For the Los Angeles Clippers first meeting of the season with the Dallas Mavericks, I reached out to Rebecca Lawson who blogs for the SB Nation site, Mavs Moneyball. Rebecca answers questions for us about Monta Ellis' present, Dirk Nowitzki's future, and Rick Carlisle terrifyingness. Be sure to head over to MMB to check out my answers to her questions as well.
Steve Perrin: The Mavs have been heading in one direction the last few years -- from a title to a first round exit to missing the postseason altogether for the first time in a dozen years. Hopes of Dwight Howard or Deron Williams never materialized, and it seemed as if the decline would likely continue, but instead Dallas is in the thick of the playoff race in a tougher than ever Western Conference. If you had to single out one factor for the better than expected results so far, what would it be?
Rebecca Lawson: A commitment to something longer term -- or in one word, stability. The past two off-seasons, as you alluded to, saw the Mavs chasing the biggest free agents available in an attempt to get someone great to play alongside Dirk, only to be spurned. So, with ownership and a superstar who will not embrace a full rebuild, the past two off-seasons have left the team with the "Plan B" options of signing the best free agents you can get on one year deals in an attempt to get that superstar the next off-season, or signing the best free agents available to reasonable deals. This past off-season, the team moved on to the second option.
So you have Jose Calderon -- who filled a glaring need at point guard (hi Darren Collison and Mike James!) -- on a four year deal. You have Monta Ellis -- who again filled a glaring need (/waves to O.J. Mayo) -- on a three year deal. Brandan Wright is on a very economical two year deal. And Dirk will re-sign (more on that below).
The core may be aging, but now it IS a core. Everyone is playing together and not cautiously auditioning for their next gig. And that has made all the difference, it seems. (Also, you know, Monta Ellis. More on that below too.)
As the rest of the Western Conference got better, the Mavs at least kept pace. It's going to be a crazy race to the playoffs.
SP: A few eyebrows were raised when the Mavs gave Monta Ellis a $25M contract, but with Monta enjoying a renaissance in Big D, now it looks like the bargain signing of the off-season. How has Ellis' game been different than what you expected?
RL: The collective meltdown of Mavs Twitter when the Ellis signing was announced -- and then again when Ellis announced on media day that he was going to play "Monta Basketball" -- was probably a lot of fun to watch if you weren't a Mavs fan. Obviously in the past couple seasons, Monta has gained a reputation for being an inefficient volume shooter, but this is a case where I will give the front office credit for doing their homework. In fact, there were a few reports that Dirk had even asked them to explore signing Ellis, and we've seen why.
Though the initial reaction was negative, I think the more educated fans were at least a little curious how playing alongside Dirk, and how having a coach like Rick Carlisle (who knows how to get the most out of his players) might bring out the best in Monta. And boy, has that worked out -- "Monta Basketball" has been an absolute delight.
I don't know that his game has been terribly different from what anyone thought it would be. The big difference is, in Dallas, he plays in an offensive scheme that maximizes his best skills. He's playing unselfishly, which some might see as a new thing, but think about it -- when you are essentially the only scoring option on a team (as he was with the Bucks), you might gain that reputation unfairly. And of course, "Have It All" didn't do him any PR favors.
But Monta is a very willing passer. He and Dirk are straight up deadly in pick and roll/pick and pop situations. His cuts to the basket and crafty finishes at the rim are stunning. He has definitely had a couple of off-shooting nights, like every player does, but he'll rack up assists if his shot isn't falling. But (especially when he's on), you'd be surprised how often the Mavs run their plays for him rather than Dirk. It's been a lot of fun to watch.
SP: Dirk is enjoying a renaissance of his own, producing at a level reminiscent of the title season. Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki are the only three NBA players with more than a dozen years service with a single team. Paul Pierce was in that club but is no longer. Nowitzki is a free agent this summer, so look in your crystal ball for me -- does he retire a Maverick, when and at what cost?
