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Posted: Tuesday November 18, 2008 1:28PM; Updated: Tuesday November 18, 2008 2:40PM
Paul Forrester Paul Forrester >
INSIDE THE NBA

Mavericks haven't hit their stride

Story Highlights

The Mavericks have been among the biggest early-season disappointments

Fourth-quarter woes have hurt the Mavs, as has Jerry Stackhouse's steep decline

More topics: The Clippers' woes, Devin Harris' hot run, the Cavs' strong offense

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Jason Kidd and the Mavs won at New York over the weekend to avoid the team's first six-game losing streak since 2000.
Nick Laham/Getty Images
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Was it only a month ago that many pundits forecast the Mavericks' immediate future with guarded optimism? Yes, they were coming off their second straight first-round playoff loss, but with a former MVP, a standout small forward and a future Hall of Fame point guard, Dallas was sure to return to the postseason. And with a previously successful new coach in Rick Carlisle now calling the plays, the thinking was that next spring wouldn't end quite so early again.

But after escaping New York on Sunday night with only their third win in the first 10 games, it's clear that the Mavs have been among the biggest early-season disappointments. Dallas has lost to all variety of competition, from the defending Western Conference champion Lakers to the lowly Clippers. Equally troubling, with the exception of small forward Josh Howard's two-game absence, the Mavs have lost with a healthy roster.

With owner Mark Cuban likely occupied by SEC trouble for a while, we thought we could be of service in trying to diagnose what ails his team. Here goes:

The end game. The Mavs entered Tuesday's visit to Charlotte having led or been within striking distance in the fourth quarter of every game, but they have struggled to close. In five of their seven losses, the Mavs were outscored by seven points or more in the final period. That speaks to a lack of clutch play from Dirk Nowitzki, along with a shortage of playmaking from others to take some pressure off the 2007 MVP. According to 82games.com, Nowitzki is shooting only 33 percent from the field in clutch situations (defined as a five-point game in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime).

Regrets, they've had a few. With every game Devin Harris leads the Nets to victory, it becomes increasingly clear that the Mavs got the short end of the trade for Jason Kidd. Harris, 25, is exactly the type of developing talent who could have pushed the Mavs into the faster gear Carlisle wanted this season; an on-the-decline Kidd, 35, is proving to be a nice complement to Dallas' slide from title contender to playoff fodder.

Despite experiencing how little Kidd changed their fortunes after arriving at the trade deadline last season, the Mavs did little over the summer but take a flier on former Slam Dunk champion Gerald Green and re-sign backup center DeSagana Diop, the most limited of players in a half-court offense and all but useless in an up-tempo one. And speculation that the Mavs would be interested in Stephon Marbury if the Knicks cut him loose won't buy back a lost summer.

The weight of failure. Watch the Mavs. Really watch them. Notice any real joy in anything they do? Or more a sense of relief when a late three-pointer puts away the Knicks? More often, you'll notice heads shaking in frustration over another close loss. Having earned so many arrows for their playoff failures, the Mavs too often appear to be playing without a sense of purpose. They show up and offer a professional effort, but passion seems to be lacking. Title-contending teams burn to win; the Mavs warm to the idea.

Jerry Stackhouse's disappearance. A former ace sixth man, Stackhouse struggled last season and has been even worse at the start of 2008-09. After shooting 29.1 percent from the field in his first eight appearances, the 34-year-old Stackhouse was placed on the inactive list against the Knicks despite being healthy. He told reporters Monday that he would welcome a chance to play elsewhere.

With the West not looking especially deep this season, the Mavs have time to turn it around. But they will need some intense therapy from Dr. Carlisle.

What's hot

Tempers. Kevin Garnett openly taunts Toronto's Jose Calderon and, a few days later, is suspended one game after a skirmish with Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut. A Rockets-Suns scuffle leads to fines and the suspension of three players. Denver's Kenyon Martin and Cleveland's Anderson Varejao trade elbows. Shaquille O'Neal is ejected for a flagrant foul against Detroit's Rodney Stuckey. Yes, the league's competitive juices are flowing freely early.

Zach Randolph's production. Mike D'Antoni has turned the Knicks into a one-stop fantasy team, and no player has gained in value more than Z-Bo. In four games last week, Randolph averaged 22 points and 14 rebounds. He's even been playing a little defense, too. If this keeps up, the Knicks just might find a taker for his big contract, which pays him $14.7 million this season and doesn't expire until 2011.

Devin Harris' tear. In his last three games, the Nets' point guard has helped knock off the Pistons and the Hawks twice by averaging 33.7 points and 6.7 assists. He committed only three turnovers in that stretch.

What's not

The relationship between Mike Dunleavy and Baron Davis. The headstrong point guard and play-calling coach have clashed over how to run the team (though they reportedly smoothed things over during a weekend meeting). If they've been at odds, how is anyone else supposed to know how best to operate on the floor? Simple. They don't. And that's why the Clippers are a very familiar 1-9 after Monday's loss to San Antonio.

