- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Roland Mayer had watched his brother-in-law's basketball season end in the first round three times in the past four years and figured there could be no harm. So Mayer went ahead and added the famous name to the roster of his tennis team representing a small German club known as TG Wurzburg.
Mayer's instincts weren't as outrageous as they sound. If the Mavericks were eliminated early again, sending Dirk Nowitzki back to Europe in May like they have far too often lately, Dirk would be eligible to play league matches for Wurzburg now that he was registered in time. That didn't guarantee that Dirk would agree to play, but this way Mayer would at least have the platform to convince him, since this is the same Nowitzki who has a tennis court in his backyard in Dallas and ranked as a former junior regional champion in Bavaria before setting his racket down as a teenager to start living in the gym.
As overly pessimistic as all that might seem now, Nowitzki laughed the story off when he (and the German press) found out about it earlier this month. The reality, which Dirk doesn't even try to contest, is that Roli was hardly alone when it came to expecting something less than an extended playoff run from these Mavs.
Nowitzki's decision to re-sign in Dallas last summer didn't exactly trigger headlines trumpeting the Mavs' return to the Western Conference elite. Nowitzki himself concedes that he "didn't really know what to expect" after last spring's first-round loss to San Antonio.
"Honestly," Nowitzki said, "nobody really realized how big of an impact Tyson Chandler was going to have. But he's been big.
"Just for me, as a slower kind of forward, to play with a fast-twitch-muscle guy that's all over the place that can plug holes I think we all didn't really know how much of an impact he's gonna have. Especially after missing two years basically with [injuries]."
Nobody anticipated that a flurry of understated moves -- compared to the Mavs' usual penchant for the splashy -- would be enough to surround Nowitzki with (A) the best-fitting supporting cast of his career, and (B) as much help as a blazing Nowitzki would need to gun down the Trail Blazers, Lakers and Thunder in the playoffs.
It came as no surprise that the Mavericks were able to win 50 games (57, actually) for the 11th successive season, because Nowitzki's presence alone almost guarantees that in the regular season, no matter whom Dallas has had around him. The surprise was Chandler and his ability to immediately stiffen Dallas' defensive resolve, while also filling its need for a vocal leader, after Dallas finally chose to trade Erick Dampier's cap-friendly contract for Chandler instead of the statistically attractive (but undoubtedly riskier and more expensive) Al Jefferson.
Another surprise: The modest in-season signings of a proven shooter (Peja Stojakovic) and a defensive specialist (Corey Brewer) provided Mavs coach Rick Carlisle with a sudden array of options at small forward to snag some of the minutes vacated by the injured Caron Butler, after the Mavs couldn't convince Detroit to part with Tayshaun Prince and decided they couldn't afford to absorb an expensive long-term contract by trading for the likes of Stephen Jackson or Rip Hamilton.
The surprises kept coming, too. The value of quality depth is supposed to diminish once the playoffs start and between-games rest is more frequent, but it hasn't. Relying on a formula that history says isn't championship-friendly, Dallas mowed through the West with unforeseen ease, riding its certifiable star and with all the ball movement and versatility coming from an increasingly effective band of specialists. It didn't hurt that several of those vets have hungered for a championship as long as Nowitzki has, making this playoff run an opportunity to rewrite some of their own unflattering reputations.
"Our cast is interesting," said Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson. "There should be a movie called 'The Castoffs,' because, if you think about it, people said Jason [Kidd] was too old, J.J. Barea was too small, Dirk is the star who's not really a superstar you go right down the list. Tyson Chandler was the damaged-goods guy [after Oklahoma City rescinded a trade for Chandler in 2009], Peja Stojakovic was washed up and [Jason] Terry was the Steve Nash booby prize.
"We don't get it, but we don't write the articles. Clearly the sum of the parts is greater, and that's what makes us stronger. The reality is that they're playing the best basketball, as a group of one through 12, that they've played in their entire careers. They've got a magical opportunity. Second chances don't come very often, and they're ready."
Said ESPN Radio's Dr. Jack Ramsay, never prone to exaggeration: "I've never seen a team that is so dedicated to winning a championship. Everybody talks the talk. These guys had focus on winning from Day 1. And it's surprising to me because I didn't think, during the course of the regular season -- especially at the beginning -- I didn't think they were that good a team. But they have become a great team. They have become a very resilient team, extremely poised, physically tough."
None of Ramsay's adjectives were ever applied to the Mavericks of 2006, although the evolution didn't happen instantly. The Mavs did swing one of their usual blockbusters as recently as last season's trade deadline, but the February 2010 acquisitions of Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson -- like the July 2009 acquisition of Shawn Marion -- needed time to marinate.
Because there was no immediate payoff from those moves, Dallas initially went into Nowitzki's free-agent summer fantasizing about a sign-and-trade involving Dampier's contract to bring in one of those big names to partner with Dirk in Big D. The team of 30-somethings the Mavs wound up with can't claim to have a long-term future, but it's hard to quibble with management's decision to opt for continuity and understated upgrades, which have given the Mavs a shot to win it all with the sort of one-star roster construction that hasn't delivered a championship since Hakeem Olajuwon's Houston Rockets in 1994. (When the Rockets repeated in 1995, remember, they went out and acquired Clyde Drexler at the trade deadline.)
It's obviously a huge compliment to Nowitzki that he's made this Hakeem-style model work this well. An overdue compliment, really, given how much misplaced heat Nowitzki weathered after the '06 collapse from critics apparently oblivious to how thin some of those post-Nash teams really were. As Carlisle said last week: "Dirk is an absolute original, in every sense of the word."
But he's also the primary beneficiary of the specialists' rise to prominence.
"He's at a different place with the team around him," said former Mavericks mainstay Michael Finley, who joined Nash and Nowitzki in Mark Cuban's original Big Three. "I remember I would come into town and we'd have dinner and Dirk was always tense and uptight about the team, worrying about unnecessary BS. This is the first time [since the departures of Nash and Finley] that he's at ease. He's comfortable going into games now with the crew around him."
Marc Stein looks at the five major changes in Dirk Nowitzki since his first trip to the Finals five years ago.