New-look Mavs face immediate test
DALLAS -- The Dallas Mavericks don't need to be reminded of how difficult it is to mesh after pulling off a blockbuster deal just before the trade deadline.
They tried it a couple of years ago. It didn't work out too well.
The Mavs traded for Jason Kidd because they believed it would push them back into the Western Conference's elite. Instead a team that was 35-18 at the time of the deal played .500 basketball the rest of the season, including a five-game first-round playoff exit.
Of course, that didn't dissuade the Dallas brass from making another bold blockbuster move this All-Star Weekend. The Mavs firmly believe they're a better team with Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood playing significant roles after arriving in a seven-player trade with the Washington Wizards.
It's just that the Mavs understand there will be a "gestation period," as president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson calls it.
"The fact that all these guys are veterans should expedite that process," Nelson said. "But whether it's two days or two weeks, the gamble was worth it."
What if it's two months? That'd be trouble for the Mavs (32-20), as competitive as the West is, although this trade does no harm whatsoever to the team's financial flexibility in the future.
The timing of the trade presents a unique challenge to the Mavs. They face a brutal stretch of four games in five days coming out of the All-Star break. All four opponents (Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix Suns, Orlando Magic, Miami Heat) would be in the playoffs if the regular season ended now.
"The biggest challenge is just trying to pick it up without really getting a lot of practice time," said Haywood, a center who ranks 10th in the league in rebounding (10.3 per game) and fifth in blocked shots (2.1). "Normally, you come into a new situation and you get a training camp and preseason games. We're barely going to get a couple of practices in, then we're going to be put out there and forced to execute."
Actually, Butler, Haywood and fellow Washington import DeShawn Stevenson won't have any practice time before their first performance in a Mavericks uniform.
They were forced to be spectators at Monday's practice because the trade paperwork had yet to be finished. The Mavs hope the three newcomers will be able to participate in the morning shootaround before playing on the road against an Oklahoma City team that has a West-best six-game winning streak.
Coach Rick Carlisle acknowledges the challenge the Mavs face. He won't complain about it, though.
"It's really looking at how we're going to get it done and not fixating on how tough it is," Carlisle said. "We're going to get it done."
Added Dirk Nowitzki: "Nothing is easy in this league. You've got to go out and earn it. We're going to put some basics in -- just a couple plays -- and tell them our defensive philosophy a little bit and go out and play."
Stevenson, a defensive stopper who is in the midst of a miserable shooting season, will have to earn minutes. The Mavs are counting on major contributions immediately from Butler and Haywood, though.
Jason Terry volunteered to move back to the bench to make room for Butler in the starting lineup, helping ease his transition to Dallas. However, Butler will be a natural small forward who starts games at shooting guard.
Butler said he didn't see the difference between small forward and shooting guard as a big deal, noting that the positions mirror each other in many of the Mavs' offensive sets. However, Josh Howard made similar comments this preseason but struggled mightily as a shooting guard. (Butler, a better shooter and creator, does have skills more suited to play shooting guard.)
Haywood, like Erick Dampier, doesn't demand many touches in the flow of the offense. He gets a lot of his points by crashing the boards, an individual pursuit that shouldn't be affected by changing teams.
But the Mavs need Butler, who averaged a career-best 20.8 points per game last season, to be a consistent scoring complement to Nowitzki. And they can't afford for his role to disrupt the rhythm of Terry, who has snapped out of a season-long funk recently. And they'd like for Shawn Marion to make more of an offensive impact.
It's up to Carlisle to maximize that trio's production by managing their minutes. Butler will still play a lot of small forward. Marion will play more power forward with Drew Gooden gone to Washington.
It's largely up to Kidd to make sure they all get in the offensive flow.
"Jason's got the ball in his hands a lot," Nowitzki said. "He always makes the right decisions. The transition is always easier when you have a great point guard who is running the show."
Defense has been the Mavs' biggest problem as they've gone 10-11 since New Year's Eve.
The arrival of Haywood should help change that, but he has to soak up the Mavs' schemes. Same goes for Butler, who also will have to make the adjustment of defending shooting guards much more often than he did for the Wizards.
And this will all happen as the ex-Wizards deal with the inconvenience of moving halfway across the country at a moment's notice.
"We're just thrown in the fire right now," Butler said. "You would love to have some time and establish some type of chemistry. But at this point, with the veteran guys and obviously the floor general in Jason Kidd, hopefully we'll be able to just get it together on the fly."
If they can't, other West playoff contenders might fly right by the Mavs.