RL: Amazing what a difference a full non-lockout, non-injured offseason makes, isn't it? Dirk will absolutely retire a Maverick -- that part isn't even a question. In fact, Dirk has already publicly said that he'll be re-signing. He's content with his role on the team, already has a championship, and already has more money than any of us would know what to do with. And the team has committed to him that they will remain competitive to make another run in the next year or so.
My best guess would be a three or four year deal, but the length of the deal probably depends a lot on how this season ends (is he injury-free? Do the Mavs make it back to the playoffs? Things like that). The biggest question is how much. The expectation is that Dirk will take a deep discount on his next contract in order to allow the Mavs to have maximum flexibility to put together a team that can make another championship run as well as (hopefully) start getting some pieces in place for the future. They'll have room to chase another max player this summer, if they want to.
When you look at superstars in the sunset of their careers and the contracts they sign, the most recent example is Kobe. And that's one way to do it I guess. Kobe signed for what he was worth as the face of the franchise and as their superstar. I wouldn't venture a guess as to why he wouldn't take a discount to sign to allow the Lakers to remain competitive or get pieces for the future. But as far as we all know, Dirk and the Mavericks are on the same page and it's really just the details that need to be settled. You'll be hard pressed to find a more humble superstar in this league.
SP: The 19-13 record is looking good, but with three key contributors age 35 or older and a couple other 32-year-olds this is obviously not a roster built for the long or even medium term. For the third straight summer the Mavs could have huge amounts of cap space. Is there a plan going forward other than "chase free agents every off season"? (Not a bad plan, BTW, when you have an owner that's willing to spend.)
RL: It's a really good question. I've kind of alluded to the answer elsewhere, but best we can tell the Mavs' plan is "stay as competitive as possible during Dirk's final years, then go from there." The Mavs don't have a fantastic history of developing talent or drafting, so chasing free agents -- especially with the cap space they will have this coming off-season -- is fine with me. They will certainly have the cash.
But that's even a little simplistic, because we've seen some signs that the front office IS looking at life post-Dirk. Shane Larkin has been the Mavericks' most exciting draft pick in...well, it's been a long time. He missed summer league and training camp and so is learning on the fly, but he has already shown flashes of the exciting player he was at Miami. Ricky Ledo, who is currently learning his craft in the D-League, is a really intriguing prospect. And the entire fanbase was thrilled beyond belief when the team re-signed Brandan Wright. To quote Macbeth, all of that could be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, but it's nice to see signs of a future when you know "life post-Dirk" is on the horizon.
SP: How good is Rick Carlisle? Not only did he win a title with a bunch of jump shooters, but since then he's been handed makeshift, improvised lineups, but he always manages to have them playing hard and smart. Does he get enough credit?
RL: Rick Carlisle is without question one of the top three or four coaches in the league, which may have become clear during the Championship run but has maybe been hard to tell the past two seasons. There was a reason that the Mavs locked him down two off-seasons ago through the 2015-16 season. Your question kind of gets to it: he knows what his players' strengths are, and knows how to maximize them. The rebirth of Monta Ellis, the hyper-efficiency of Brandan Wright, managing to get wins this season with basically no defense, brilliant play-calling out of timeouts, taking a technical foul just to get the guys' attention -- that is what he brings to this team.
He has been handed rosters the past two seasons that were really difficult to manage, in terms of player skill sets, personalities (the Lamar Odom Experiment comes to mind) and dealing with injuries. Dirk was gone for a lot of this past season, the point guard situation was a hot mess, and yet, the Mavs came within a couple games of making the playoffs. I think that says something.
I asked a fellow writer what his favorite and least favorite thing about Carlisle was, and his words were, "he's terrifying." That was his answer to both "favorite" AND "least favorite," and that is basically your perfect tl;dr answer to this question.
Rebecca didn't even know about our whole Shakespeare thing this season when she threw that Macbeth reference in there. It just happened organically. THAT. JUST. HAPPENED. Cool, huh? Thanks to Rebecca for sharing her insights with us, and be sure to stop by Mavs Moneyball to see what they're saying and to check out my answers to her questions.