HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The Dallas Mavericks attempted to get younger this season, attempted to put pieces in place for the future. But, after 81 games, they’re oldies have been their goodies and any roster continuity for next season is as uncertain today as it was 12 months ago.
Dirk Nowitzki, 34, Vince Carter, 36, and Shawn Marion, 34, have been Dallas’ best players by a long shot. Not that this fact needs validating, but it was never more evident than in the past two games, with the Mavs eliminated from the postseason for the first time in 13 seasons and nothing on the line except overgrown beards and swelling pride.
The veteran trio played their hearts out. The others served mostly as bystanders. Tonight, Dallas closes out its most disappointing season since the dark days of the 1990s by trying to salvage a .500 record against New Orleans. And so Nowitzki will miss the playoffs for the first time since his first two baby-faced seasons. Marion’s out for the first time in five years after Phoenix traded him to Miami for Shaquille O’Neal.
And Carter, who has played in one conference final (2010 with Orlando) in just seven postseason appearances during his 15 seasons, is out for the fourth time in the last six seasons. Since Feb. 1, Carter has averaged nearly 15 ppg, 4.5 rpg and 2.5 apg while shooting better than 43 percent from beyond the arc, where he’ll fall just short of his career best.
On a more competitive team, Carter would have been a dark horse Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
“I feel bad for Vince. Let me just say that right off,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban said. “Vince is a warrior. All these things I’ve heard in the past about him being soft and not playing hard, [bleep] that. That dude comes out to deliver every [bleeping] night. Even when a game got out of hand, he was busting people for not doing what they were supposed to do. He was cheerleading on the bench. I feel worse for Vince than I do for Dirk.”
Carter joined the Mavs prior to the 2011-12 season expecting to help defend the championship and vie for his first. But that was a watered-down version of the title team and was summarily swept in the first round by Oklahoma City. This season’s club, beyond Dirk and Marion, bared no resemblance to the team that celebrated on the Heat’s home court.
The Mavs’ veteran trio, all of whom are signed through next season at a combined $35.2 million, came through with big games after being eliminated. Sunday in New Orleans, Nowitzki became just the ninth player in NBA history to record 25,000 career points and 9,000 career rebounds. Marion had 21 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Carter put up 16, seven and five.
On Monday, in Game No. 81 against Memphis, with the goal of finally eclipsing .500 for the first time since Dec. 10 in Game No. 22, Carter put up 22 points, five rebounds and four assists. Along the way he passed Clyde Drexler for 27th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list and waved to the cheering crowd.
The achievement might have gained more traction afterward if not for O.J. Mayo‘s disastrous two-point, four-turnover game that got him benched and led to coach Rick Carlisle’s highly uncharacteristic dressing down.
Mayo, after initial excitement, has faltered for months. He can opt out after the season, but his return to Dallas is now highly questionable. Backcourt mate Darren Collison never achieved solid footing in Dallas and was twice replaced as the starter by old-timers off the street, first by short-timer Derek Fisher and then by Mike James. Collison will be a restricted free agent this summer.
“I’m proud of the effort,” Cuban said of his club that fought back to .500 after falling to 13-23 on Jan. 9. “I’m just not always proud of the basketball IQ. When you see dumb plays, sometimes they look like lack of effort plays when they’re just dumb.”
That was a direct shot at the club’s young, first-year backcourt that replaced future Hall-of-Famer Jason Kidd, who ditched Dallas at the last minute for New York, and Mr. Clutch, Jason Terry.
“We expected a different roster here and Dirk to be healthy,” Cuban said. “We thought we had young guns to put around old guys. Our backcourt roster wasn’t what we planned it to be, but that’s just the way it goes.”
Dallas’ three old-timers can now only wait to see which new young guns are on the way.