past seasons, his turnover rate is still the highest it's ever been. A couple of years ago, we concocted a metric to illustrate how Dallas excelled at fundamental player, especially when it came to free throw shooting and protecting the basketball. This season, Dallas is a mere 14th in offensive turnover percentage. Their numbers were off in that regard last season as well. As much as anything, that's because Father Time has paid Kidd a visit and it's why the Mavericks will be going hard for possible free agent Deron Williams over the summer.
WHO WE THOUGHT HE WAS
PF: Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks
Projected WARP: 8.2; Current WARP: 6.3
Nowitzki reported out of shape after the lockout, both physically and mentally, and simply wasn't capable of carrying the Mavericks like he has so many times in the past. He was even given some time off just to work on his conditioning, which is unheard of in-season.
But that was before. Over the last 40 games or so, he's gone right back to being Dirk. If there is any reason for Dallas fans to be hopeful entering the postseason, that's it. His slow start is going to prevent him from meeting his projection, but Nowitzki is playing well. He's provided efficient offense, and lots of it.
There was a 10-game stretch earlier this season, at the height of concerns about Nowitzki's play, when he put up a .500 true shooting percentage with a usage rate of 23.6 percent. Those are decidedly un-Dirk metrics and you couldn't help but wonder if the celebration of his first championship had just gone on a little too long. Since the All-Star break, Nowitzki has a 31 percent usage rate and a true shooting percentage of 57.9. It's not peak Nowitzki, but it's still superstar stuff.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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