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Hyde and Hare: Bugs Bunny and the Dallas Mavericks. A Preview.

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Remember that classic 1955 Bugs Bunny cartoon "Hyde & Hare" (video)? In this episode Bugs is adopted by a seemingly nice little man who fed him in the park, and moves into his house. There the doctor changes into the dangerous green-skinned monster Mr. Hyde after drinking a potion in his lab (for some time, then back and forth). Our beloved Bugs is fleeing around the house in panic, terrorized by a man more frightening than all his usual enemies combined. Trying to hide with the friendly Dr. Jekyll, he puts himself within the murderous striking distance of the terrible Hyde time and again whenever the sudden transformation happens. (Don't want to spoil the ending for you.)

That's how I feel about this year's Dallas Mavericks. They are unpredictable. Sometimes they are the really nice Dr. Jekyll who moves out of your way and can do no harm. Then suddenly and without warning they become the terrible Mr. Hyde, wanting nothing more than to smash your brains out. And they can. The big problem is: You never know who to expect.

That is characterizing the whole season: It can still go either way. At the half-time mark, Jake one of the editors at Mavs Moneyball wrote an interesting article titled "Are we Miami or are we Cleveland?". By this he didn't mean the current teams, but the ones in 2004-05 and 2005-06 who had very similar records at this point in time. Miami went on to become the NBA champion against all odds (and the Mavs), while Cleveland missed the playoffs. In which direction will it go?

Jekyll and Hyde. So as the ambassador to Mavs Moneyball and a long-time observer of the franchise (they are my "other team"), I could write in this preview that you can expect a close game against a very dangerous team - and be totally wrong. I could predict a blowout against some wusses - and completely embarrass myself when they go for a big run.

Which team will show up? It could be at least the one that beat Portland on Christmas and recently resurfaced beating Detroit and Orlando in convincing fashion. Or the one going completely under by 30 points against Boston and Milwaukee. Yes, that Bucks team we beat easily the same week. It sent Mavs veterans running over the court like bloody rookies (the team has no rookie on the roster by the way). Since it's so hard to predict which version will show up against the Blazers all I can do is pass on some observations. I'm sure Dave will take care of the statistical particularities, so I'll mostly skip that.

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The coach (not pictured):

A Jekyll and Hyde himself, some observers feel that Carlisle has lost his players already. He promised more running and athleticism this season, and didn't deliver. His rotations are in complete flux and harder to figure out than a fatty post. Don't even bother. Who knew you could play 5'10" J.J. Barea at shooting guard (and not even badly)? On some small-ball nights his centers combine for under 20 minutes. You can be never sure who starts and who will see playing time. Is it Avery Johnson all over again, only with a nicer voice and looking like Jim Carrey's brother? But unlike his teams also playing no defense? That's not what Cuban had in mind when hiring him.

Maybe at the end of the season we will say it all changed on the day Carlisle gave up and handed Kidd the keys to he offense. "It's your car Jason, you know best how to drive it. Be safe. Have a good day." The Orlando game looked that way. On the other hand, we don't know yet if he will change his mind while Jason is still not out of the driveway. This coach is unpredictable. If one thing is sure, it's that the opposing coach - should the Mavs reach the playoffs - will have a pretty hard time figuring this team out.

The players (ca. in order of appearance and importance):

Originally written for the game on Christmas with some updates on what has changed since then. Skip this if you feel you already know the team well.

Dirk Nowitzki, starting PF/C: Like B-Roy, he is the heart and soul of his team. If you can manage to take him out of the game, everything else follows. Obviously the most dangerous scorer, but also a very good passer and defensive rebounder for which he gets little credit. You don't want to bring him to the free throw lin e in a close game. During the matchup against Detroit, ESPN's Jon Barry thought it was clever to insult him as a jump shooter who doesn't get to the line a lot, which is funny if you consider Dirk is consistently in the top 5 in scoring and top 10-20 in free throw attempts, and hitting at about 50/40/90 percent with greatly improved driving to the rim over his career. The notion that he is soft and not clutch is just plain wrong, and he has proven it in dozens of international and NBA games (e.g. buzzer beating Spain, Russia, and the Spurs in game 7 of the 2006 playoffs). He wants that title bad, but it's becoming more and more obvious he won't win it with the Dallas supporting cast.

Josh Howard, starting SF: Clearly the second weapon in the offensive arsenal last year with some people already discussing him overtaking Dirk, he then disappeared in the playoffs (I fear that could happen with LaMarcus, too). He does nothing great but everything well, and is one of the premier perimeter defenders in the game. Returned from a nagging foot injury and playing pretty good now, but far away from his All-Star season when he was much more aggressive. His game might be an indication for Blazer's Edgers what to expect from Martell once he slowly returns. He must have really smooth skin since he uses great beauty products (Dallas Morning News).

