DALLAS — As a giddy new father, Elton Brand returns to Philadelphia Tuesday night excited to be able to hold his baby daughter. As a struggling newcomer to the Dallas Mavericks, he’s coming back to Philly looking to gain a firm hold on this awkward start to the season.
The 76ers amnestied Brand and his final-year, $18.2 million salary. The Mavs eagerly scooped him up for just $2.1 million of his total cost. So far, he’s been barely worth that much.
Brand, 33, is averaging dramatic career lows: 5.5 points on 34.2 percent shooting, 5.8 rebounds and 22.0 minutes a game. His sagging defensive rating (106.3, according to NBA.com) is nearly four points worse than a slumping offensive rating ravaged by a mid-range jumper that has all but abandoned him.
Brand’s dropoff says a lot about where the erratic, made-over Mavs stand today. At 7-7 and with the so-called “easy” portion of their schedule out the door with Saturday’s 115-89 home pummeling by the Lakers, the question is which direction the team will go amid a grueling road slate and 34-year-old Dirk Nowitzki out until at least mid-December.
Since its attention-grabbing 4-1 start, Dallas is 3-6 and the franchise, in a very real sense for the first time in Mark Cuban‘s 13th full season of ownership, stands at a crossroads.
The unexpected 2011 championship planted a flag on the mountaintop of distinguished consistency that included 11 consecutive seasons of at least 50 wins. Only Bill Russell‘s Boston Celtics, Magic Johnson‘s Lakers and currently Tim Duncan‘s Spurs can claim such a streak.
That run came to an end with last season’s lockout-shortened, quasi-title defense. A roster Cuban purposely left devoid of Tyson Chandler and other key title contributors went 36-30, falling well short of the 61-percent equivalent of 50 wins.
After the summer’s free-agent chase of maxed-out Deron Williams failed, and now saddled with a leaky defense that can’t stop dribble penetration and ranks 28th in scoring and with Nowitzki out three more weeks, is it possible Dallas’ streak of 12 consecutive playoff appearances is in jeopardy?
For Nowitzki, helplessly watching the ups and downs — including a franchise-first loss to Charlotte and home losses to Golden State and injury-ravaged Minnesota — has been distressing.
“They’ve had some great outings, we’ve had some subpar outings,” Nowitzki said last week when he disappointingly laid out his recovery timeline. “I think a little bit of the consistency is missing and it’s tough. We’ve always said that if a good player or a great player goes out, you can always hold the fort down for a couple of games. But for a long period of time, that’s usually when you start showing that the player is out. That’s exactly what’s happened here. I think the boys played well at the beginning. We had lots of energy, we picked up full court, we made shots. Then after the first thing wore off a little bit, we had some tough outings. But the guys keep fighting and Rick [Carlisle] is going to do everything he can – throw different lineups out there, throw fresh guys out there, try everything he can to hopefully win some games.”
That’s what Carlisle has done, too, basically opening up every position (with the exceptions being starters Shawn Marion at small forward and O.J. Mayo at shooting guard) for competition.
Of course, until Nowitzki returns, gains confidence in his knee and familiarizes himself with nine new teammates (he played one preseason game), it’s too early to predict the season’s fate. At this point, he can’t yet predict how quickly he will return to his 11-time All-Star form following the first surgery of a career impatiently waiting to start a 15th season.
“We’re going to see once we get to that bridge. I have no idea now what it’s going to be like,” Nowitzki said. “I don’t even know what it’s going to be like tomorrow, so it’s tough to say what’s going to be in two or three weeks, especially once I start running and jumping and shooting in practice again, so all that, it’s far away from now.”
That has to be nerve-wracking for the Mavs, who play 16 of their next 23 games on the road, including at: Chicago, Los Angeles Clippers (twice), Boston, Minnesota, Memphis, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Miami. Denver, San Antonio and Miami are among the visitors for just seven home games through Jan. 10.
Yes, 68 games remain starting tonight in Philly. Yet, with Dirk out and the schedule turning nasty, the Mavs must place a premium on every opportunity to win.