- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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MIAMI -- There is no doubt in Dirk Nowitzki's mind. These Dallas Mavericks are better than the 2006 NBA Finals squad.
That isn't a knee-jerk reaction to the Mavs marching through the Western Conference playoff bracket.
Nowitzki made that statement many times throughout the course of the season, always following it up by saying the problem was that the rest of the West's best had unfortunately also gotten better.
The rest of the West is no longer an issue, having been left in Dallas' dust. The Mavs' chance to win the franchise's first championship begins when the NBA Finals tip off Tuesday night.
We'll find out over the next couple of weeks whether the Mavs are better than the Miami Heat.
We can confidently declare that this Dallas team is better than the one that flopped against Miami in the Finals five years ago, as this position-by-position comparison proves.
POINT GUARD: Jason Terry vs. Jason Kidd
Let's just ask JET for his opinion on which point guard he'd rather have running a team: "It's no contest," Terry said, confirming Kidd as the easy choice. Terry is a terrific scorer, not a pure point guard, as evidenced by the fact that he averaged only 3.8 assists in 2005-06. Kidd's name comes up early in conversations about the best point guards in the history of the game. At 38, he has lost a step, but you can't tell from watching his crunch-time defensive dominance against superstars during this playoff run. Kidd's smarts, toughness and calm demeanor are major reasons the Mavs close out games so well.
SHOOTING GUARD: Adrian Griffin vs. DeShawn Stevenson
This is a comparison of two defensive-minded veterans who don't play many minutes despite starting. The difference is that Stevenson, a 38 percent 3-point shooter this season, can at least space the floor on offense. The problem is that Stevenson's jumper has abandoned him during the playoffs (14-of-45 from 3-point range). Griffin couldn't slow down Dwyane Wade during the 2006 Finals. The Mavs are counting on Stevenson -- who limited Wade to one bucket in 30 minutes when they were on the floor together during the regular season -- to do a much better job.
SMALL FORWARD: Josh Howard vs. Shawn Marion
Howard, an immature third-year player who hadn't hit his prime, averaged more points. Marion, a past-his-prime 12-year veteran, is a more efficient offensive player and better defender. While Howard was a focal point of the Mavs' offense, Marion is a double-figures scorer despite rarely getting plays run for him. He's a four-time All-Star who has accepted a reduced role to fit in with the Mavs. Dallas also doesn't have to worry about Marion having a mental meltdown, such as earning a crucial technical in a close game for calling a timeout the Mavs don't have.
POWER FORWARD: Dirk Nowitzki vs. Dirk Nowitzki
Has the Mavs' MVP improved over the past five years? Heat forward Udonis Haslem says yes without hesitation, pointing out that Nowitzki is a better post-up player and off-the-dribble playmaker than he was five years ago. Nowitzki has also become a better defensive player -- the numbers indicate he's actually a critical part of the Mavs' much improved D -- and is a more vocal leader than he was midway through his career. The one significant edge 27-year-old Dirk had over 32-year-old Dirk is on the glass. Nowitzki averaged 11.7 rebounds during the '06 playoffs and is only getting 7.5 boards during this run.
CENTER: DeSagana Diop vs. Tyson Chandler
It's almost unbelievable that Diop actually started for an NBA Finals team. That was the only season in his career in which Diop started the majority of the games. Chandler, on the other hand, has already arguably bumped James Donaldson to the second spot on the list of the best big men in Mavs history. Diop blocked more shots, but Chandler is a far superior defender, which was recognized when he finished third in defensive player of the year voting. Chandler is the best finisher the Mavs have ever had in the middle, and his emotional leadership filled a major void for this team.
SIXTH MAN: Jerry Stackhouse vs. Jason Terry
Stackhouse was fearless and ferocious, giving those Mavs a much-needed dose of nastiness. But Terry is by far the more effective player. Stackhouse averaged 13.7 points on 40.2 percent shooting during the 2006 playoffs, numbers that were slightly better than those he produced during the regular season. Terry was heavily criticized after putting up similar stats in the past couple of postseasons. He's been a good second offensive option during this NBA Finals run, averaging 17.3 points while shooting 47.1 percent from the floor and 46.3 percent from the 3-point line.
BACKUP CENTER: Erick Dampier vs. Brendan Haywood
The fact that Dampier, just two years into his monster contract, was coming off the bench indicates how disappointed the Mavs were with him. Unlike Haywood, Dampier didn't lose his starting job to a proven NBA big man. Dampier played more minutes during the 2006 playoffs than Haywood does now. But Haywood's defensive presence has been an underrated key to these Mavs' playoff success. He's been the backbone of a highly successful, potent offensive unit that features J.J. Barea, Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic and Dirk Nowitzki, none of whom have ever been called defensive stoppers.
BACKUP POWER FORWARD: Keith Van Horn vs. Shawn Marion
Van Horn was a one-dimensional player, and that dimension didn't work by the end of his career. He averaged only 3.6 points on 34 percent shooting during the 2006 playoffs and never played another NBA minute. Marion starts at small forward but slides over to power forward on the rare occasions that Nowitzki rests.
BACKUP WING: Marquis Daniels vs. Peja Stojakovic
The Mavs' trust in the athletic but erratic Daniels decreased throughout the 2006 playoffs. He played more than 10 minutes in only three of the last 10 games and got traded at the end of the season. The Mavs know what they're going to get from the 33-year-old Stojakovic, a three-time All-Star who signed with the Mavs in midseason and has peaked during the playoffs. He has had a pair of 21-point games this postseason. Daniels had that many points in only one of the four series in 2006.
BACKUP POINT GUARD: Devin Harris vs. J.J. Barea
Barea's penetration ability has given opponents fits during these playoffs. He's become a savvy player after learning from Kidd over the past few years. But Barea is not nearly as tall or talented as Harris. Harris was just a 22-year-old kid during the 2006 playoffs, but he also gave opponents fits with his penetration and changed games with his outstanding on-the-ball defense. The Mavs wouldn't have finally gotten past Tony Parker and the Spurs without Harris, whose numbers from that playoff run compare favorably with Barea's production this postseason.
COACH: Avery Johnson vs. Rick Carlisle
Johnson did a remarkable job getting that Mavs team to the Finals in his first full season as a head coach. However, that inexperience showed when Johnson was outcoached by legendary Pat Riley in the Finals. Johnson's decision to change hotels after the Heat tied the series, moving the Mavs 45 minutes away to Fort Lauderdale, set off panic alarms. The lack of creativity in his offensive schemes made it easy for Miami to focus on stopping Nowitzki. Carlisle is as even-keeled as they come. He's also a master offensive strategist who has managed to get the Mavs to buy into his defense-first philosophy.
Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.
6hChris Broussard and Marc Stein