Jason Kidd, starting PG: Rajon Rondo with more experience and less speed. The old man can still rebound and pass the ball in transition second to none. Seriously. If the Blazers don't run back quick after a possession, he will throw one outlet pass after another to a running teammate for easy points. Surprisingly has improved his outside shooting this year, to a point you can't leave him open on the perimeter anymore (ca. 40%). Also doesn't step on the three point line that often, which was a common error.
That being said, Devin Harris showing one Most Improved Player game after another in New Jersey makes the Mavs front office look more stupid by the day for doing "The Trade". Word out of Dallas is that most beat writers think the Mavs should have fired Avery Johnson first and then made an inventory of what really needed to change.

Erick Dampier, starting C: He will never be worth the $11 million he makes, but he does play surprisingly good on many nights this year, staying within his limits like Joel. Solid rebounder on both ends of the floor, and just a very big body under the rim you can't easily move around. Has no offensive moves or outside shot to speak of. Rarely gets in foul trouble.

Antoine Wright, starting SG: Acquired last year in the Jason Kidd deal. Had some brilliant flashes including games where he recorded over twenty points. Then mysteriously didn't play much after a minor injury, but now is back in the starting lineup. See Carlisle's strange rotations.


Jason Terry, SG/PG: The nickname JET is fitting. Terry is in a Manu Ginobili role this year as the first guy off the bench and then playing considerably over 30 minutes. And he does it really well. If he continues to play like this, not winning "Sixth man of the year" would be a snub. He really has become the second best player on this team despite still being somewhat inconsistent. 30+ points on one night, disappearing a bit on others. His specialty: Running fast breaks, then stopping suddenly at the three point line or elbow to pull up for a sweet jumper. That makes you cringe as a coach or fan, but can really bring back the team from a deficit or burry the opposition for good. Recently he revealed how he has improved what was already a strength again this year: He worked with George "The Iceman" Gervin on his mid-range jumper during the off-season, despite Gervin being a Spurs guy.

Devean George, SF/SG: It is The George, not just George. He shouldn't come up so high in that review, but he plays a lot. No fan really knows why he got a new contract and is still on the team, much less starting on some nights (the guy has a PER of 7.5). Maybe it is his reward for trying to stop the boneheaded trade of Kidd and Harris. Did I mention I hate that trade?

Brandon Bass, PF: Last year the only guy who cared next to Dirk and Terry. Now he seems to be in a slight slump, but still he is the kind of undersized PF banger a lot of BEdger's are clamoring for, so don't underestimate him.

J.J. Barea, PG/SG: Man of the first half of the season in Dallas. Nobody saw that one coming. Before the season, they probably would have accepted a deal of Sergio for Barea and secound round picks straight up, now he is almost untouchable. Dirk calls him "mini AI" or "The White AI". Really only a point guard, but regularly played as an undersized shooting guard while Howard was out. I have seen Dallas win two close games with a super-small closing lineup of Kidd, Barea, Terry, Singleton/Williams, Nowitzki. Now that Howard is back his 25 minutes from December have halved.

James Singleton, PF/SF: The former Clippers veteran is doing some nice things for Dallas. They quite regularly use him in a small lineup now in the second unit. Very athletic rebounder also on the offensive boards. But should never shoot a three again, thank you.

Ryan Hollins
, C/PF: The minor DeSegana Diop trade had little effect so far. They were glad to get rid of his ridiculously big MLE contract almost on the level of Joel (that they just had signed him to). But Hollins is getting limited playing time, and while he looks very athletic he is also collecting fouls per minute and so most of Diop's playing time (not that much anyway) went to Dampier and small lineups.

Gerald Green, SG: After some brilliant flashes in summer league, pre-season and early season now seems to be in the doghouse. More athleticism than Wright, worse defender. Might be forever known as an All-Star dunker but league washout if he doesn't become consistent soon.


Matt Carroll, SG: Former short-term Blazer acquired in the Diop deal with an almost as ugly contract. The three point specialist had problems with his shot all season already in Charlotte, and has not seen much time on the floor since the trade. Not sure if he will be on the active roster and play, but even if he does you would probably miss him if you blink at the wrong moment.

Shawne Williams, SF/PF: Acquired in a little trade with Indiana. A somewhat problematic character who is trying to resurrect his career in Dallas, and after initially looking pretty good he doesn't seem to get playing time anymore. Another failed trade, since they gave up second round picks to get him?

Jerry Stackhouse, SG/SF: Starting at the beginning of the season - and not even bad - the veteran has seen his minutes decrease dramatically after a minor injury before being benched in November/December, and since then only got DNPs and inactive lists. Demanded a trade after not playing in a game against the Knicks, but is too loyal and professional to become a team cancer. If they find a taker for him, he is gone before the trade deadline.



