May 26, 2011, 2:59 PM EST
As the Dallas Mavericks are doused with the effusive praise that comes with being a conference champion, let’s not forget that their incredible accomplishments have come despite their two X-factors watching in suits from the sideline.
It’s odd to discuss a team headed to the NBA finals in terms of substantial setbacks, but there’s simply no other way to address the season-ending injury to Caron Butler and the gradual irrelevance of Rodrigue Beaubois. Both were supposed to be significant players for Dallas this season, and it’s a testament to the team’s depth and the efficacy of those available that the Mavs stand atop the Western Conference.
Butler is by far the more significant loss, as the Mavs knew exactly what he could offer this particular team during this particular season. Dallas’ early success on both ends of the court was because of Butler’s adjustments to better accommodate the team; gone was the ball-stopper of a year ago, and in his place stood an effective perimeter defender willing to move within the offense and play within himself.
The Mavericks were a tremendously successful and dynamic team with Butler in the fold; imagine them as they are now, but with an effective, involved version of DeShawn Stevenson. Butler connected on 43.1 percent of his 3-point attempts and 45 percent of his attempts overall — notably improved marks from his initial half-season of adjustment in Dallas following the 2010 trade deadline. He seemingly found his place within the offense and the team as a whole, and though Butler posted a PER of just 14.2 (relatively average, but low by the standards of his career), his value in terms of defense and shot creation far exceed that number.
As for Beaubois, this season’s Mavs lost out on an unquantifiable potential impact. He was the team’s second-best per-minute scorer a season ago, and an efficient bucket-getting machine. This year was supposed to be an extension of that same theme, a development and growth of Beaubois as a player and a point guard. Yet as much as Beaubois’ future was discussed in terms of what could be (both from a skill and positional standpoint), all of that rhetoric was a thinly veiled assessment of what would be.
Beaubois was deemed untouchable by Mark Cuban because he was seen as a sure thing, and public assessments of his game were equally optimistic. At worst, Beaubois would be a tremendous scorer capable of driving and shooting his way to 20-point nights on the regular. His length and athleticism give him great defensive potential, and his relative inexperience with the game left plenty of growing room for Beaubois’ budding passing and ball-handling abilities.
Beaubois may still hold those same natural predispositions for NBA effectiveness, but this season — one in which he was held out of 54 games because of complications surrounding an offseason foot injury — has understandably tarnished his perceived potential. Something for Beaubois never really clicked this season; his scoring instincts misled him, and he oscillated between periods of extreme passivity and offensive overextension. The scoring that had been at the core of Beaubois’ game deserted him, and while he still scored 17.1 points per 36 minutes, Beaubois’ efficiency plummeted. At moments, he looked like a dime-a-dozen undersized two guard, capable of scoring in bursts but largely inefficient.
Yet despite the losses of the actual and the potential, the Mavs persevered. Shawn Marion stepped into more minutes and an expanded offensive role, the kind which had been denied him by Dallas’ almost superfluous depth. Peja Stojakovic recovered from the mysterious back injuries that had kept him off the court in Toronto, and became a semi-regular contributor. Yet even more importantly, Jason Terry and J.J. Barea rebounded from their slow starts. Barea didn’t top 40 percent shooting during a month of the regular season until January, and his 3-point shooting hit almost comical lows in the mid-teens. ‘JET’ improved his field-goal shooting by 6 percent between January and February, and hasn’t looked back.
Neither player was limited by the system or even the clutter on the depth chart, but simply had failed to tap into the specific strengths of their games during the season’s opening months. Throw in a fully transcendent performance from Dirk Nowitzki, and you have the current, actualized product.
They didn’t need a big trade for a quasi-star wing or any kind of revamp — just consistency. Just an established effort to work through the season with the players available, with the knowledge that guys like Terry and Barea were better than their performance indicated. Rick Carlisle, Donnie Nelson, and Mark Cuban knew that Marion was still a capable offensive player. They knew that Stojakovic could contribute in spots, and while he couldn’t replace Butler, he could at least hedge the loss of his perimeter shooting. And perhaps most importantly, they knew Nowitzki could still act as a sufficient centerpiece without additional help, and Jason Kidd could be trusted to pull everything together on both ends.
This run to the NBA finals required the perfect mix of ingredients and circumstance, but so do all runs to the finals. It’s only because of the persistence of this roster, coaching staff and front office that this group was able to grow, thrive, and take the Western Conference by storm.
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