The Oklahoma City Thunder are finally fully staffed and they welcome the Dallas Mavericks to the 'Peake tonight for a big divisional game. To prepare ourselves, we turn to the great site Mavs Moneyball and their editor Kirk Henderson.
To check out my answers to his questions, you can go HERE.
1) The Mavericks have been on a downward trajectory since winning the title in 2011. Can you catch us up to speed on what they've done in the offseason and where you think they are headed?
This last off-season was the final play in a two year plan to get a big free agent to pair with Dirk Nowitzki during his twilight years. It failed. Last season was one where Dallas expected to tread water with the hopes of making the playoffs, but an injured Dirk for 30 games made that task too tall an order. The off season began with the signing of former Raptor Jose Calderon, with the main intention of stabilizing the offense after a year of point guard merry-go-round. Up next came the signing of Samuel Dalembert, who the Mavericks hope will be more inclined to defend than to score (Chris Kaman simply didn't work out with Dirk). The final large free agent piece was the signing of Monta Ellis. Devin Harris, Wayne Ellington, Gal Mekel, and DeJuan Blair also joined Dallas, but their roles are mainly to provide depth.
After realizing that cap space means nothing without other assets, Dallas signed all of these players to reasonable contracts, hoping that they would work on the floor, but if not, one of the new contracts are untradeable. It's hard to say where Dallas is going, other than their main goal in trying to keep franchise cornerstone Dirk Nowitzki happy. Dallas keeps trying to force the playoff window open, but at some point it's going to slam shut for a while. The more I look at it, the year that's likely to happen is around 2015 to 2017. Interestingly enough, the Thunder actually hold a Dallas draft pick that's top-20 protected until 2017. *Angrily shakes fist at the Lamar Odom trade on 2011*
2) We've seen some solid 2 man play between Dirk Nowitzki and newcomer Monta Ellis. What is your impression of your new 2-guard so far?
After a year of watching Darren Collison not understand how to play point guard and O.J. Mayo be far too timid, watching Ellis play with swagger has been a delightful change of pace. He's not hesitant to pass or shoot and so far it's resulted in some excellent play. He's got a ways to go though; right now his worst habit is pulling up for jumpers that are outside of his range. He's taken a number of very long twos which he's historically terrible at. What's strange is he has to know this, but sometimes a shot looks too appealing to matter. His work with Dirk has been superb because when Monta has an angle, he takes it, which results in a strong double team and leaves Dirk wide open. Dirk's not had looks like these in 2 years or more. It's been fun, to say the least.
3) After Dirk and Monta, which players do you consider make up your core and why?
This is a great question, but I'm going to have to hedge at the moment. Jose Calderon is signed to a four year deal, but I'm not convinced he works well with Monta Ellis at all. Dallas shouldn't pay a guy $7 million a season to stand there and shoot jumpers. Samuel Dalembert is on a very short contract, this year with a team option for next, but big men over 30 don't age well. Devin Harris is too old, but if he wants to play in Dallas, they'll find minutes for him this year. Wayne Ellington has never gotten much of a chance, but his skill set is very distinct. DeJuan Blair has been a delight, but he's about as tall as your average defensive end in football.
Brandan Wright and Jae Crowder are the only two who really fit the "core" bill. But, Wright's been injured with a shoulder issue and Jae hasn't shown any ability to shoot consistently. There are far too many question marks with this team right now.
4) The West is going to be a firefight all season long. What does Dallas need to do in order to get up into the upper 40's in wins this year to contend for a playoff spot?
I think that's about right. I have my eye on 45 wins. Injuries are going to play a role with some team, we just don't know which one yet. Dallas is lucky in that the entire roster has at least one skill that would allow them to play at least 15 minutes a night. So when the injury bug does strike Dallas, it won't cripple them like it might a team like the Timberwolves or the Lakers.
So far, through three games (I answered this before the Mavericks-Lakers game) I've been very pleased. Last year, the Mavericks were unable to win very many games with teams who were around their talent level. Beating the Hawks and Grizzlies are big early season wins, because if Dallas hopes to make the playoffs, it's got to beat these teams who are around their level.
5) The Mavs always play the Thunder tough. Why is that, and will it stay true to form this season?
That starts and ends with Shawn Marion. He's the glue guy with Dallas and, in my opinion, over the last several years he's been the best defender of Kevin Durant not named Lebron James. That 2011 playoff series was a defining moment for both teams. The Thunder lost 4-1, but it's one of those things I always forget because every single game was a battle. Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka guard Dirk better than any team in the league, each with specific talents that drive the Big German crazy.
Whether this game is going to be like the games of years past is hard to say. Dallas can't defend, but that's nothing new. How Westbrook plays in these games always seems to matter the most, because he's basically unguardable when matched up against the Dallas back court. If Scott Brooks realizes his team is best when they go "small" against Dallas, the Thunder could very well light the Mavericks on fire. I never feel good about playing the Thunder but each year it remains a battle to the last minute. So hopefully, we can get something like that again.
Thanks again, and be sure to check out Mavs Moneyball for full coverage.