What has changed since the Christmas game? Is a big trade coming?

One conventional thing Carlisle did was tighten his rotation as the season progressed. The new guys acquired in the trade for Diop get very little burn. Singleton is playing a little more consistent minutes than earlier in the season. Green and Williams are in the Stackhouse doghouse, which is especially hard to understand with Green since that is the prototypical athletic player to go alongside Kidd. Even Wright doesn't play that much most nights, while Jason Terry is in his Manu Ginobili role as the first guy off the bench and then playing over 30 minutes. Howard is almost back to old form, which ironically decreased the minutes of Barea massively. But rumors out of Dallas have it that he doesn't get along well with Carlisle. A trade before the deadline constructed around him could be in order. But like everything about the Mavs, it's hard to figure out if they are doing it and what they are looking for in return: A new starting shooting guard like Felton? Gerald Wallace? Bargnani? An offensive center like Kaman or Miller? Someone completely unexpected?

With problems mounting and the playoffs not secured, some fans and a few journalists feel it's time to blow up the team and start over. Mavs Moneyball recently started their own "trade drawers", and more and more suggestions are popping up. Trade just Josh Howard and try to make a run in now or next year? Trade Dirk? Trade everyone but Dirk? Who is available? So far it doesn't look like management and ownership are ready to admit defeat and reboot (that would be trading Dirk and/or the expiring contract of Kidd), but Cuban is on record saying he hates nothing more than a team winning 40 something games stuck in mediocrity. We will see if there comes up a major deal before the deadline. One problem is that there are not that many (cheap) assets to move, and no draft picks beyond the 2009 first rounder which can't be traded (Ted Stepien rule). Did I mention I hated the Kidd trade?

Dallas GM Donnie Nelson (son of Warriors coach Don Nelson) is reportedly working the phones like crazy to get some deal done these days. So far he has missed out on the big trades that brought Artest to Houston and Richardson to Phoenix, but he continues to try deals with his limited assets. He is rumored to suggest more weird multi-team trades than KP. Expect Dallas to make another more significant move before the deadline if they are still a fringe playoff team.

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Keys to the game:

  • On some nights, the defense of the Mavericks is comically atrocious this season. Charles Barkley had a point when he said in his oft-repeated TNT commercials on league pass "my grandmother could score 30, my mother would drop 45 on 'em". Defense used to be the trademark of the Mavs, now they give up 99 points per game.
  • So be the aggressor yourself. Attack, attack, attack. If the Blazers can turn the table and be Mr. Hyde themselves, that makes life against the Mavs a whole lot easier. Especially drive with the guards and wings. Roy (and Bayless) could have a field day. Dirk will try to cover up for the mistakes of his teammates and often end up in no-mans-land creating foul situations or open shots for others. New Jersey did that brilliantly in their blowout against Dallas.
  • Hope Dirk has an off-night (preferrably Terry too). Against Orlando he was constantly hitting his trademarked turnaround fadeaway jumpers - sometimes off the wrong foot - that would make even Travis cringe. People on the Magic blog were wondering how he makes these. But he does, and is probably the only guy in the NBA who can with any regularity. You can't really take that shot away as a defender when he releases it high above his head. To try and get him out of the game, don't let him get the ball in his preferred spots around the top of the key. If he still gets it and starts to back his defender down, pressure immediately with double teams to force him to give up the ball. Don't fall for fakes.
  • Get back in transition to prevent easy points. Jason Kidd can really exploit that sending his guys running.
  • Get those rebounds. Dallas' second wave is extremely dangerous with everyone able to score from mid-range.
  • Don't get frustrated if you might get down by 10-15 points. Not just because you never know what happens like in the game against the Hornets. But Dallas has already screwed several big leads this season (e.g. against the Bulls).

Funny sideline observation:

I don't know if he will be at the game, but If you want to get completely distracted from the game watch the courtside seats at the left end corner opposite the Mavs bench. His name is Don Knobler, season-ticket holder of the first hour, and until recently I always thought he was an old lady since people at that side of the court are with the back to the camera and all I could see was big long gray hair. He never sits still! He wears crazy costumes. He jumps up and down whenever something interesting is happening, and you have to notice him even on TV since the cameras catch that angle on almost every play. This season he upped his game by bringing glow-sticks. SIT DOWN! If I was Mark Cuban who is placed right across from him, I would probably personally destroy his season ticket to never have to watch him again. And if I was sitting behind him in those expensive seats, I would seriously consider to punch him in the face. Now that I told you, you will probably be unable to "unsee" him ;-)

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So which version of the Mavericks will show up against the Blazers? The traditional stallion as pictured in their logo, or the little pony above? The harmless Dr. Jekyll or the fierce Mr. Hyde? We will have to wait and see.

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(All Bugs Bunny/Looney Tunes pictures copyright Warner Brothers)