With one coach leaving and six players up for free agency, the squad that captured the franchise's first championship could fall apart
The enduring snapshot of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks is Dirk Nowitzki's physics-defying fallaway jump shot, his right leg bent up to his chest and his body at a 45-degree angle to the ground. But no tableau of the Mavs' championship run would be complete without images ofJ.J. Barea flipping a layup off the glass with three defenders in his wake or Tyson Chandler snagging a critical offensive rebound.
Barea and Chandler, part of Nowitzki's elite supporting cast, are two of six Dallas free agents who may not participate in next season's title defense. The overhaul is not limited to the players: Assistant coach Dwane Casey is leaving the team to become the Toronto Raptors' next head coach.
The Mavs will undoubtedly re-sign some of their sextet of free agents, including swingman Caron Butler (because his value dipped after he tore the patellar tendon in his right knee and missed the second half of the season) and "The Custodian" Brian Cardinal, whose hard fouls in the Finals were a staple of Dallas' physical postseason play. But the new collective bargaining agreement—which could include a hard salary cap of $45 million—will most likely force owner Mark Cuban to choose between Barea and Chandler. I'd go with Barea because his aggressive offensive game makes him an ideal complement to Jason Terry on the Mavs' second unit and because Dallas has a more-than-serviceable backup center in Brendan Haywood, who would probably start on half the teams in the league. But given Cuban's propensity to massively overpay big men (remember Erick Dampier's contract?), anything is possible.
Whatever the Mavs' front office decides, the team will begin its title defense without several key characters from its championship run. That's a rarity in the NBA, where almost every championship team in the last 50 years has kept its nucleus intact. Short of a superstargiving baseball a try or mangling his foot beyond repair, teams have defended their crowns with the same key players that got them to the mountaintop.
The obvious exception to that rule is the 1999 Chicago Bulls, who played without nearly everything that made them great. The three-time defending champs lost Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman from the '98 squad; the trio of Hall of Famers had contributed 45 percent of the team's points, 52 percent of its rebounds, and 39 percent of its minutes the year before. The Bulls also lost legendary coach Phil Jackson, whose departure prompted Michael (and then Scottie and Dennis) to flee the Windy City. Not surprisingly, Chicago missed the playoffs in '99, finishing 13-37 in the strike-shortened season.
The Mavericks, however, are not losing nearly as much as that Bulls team did. Their situation is more analogous to the 1970 Boston Celtics, who had won the championship the year before thanks to the inspired play of an aging Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain's "balky" knee. Russell retired in the offseason, as did deadeye shooting guard Sam Jones. While star forward John Havlicek was still around, the Celtics were unable to replace their two retired Hall of Famers and missed the playoffs with a 34-48 record.
Perhaps the Mavs can ride their own star forward next year and avoid the Celtics' fate. But even if they make the playoffs and Nowitzki is at his eye-popping best, Dallas will be hard-pressed to repeat as champions without Barea's sinewy heroics or Chandler's rock-solid post presence.
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