They Can't All Be Winners, Part 5: Dallas Mavericks

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Deron Williams is what decline looks like. In this age of advanced medicine, diet, and training, we’re not used to players resembling scraped-out industrial ghost towns at 31, but Williams has been kaputt as a star for a few years now, afflicted with taffy ankles and whatever triple-xtra strength hoodoo has been haunting the Barclays Center since the Nets moved to Brooklyn. Last season, he shot a percentage that starts with a three. There is nothing more emblematic of the end of the Mavericks’ exceedingly fun post-championship era than the team swapping out the effervescent Monta Ellis for Williams, which is saying something considering the state of Wes Matthews’s left foot and the thoroughness with which Zaza Pachulia is not DeAndre Jordan. The depressive power of Having Signed Deron Williams is immense.

This isn’t a one-player-bringing-about-the-fall situation. Williams’s contract is small (a bit over $5 million per year) and short (two years, the second being a player option). He’s not going to ruin the team, like Rajon Rondo almost singlehandedly did last season. Williams is symptomatic. He’s not autumn; he’s the leaves turning. He’ll have a modest renaissance under Rick Carlisle, as almost everyone does. He’ll play, in his charismaless way, just well enough that fans wince whenever Devin Harris gets subbed in. He’ll have a few performances reminiscent of his Jazz period, which on most nights will feel like a long time ago. The Mavs will win fewer games than they have in a while and the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area will think it’s gotten a bit cold lately, hasn’t it?

In this ever-more-cynical NBA, almost no franchise is content simply to win games or play attractive basketball. A team must never not be on the path to a title, whether they’re at the beginning of a five-year rebuild, or preparing for a deep playoff run. At least that’s the way every game, signing, trade, and coaching hire is framed, always focusing the fan’s attention on the eventual championship, on what will be rather than what exists now. In just a few more months, a few more years, it will have all gone to plan.

This league-pervading fixed future-gaze is what has made the Mavericks of the past couple of seasons a rare delight: a team that’s well-coached and expressive and quite good with very long championship odds. Some metaphors are so frequently misused that they lose their poignancy, but there is no other word for it: the Mavs of the very recent past harmonized. Carlisle, who would rather give his teams a set of ideas than feed them plays, devised a scheme in which players read the game and each other to produce sequences that looked like well-wrought musical suites sound. A pick-and-roll would unspool, and it was like a marimba making fingers up your spine, how the team would move as if an extension of the ballhandler’s thoughts. With Dirk and Monta in the fold, the offense had dynamism and daring, too. They’d break the thing for the sake of attempting the spectacular.

The fact that you didn’t need to watch those Mavs for much beyond immediate aesthetic pleasure was, of course, a product of circumstance and not design. They must have thought they were title contenders, but they never made a particularly convincing argument for that, and so their games took on a frivolous quality. Another way of putting it is that they were relatively free from big-picture anxiety, discrete events that were easy to luxuriate in. They meant nothing outside of themselves; they were terrific.

This year will be a step back for the Mavs, not just in terms of their record, but in terms of the baseline enjoyability of their games. Williams is washed-up anti-panache. Matthews is set to have something of a lost season as he gets himself healthy and back up to speed. Dirk is 37 and verging on immobile. (Swimming against the current is Chandler Parsons, who will probably do fine.) Carlisle isn’t to be underestimated, but coaching genius has its limits. He’ll be doing a hell of a job if he can keep this squad competent, let alone fun. They might be neither of those things by ownership edict; Mark Cuban has hinted they might tank. All of this is a shame for fans of low-altitude beauty. In the shadow of their championship season, the Mavericks built something less accomplished, but nearly as special. Now they’re just another team with a plan.

Previously on TCABW: Charlotte Hornets Philadelphia 76ers Houston Rockets | Los Angeles Lakers

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