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The Dallas Mavericks are the Past, Present, and Future of the NBA

The unique starting five of the Mavs offers a lens to understand how basketball's statistical revolution does not a perfect system make.
Image by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA, at the time of this writing, is blessedly free of major scandal and governed by far less comprehensive math, thus enabling its fans to watch the sport simply for its own sake, bereft of context. Thanks to the creation of League Pass and the dawn of liberated fandom, they do so with more breadth in mind than ever. There are still plenty who hover on their team of choice, but it's no longer uncommon to toggle from Atlanta's crisp, precision-oriented schemes to Memphis's angry balrog act to Phoenix's odometer-cracking, 5 a.m.-on-the-freeway-style fast breaks to San Antonio's metronomic consistency, sometimes all in the same evening. For those who embrace the NBA for what it is - namely, a diffuse collection of styles and philosophies that joust for supremacy 10 players at a time - it's the preferred way of doing business, because how else could one gorge on so much in such a short period of time?


If that reads like a rhetorical question, it's only because you haven't stumbled upon the answer: turn on the Dallas Mavericks, who are the entire basketball ecosystem neatly packed together in one starting lineup.

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Rajon Rondo is the bipedal embodiment of basketball nostalgia, an old school floor general whose game is lovingly built on the crevices and crannies that he dignifies into passing lanes, ones that many peers bypass altogether if they don't ignore them outright. Today's game is an undoubtedly softer one, marked by a geniality within its players that transcends opposing uniforms, and yet Rondo defaults to chippy, ornery, glowering. He is the point guard your cantankerous grandfather swears he watched back in 1968.

Image by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The disciples of individual brilliance and creativity have Monta Ellis, the one true heir to Allen Iverson. There is a harmony to the way the league's better teams play: a ball-moving frenzy that is concordant, if not egalitarian. Generally speaking, it makes for a better product, but the cost paid was much of the isolation-based bravado that made the matchups between premier scorers feel like rapier fights contested on the edge of a scaffold. Gone are the days of gonzo solitary expressionism, succeeded by an emphasis on efficiency and maximizing attempts from certain sectors on the floor. And still there's Monta, swashbuckling and self-insistent, assaulting convention as he traipses wherever he goddamn pleases on the court. Oftentimes, the results are glorious, but the failures—which are considerable—are nearly as resplendent; they are not shortcomings so much as unrealized possibilities. Ellis doesn't get the test questions wrong because he doesn't know the answer; he picks the wrong choice intentionally, because he enjoys the pattern the dots make on his Scantron. It's only when he aces the subsequent essay that the sum of his genius is realized: the very qualities that impede him from fully conforming to the modern game's rules are the ones that enable him to transcend them.


We are still in the embryonic stages of the positional revolution, the as-imagined-by Free Darko utopia that eradicates stodgy and archaic labels of where players line up in lieu of roles dictated by skills. Chandler Parsons slots in as a traditional small forward far more often than not in Dallas, but he embraces the spot like an emissary of the future, one who can stretch a defense with his shot or put the ball on the floor, who can distribute as well as he patrols passing lanes. Half his time in Houston was spent as a stretch 4; he probably could dabble at the 2 if need be, as well. The where, of course, runs secondary to the how. Parsons is the aspirational archetype of the multidimensional forward.

Those who believe in the essential power of the traditional superstar can point to Dirk Nowitzki, still playing like a reasonable facsimile of one at age 36. More importantly, though, he is what it looks like when a city orbits around a single athlete, and an entire organization's biorhythms sync up to those of its franchise player. There are nights when he shows his age, when he's the first to admit that he feels every hour of 17 years in the league. But then there are games like Saturday, when Nowitzki dips into his slowly diminishing reserves to unfurl a few minutes of mastery exactly when the Mavs need him. That he did it on 11-of-19 shooting was typical of the efficiency that makes him a darling among the advanced stats crowd, and those who weigh process perhaps even above results. He is the rarest kind of player, one universally regarded as a championship-deciding talent.


Image by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, there is Tyson Chandler, less rim protector than bearded testimony that defensive purists point to whenever they need gospel. The mythology of Chandler's time in Dallas is as elementary as it is true—that, yes, one fearsome interior defender can elevate a team from fringe contender to title winner in ways even Nowitzki at the height of his power couldn't. That the Mavs find themselves in the title hunt again for the first time since their 2011 championship season not-so-coincidentally aligns itself with his return to Dallas, as he's been the team's best player through the first half of the year. As the game continues to evolve, he reminds us that some of its fundamental bedrocks do not.

It bears rehashing that none of them were acquired without skepticism. Chandler was brittle and a supposed offensive sinkhole when he first came aboard in 2010, while Parsons got the benefit of a contract large enough to make noted vaginal science enthusiast Daryl Morey huffy and cross at its very existence. There's also the whole Dirk-for-Tractor Traylor thing back in 1998, the best and worst thing that ever happened to front offices who presumed that foreign finesse always ran inferior to American muscle (No, really, Mr. Tskitishvili insists on showing himself out, thanks). But the backcourt is where things get interesting on an ideological level. Depending on who you consulted, the Ellis signing was at best an opportunistic gamble on a broken asset, or, at worst, a gaffe typical of an overmatched front office. A year and change later, after Ellis not only assimilated but flourished, the same front office ostensibly broke its own smooth-churning offense by bringing aboard Rondo, a player destined to murder its spacing and debatably worth the pittance of a backup big plus a fungible late first-round pick. Small sample size, et cetera, but the early results indicate it's been an unqualified success.

If there is a point to all of this, it lies in the wonderful unknown that still permeates across the NBA. Stare into basketball Twitter long enough and you can talk yourself into any team forging a path to title contention merely by snapping a stretch 4 together alongside a rim protector and a 3-and-D wing or two, give or take a dynamic point guard. Sprinkle in a healthy dash of pick-and-rolls, and the championship recipe is complete, pending a few years for the ingredients to sufficiently congeal.

There's nothing wrong with this line of thinking, per se; most of it is consistent with how teams tend to win these days. Yet the appeal of Dallas lies in its potential to disrupt much of that convention in favor of something far more ethereal and fascinating. Each step towards the title would demonstrate that the greatest shooting big man of all time can coexist with an off guard who occasionally monopolizes the ball in pursuit of hilariously misguided endgames and a point guard who has devoted entire weeks in avoidance of any outcome that disguises him as a legitimate scoring threat, to say nothing of the big man and wing player who can and should touch the ball in concert with all three of them. An ascendant Mavs team, in other words, would be a triumph for the environment making the disparate pieces fit together as opposed to a hegemonic system that only functions with the right set of parts. But more than that, they would stand as monument to the power of mystery, that there are things we don't and may never understand—let along prognosticate—about sports and that's OK, because total knowledge of anything can be constricting as much as empowering.

Like the NBA itself, these Mavericks are entertaining for their own sake, not for what they specifically embody: they don't fit into a box so much as they are the very structure, with all of the game's ideologies floating and drifting and emulsifying therein. Even the team itself admits that they're still figuring out what works for them, which stands to reason with so many influences to draw from. But even when they do stumble upon the right system, it doesn't figure to be definitive, not with those five players and a coach as good as Rick Carlisle in charge of shepherding them. The best processes rarely are.