Just when you think that the Dallas Mavericks' run might finally be over, the team goes out and makes solid moves to improve in the immediate term and maintain future hope. It's almost like clockwork: the Mavericks swing hard, the Mavericks strike out, the Mavericks still find a way to end up on second base.
Over the past two weeks, the Mavericks managed to lose their bid for Deron Williams, were shoved out of Dwight Howard trade talks, lost Jason Terry and Jason Kidd, watched back-up plan Steve Nash sign with the hated L.A. Lakers and saw their 2012-13 hopes dwindle to "potential playoff team."
On Wednesday, the Mavericks traded for Darren Collison (a good 24-year-old point guard still on his rookie deal), signed Chris Kaman (a good but aging center) and decided to waive Brendan Haywood under the amnesty clause (Hallelujah), which could open the space to bid on Elton Brand to back up Dirk Nowitzki and Kaman. These moves aren't going to vault the Mavericks into title talk, but it's a neat little talent reload on the fly that gives Rick Carlisle the pieces to be competitive every night, again.
Replacing Haywood with Kaman, in particular, should help Dallas become elite in one area: on the defensive glass. Haywood, who started 54 games for the post-Chandler Mavericks in 2011-12, rebounded only 18 percent of all defensive rebound opportunities last season, and Dallas finished No. 5 in the category. Kaman has never rebounded fewer than 20 percent of his defensive opportunities, and has been above 22 percent in each of the past seven seasons. Chances are that Dallas will lead the league in defensive rebounding this season.
Where there's still room to make up is in long-range shooting. Collison is a career 36 percent three-point shooter but takes fewer than two bombs a game. Terry averaged nearly six attempts per game, and Kidd more than four. Either someone (current or still to come) will be taking over vast swaths of the long-range duties for Dallas, or Carlisle's offense is going to rely much less on the three and more on the post and face-up games of Kaman and potentially Brand.
The Mavericks did keep Vince Carter aboard, and the 35-year-old could see his role boosted in Terry's absence. Dallas would surely also like to see Rodrigue Beaubois finally realize his considerable NBA potential (oh, for the days when he was called "untouchable" even though he couldn't get off Carlisle's bench) and also to give Dominique Jones an extended audition. Jones is a multi-tool two-guard with a bit of size that, if he develops, could give Dallas a variety of looks when paired with Collison and Beaubois. It's another "if" of course, but it's there.
Again, these are contender moves. Adding Kaman and Collison isn't close to the Lakers adding Nash. And it's certainly not comparable to what adding either Williams or Howard would have meant. But the Mavericks have done better than any non-Lakers contender in the West this year. Will it be enough to catch the Thunder and Spurs? Probably not. But considering the alternative -- fighting with the Jazz, Nuggets and the others for a low playoff seed -- it's a victory.
Back to the initial question: how do the Mavericks always manage to do this? The Mavericks own the league's No. 3 record since the 1998 lockout -- Dallas is actually only one regular season win behind the Lakers, who have won five championships in that span. Payroll is a major part of it. Mark Cuban has the resources to pay Haywood to go away. Few owners have leveraged their wealth for what is essentially a free do-over, despite the amnesty clause's massive salary cap benefits. Cuban doesn't really have to think twice, and he never has when it's come to spending what it takes for the Mavericks.
The Mavericks also have one of the league's top, underhyped general managers in Donnie Nelson. Many credit Cuban's cash for the team's success, but that ignores that just throwing money at problems blindly doesn't work. See: Isiah's Knicks. Nelson makes it all make sense with a thousand Plan Bs when things invariably go wrong. Nelson knows how to put Cuban's money to good use, and it shows.
Finally, there's Dirk Nowitzki, who makes things easy for everyone by offering elite production reliably. Over the past decade, Dirk is one of the NBA's stars we can always, always count on to deliver for his team. Having that at the center of the franchise gets the Mavericks halfway to great all buy itself. Knowing you just need to augment that talent to be a decent playoff team is a gift that I imagine Cuban and Nelson don't take lightly.
It appears that because Kaman, Collison and Brand (if he lands in Dallas) will all be free agents in 2013, the Mavericks will again be poised to swing for the fences as Chris Paul and Dwight Howard hit free agency. If they whiff on a couple more whales, I have a feeling that, Dirk willing, the franchise will still be able to retool and matter in the spring. It's just what the Mavericks do.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.