Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Sign Of Things To Come?

I am not a gambler. I've been to Vegas once, and I can't imagine losing my hard-earned money on a sporting event. But, I do like to study the trends that gamblers use when they pick games. One trend says that NFL teams tend to cover the spread at a high rate the week after they lose their starting quarterback. The thought is that losing their leader galvanizes the squad. They focus harder. They prepare more diligently. They rally. The remaining healthy players know that they have to raise their play in order to pick up the slack.

When Dirk Nowitzki went down with a knee injury last month, I thought we would see the Mavs play well in his absence. I thought the wounded animal theory would apply. I thought that there was enough talent and chemistry present to overcome the temporary loss of their leader and best player. I was wrong.

As of this writing, the Mavs have gone 2-6 without Dirk, with one of those wins being against the D-League Cavs. Yes, the Caron Butler injury figures into the equation, too. But I heard one analyst say that losing Dirk and Caron is like the Thunder losing Durant and Westbrook. I disagree. OKC is a team that goes eight players deep--that's it. Dallas was considered, at the start of the season, to be one of the three deepest teams in the league. Plus, OKC is top heavy. Jeff Green is a fine player, but after that the Thunder don't have a Hall of Fame point guard, a Sixth Man of the Year who is supposed to be good for 18-20 a night, a four-time All Star Forward, and the two best centers in the history of their franchise. Kidd, Terry, Marion, Chandler and Haywood should be enough to prevent implosion. They have not been. Perhaps these Mavs have been exposed as not having as much beyond the Big German as we thought they might.

In 2005, the Spurs lost Tim Duncan for a 13 game stretch. They went 9-4. They proved (to themselves, most importantly) that they could win without their leader, which boosted the confidence of every player on the squad. Once Duncan returned, they went on to win the NBA title. Those Spurs lost arguably the best player in the game (at that time), yet they kept on winning. They proved that they had the foundation of a championship team. They worked harder. Role players stepped up. They refused to check out and wait for the return of their leader.

In any sport, when a team's leader goes down because of injury, it exposes the ability and character of the rest of the players. On the surface, this season's Mavs looked to be deep and talented and capable of making a run at The Finals. In reality, are we seeing that (behind Dirk) the scorers are, at best, aging and inconsistent? Are we seeing that if the team has to rely on defense to win that they can't? Are we seeing that the two centers are more limited than we care to admit? I'm afraid the answer is yes to every one of those questions.

I thought the most revealing game in this stretch without Dirk was the first game--against Toronto, and before Butler got hurt. The Mavs lost to a bad Raptors team. They had no fight that night. That was their first game without their leader--the game they were most likely to rally and play well. Instead they fell flat. That may have been the night that the true character of the team was revealed.

In the postseason, as usual, most teams will try to take Dirk out of the mix. If Dirk can't respond to that challenge, then the abilities of his teammates will make or break the series. That's why the last few weeks have been a bad sign.

A team's results after losing their leader will very clearly illustrate whether that team has championship mettle or not. Unfortunately for the Mavericks, the last couple of weeks without Dirk may have given us a strong indication that they are not title timber. I'm just glad I didn't bet on that fact, or I might have had to start charging people to read this crappy blog.

(Disclaimer: If Dallas goes to San Antonio Friday without Dirk and beats the Spurs, then ignore this post.)

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