The Western Conference. It lost 31 of its first 46 games to the East and has three of the NBA's four one-win teams (Clippers, Timberwolves and Thunder, with the Wizards rounding out the group).

Minnesota's point guards. Randy Foye, who is shooting 36.3 percent from the field, lost his starting job to Sebastian Telfair, who is hitting 32.4 percent. The struggles at the point help explain why the Timberwolves have lost eight in a row after winning their opener.

Scout's take

An NBA scout analyzes how the Cavs have become one of the league's best offensive teams early in the season.

"The biggest change, and having Mo Williams helps, is that they've been playing LeBron at power forward for a span of 12-16 minutes a game. That presents a whole new dynamic defensively. He's hard enough to guard as it is, but match a 4 on him and put him in ball-handling situations, such as in pick-and-rolls, or try to have a 4 defend him in transition, it's brutal.

"I wouldn't say the acquisition of Williams allows them to play LeBron at the 4, but it may have given them the confidence to try it. He's someone who allows them to play LeBron more off the ball. And with LeBron at the 4, the Cavs can go with a smaller, better-shooting lineup, one that gives them a lot more offensive flow. That gives them the ability to play in transition, and there is no one better in the open floor than LeBron. And now with Mo, you've got four guys [James, Williams, Delonte West and Daniel Gibson] who are effective pick-and-roll players and also effective scorers to varying degrees.

"When the 76ers was very good with Allen Iverson, all of their players acclimated themselves to what Iverson needed them to be. These guys in Cleveland seem to be adjusting and doing all the necessary things to help LeBron win now."

They said it

• "Rudy is not everyday a shooter. He's defense. He's passes. He's assists."
-- Blazers rookie Rudy Fernandez describes Rudy Fernandez to The Oregonian.

• "He's like a ghost out there. Like a shadow. Just all of a sudden he shows on a screen and he's gone. He's a blip and he's away. He runs the court like that. He's a stealth player more than you'd say (of) a person that infuses the team with energy. But his presence is certainly felt."
-- Lakers coach Phil Jackson describes to reporters the ethereal gifts of small forward Trevor Ariza.

• "I'm into other stuff, shooting my bow and arrow around in my backyard, flying helicopters around. I just do stupid stuff you wouldn't think I'd be doing, but I'm the one doing it."
-- Clippers center Chris Kaman explains to the Los Angeles Daily News why he doesn't spend as much time as most players in front of the TV or on the Internet.

• "That Denver team, they're going to have to make more changes anyway. They have too many alpha males on one team. When you have too many alpha males, it's hard to win like that. When everybody has an aggressive mentality -- Melo [Carmelo Anthony], J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, Chucky Atkins (yeah, Chucky is one of those loudmouthed alpha males, you'd be surprised) -- and when you have too many speakers and no listeners, it's hard to get a message across."
-- Gilbert Arenas, in his NBA.com blog, evaluates the Nuggets after the Iverson trade.

Reading material

Sacramento Bee: Ailene Voisin details how a former sportswriter has developed into the Kings' most trusted scout.

Salt Lake Tribune: Ross Siler sheds some light on the Peak Performance Project, a cutting-edge training facility in Southern California that the Jazz are using with greater frequency to help develop their players.

Chicago Daily Herald: Interesting thought from Mike McGraw: Where is the line players must straddle between being supportive of your team and being a jerk to the fans behind you?

San Jose Mercury News: Tim Kawakami offers 15 reasons why Baron Davis' decision to flee the Warriors for his hometown Clippers has messed up both franchises.

3 points

1. The league has to stiffen the rule that requires players who were traded and then waived by their new team to wait 30 days before re-signing with the team that dealt them. The latest example of this could be Antonio McDyess, who was traded from Detroit to Denver in the Iverson deal. McDyess quickly negotiated a buyout with the Nuggets, and the Pistons are said to be the front-runners to sign the veteran big man as a free agent. But if traded players were forbidden from returning to their original team for the remainder of the season, these shady agreements would end quickly.

2. Looking for a chink in the Celtics' armor? How about their inability to hold onto the ball? Boston is last in the league in turnovers at 17.6 a game. While that clearly hasn't stopped the Celtics from jumping to the top of the Eastern Conference again, it's only matter of time before more and more teams pressure them defensively.

3. The Knicks' refusal to cut ties with Marbury has become ridiculous and threatens to overshadow a feel-good start to the D'Antoni era. New York needs to quit dithering about buyout terms and send him on his way with his full 2008-09 salary. Marbury may not have earned it, but owner James Dolan agreed to it. And if Marbury ends up going to a conference rival, who cares? Are the Heat, for instance, really going to keep the Knicks from the East title this season?

 
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