This is a team that is going to have to play real fast. They have a lot of players who will spread the floor, and in the end they might look a little bit like the old Suns.
I still rank Dirk Nowitzki as one of the top two power forwards in the league along with Kevin Garnett. He shoots it as well as ever, though he doesn't rebound as much as he used to because he stays on the perimeter a bit more. He also makes a little bit less effort defensively, but I don't see a precipitous drop from him. Maybe his personal issues in the offseason will help pick him up by giving him something to prove this season -- you know, to refocus himself on basketball again.
Rich Carlisle is a hard coach to be around and play for every day, and it put a lot of pressure on the assistants to work things out and be liaisons with the players [early last season]. Once the players became used to him and learned to not take things so personally, the truth came out that he's a good coach and they have a lot of good players.
Carlisle changed the play-calling a lot over the course of the season while he was trying to figure out the team and adapt to the personnel, which is the sign of a good coach. At the beginning of the year, they were running a lot of stuff that was almost like the Princeton offense -- some different versions of it -- so maybe he was thinking it would fit with Jason Kidd, who was comfortable with it in New Jersey. But as the year went on, Carlisle changed it up and began to run some stuff nobody else runs. This is a copycat league but he wasn't copying; he was figuring out where people fit in. At the same time, around the All-Star break, he put in some of Avery Johnson's plays that they used to run for Dirk. It looked to be a constantly evolving thing that surprised me because I was under the impression that he was a regimented guy. Overall, they cut back on some of their ball movement from plays that required four passes to plays that needed two or three passes, and they focused more on running a specific play for a specific guy, whereas at the beginning of the season, they were running a lot of equal-opportunity plays designed to let everybody touch the ball. By the end of the season, he'd decided, "This is where this guy is going to score, and this is how we'll get the ball to him."
It slowed them down some last year that Josh Howard played only 52 games as their second- or third-best player. I like what Howard does on the floor, though you never know where his head is. But he does some amazing things, like averaging 7.6 points in the opening quarter last year; only LeBron James [8.3] got off to a better start, which means he's putting his man in foul trouble right away. He's aggressive, he plays hard. He's not as consistent a three-point shooter as you'd like him to be, but he's not terrible. He has the ability to be a better-scoring version of Bruce Bowen, but when they revamped their roster and Jerry Stackhouse wasn't playing anymore, he saw the opportunity to score and some of that emphasis on defense went away. Now he's thinking about Josh Howard's points as opposed to the defensive end.
Kidd isn't as good defensively as he used to be, obviously, and with the explosive guards in the West, that's a problem. Some of it has to do with the decline of his speed and quickness, and some of it has to do with the rules on the perimeter. But he still pushes the ball, he's still strong, and his shooting has improved dramatically from three-point range to where you can't just back off him anymore or close out late to him. You've got to get out there and guard him, and when you do that, he can get by you. He still has the quick first step, though he doesn't have the second or third step to get all way to the basket anymore. He's still as smart as any point guard, and he'll use that intelligence to create steals even though he can't just get up on you and stay on you and bully you like he used to. Everybody talks about the trade they made for Kidd that sent Devin Harris to New Jersey, and I still look at it as a good deal for Dallas. Harris is a scorer; passing for him is the second option. Kidd's passes are his first option, and that's what this team needed. I still have him ranked as the fifth-best point guard in the league, which is amazing for a 36-year-old. He's very efficient and he doesn't waste a lot of energy.
How are they going to use Shawn Marion? That's the key question. I think they'll end up playing as often as possible like the old Phoenix style, so when Dirk is resting they'll put Marion at the 4. He's supposed to be a 3 man, but his best years were as a 4 with Phoenix, and so you'll see them go small a lot. They'll take out Erick Dampier and move people around and have Marion running the floor in front of Kidd.
The key thing for this team is going to be how well they all get along, because Marion, Howard and Jason Terry are all kind of fighting for minutes and points. It might be difficult for Marion because this will be his first year playing for Carlisle, but maybe Kidd and the other guys can help him get acclimated. I don't view Marion as a star player. When he was going well, he was the product of the system, which you saw after he stopped playing in the open court with Steve Nash. His three-point shot needs to be a lot more consistent, and there's no question he is an overrated defender. To keep everybody happy, they'll have to start Marion at the 3 and then go small and move everyone up a slot, with Marion at the 4, Howard at the 3 -- which is his natural position -- and bring in Terry at the 2.
Terry still amazes me. He scores from both backcourt positions, he's a great clutch shooter, and he keeps pushing the tempo and puts pressure on the defense relentlessly. He turns it over a bit but they're aggressive turnovers, which are easier to live with. Looking at it from the outside, he appears to embrace his role as sixth man, which is different from a lot of guys in his position. He's a very important player for them.
Dampier is really a victim of his big contract. He simply doesn't have the ability to earn the money they're giving him. If you look at him on his own merits, I say he does pretty well. He's a center who last year shot 65 percent, averaged 2.7 offensive rebounds and 7.1 rebounds overall, with 1.2 blocks. Those aren't bad numbers in 23 minutes per game. Are they worth the $12 million he's getting this year? Of course not. But in today's NBA, they'd be worthy of $5 million.
A guy like Drew Gooden makes you wonder. You would think he'd be perfect as a complementary big man for the Spurs, but they decided not to keep him. I don't know if he has it in him to stick to the game plan. In Dallas, he should have a chance to be the starting center playing 30 minutes a game ahead of Dampier, but I don't know if he's consistent enough to pull it off.
As for the rest of their bench, I'm not sold on J.J. Barea as Kidd's backup. He's OK as a change-of-pace guy, but if you ever game-plan against him, you can neutralize him. Quinton Ross is a good athlete who will get some minutes, but he doesn't shoot it quite well enough. Tim Thomas will give them 10 good games a year, and Kris Humphries may give them [good] minutes.
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.