Much has changed for Mavericks, Heat since 2006 NBA Finals
Three years since their Finals duel, Dallas and Miami are poised for the playoffs
In seven head-to-head categories, Mavs boast a 4-3 improvement edge over Heat
These include superstars, sidekicks, blockbuster trades and draft moves since '06
Thirty-four months have elapsed since the 2006 NBA Finals, just shy of the three-year statute of limitations at which we in the sports world click-and-drag the "recent past" folder into the one marked "ancient history." So now's the time to look back at that championship series between the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks, two teams that have packed an awful lot of living into the period since.
Why 2006? Well, things haven't changed all that much for the teams that competed in the two Finals that followed. The 2007 participants are still factors heading into this year's postseason; Cleveland's back as a bigger, stronger, better and more serious contender, while San Antonio's limping along as a proud warhorse underestimated at any opponent's peril. The 2008 series, meanwhile, feels like it took place weeks ago rather than months, with both the Celtics and the Lakers eager for a rematch -- and the NBA and TV network honchos praying for same.
The 2005 Finals clash between San Antonio and Detroit, by comparison, seems almost sepia-toned now by the dog-years pace of sports. That series took place pre-Hurricane Katrina, we hadn't yet been subjected to Deuce Bigalow and Larry Brown had two fewer head-coaching stops on his résumé.
That makes the 2006 Finals our Goldilocks edition, just right for revisiting in the context of 2009. It was, first and foremost, something of a respite from all those Lakers and Pistons and Spurs teams that had populated, even dominated, the proceedings in the preceding years. Both franchises were making their first and so far only trip to the Finals. Dallas was two years removed from the Steve Nash era, one year beyond Don Nelson, smack in the prime of Dirk Nowitzki's career and temporarily rewarded with $10 million in luxury-tax savings after cutting loose veteran Michael Finley via the one-time amnesty clause. Miami was three years into its Dwyane Wade phase, taking the next envisioned step after Pat Riley's 2004 acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal. Riley was back, too, his hand on the rudder for a 41-20 regular-season finish after Stan Van Gundy (59-23 in 2004-05) started 11-10 and got tossed overboard.
Now move ahead 34 months, when both the Heat and Mavs are wrapping up interesting, if not exactly upper-echelon, seasons. Both have overachieved in light of some October predictions that had Dallas slipping out of the playoffs entirely and Miami staying a lot closer to its last-place finish last spring. There could be something to learn from seeing where these squads were then and gauging where they're headed now.
Here, broken into some key categories, is a glimpse at how the teams got from here to there, or rather, there to here:
Nowitzki has been an under-the-radar stud, averaging 25.7 points this season, his highest total since 2005-06 and, at age 30, the third best of his career. Since a three-game stretch in late February in which he totaled just 40 points, Nowitzki has averaged 27.8 points while helping Dallas to a 13-8 mark. Wade, however, has put together easily the best of his six NBA seasons and, if not for LeBron James' work with the Cavs and the runaway by Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in the Western Conference, the Miami guard would be a gimme as Most Valuable Player.
Josh Howard's left ankle is still a concern. The injury will require surgery this summer and it cost him 11 games in March, during which Dallas went just 6-5. But the Mavs won four in a row upon his return. He gives them defense (seven steals vs. Utah on Wednesday), help on the boards and a slashing presence, ingredients that, after some bumpy times, he grasps now for their importance. "I think they're feeding a lot off me," Howard said the other night. Sometimes it takes bumps in the road to figure out you're the X-factor. Miami, by comparison, has no sidekick for Wade. Shaq is gone, Jermaine O'Neal hasn't filled that role and Michael Beasley isn't ready yet. What was "15 Strong" during the 2006 championship run is pretty much one-man-band stuff now.
Just going by development and growth together, Dallas boasts the more veteran and cohesive roster; five players -- Nowitzki, Howard, Jason Terry, Erick Dampier and Jerry Stackhouse -- remain from the 2006 club, and the first four are still vital to the rotation. In Miami, only Wade and Udonis Haslem remain from that championship roster. Some of the replacement pieces have been upgrades, but they haven't experienced the playoffs as a unit yet.
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