At some point in the next few weeks, the Dallas Mavericks will welcome Dirk Nowitzki back to the lineup. But against all odds, they're doing just fine without him.
In past seasons the Mavs have looked lost without their superstar. But with a surprising 4-1 start, they appear to be flourishing. And with each passing day, the degree of difficulty seems to rise. Already missing Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and reserve guard Roddy Beaubois, the Mavs were without Elton Brand who was with his wife for the birth of their baby girl. Marion's the best all-around player on the team in Nowitzki's absence and Brand's by far the most physical. But not missing a beat, O.J. Mayo and Chris Kaman combined for 44 points in leading the Mavs to a 109-104 win.
To be fair, the Raptors were playing their fourth game in five nights, and they didn't have star point guard Kyle Lowry. But they should've had enough firepower to pose a legitimate threat to the Mavs. Instead, Dallas held them at bay for much of the game and then saw Kaman put an end to things with a sweet 11-foot jumper. Kaman's been an All-Star before, but no one expected him to come out on fire after missing three weeks due to a calf injury. Well, that's exactly what's happened. He was 8-of-15 from the field Wednesday and grabbed eight rebounds in 33 minutes. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle had him in the starting lineup for the first time this season, but he continues to monitor his minutes pretty closely. Kaman has fit nicely into Carlisle's flow offense that isn't overly reliant on called plays. But he sees room for improvement on the other end.
"I can play basketball on the offensive end," said Kaman. "I know what I'm doing there. I've got to get better with this team concept with the defense. I'm kind of running around a little bit lost sometimes. I need to get that taken care of."
It sounds like Kaman won't need any help staying grounded, although Nowitizki was quick to remind him that he'd hit a "lucky shot" to end Toronto's hopes of a comeback. The biggest issue for Kaman doesn't have anything to do with his skill level. He's a proven scorer in this league, but he has a history of missing a lot of games due to injury. I asked him Wednesday if he's learned how to manage his body better now that he's entered his 30s. But he basically indicated that his philosophy is to try and push himself as hard as possible even when he's hurting and then deal with the consequences later.
It's too early to make any wide-sweeping judgments about this team, but it's a good sign players have excelled no matter who's in the lineup on a nightly basis. Brandan Wright was a nice addition last season, but there were certain nights Carlisle couldn't get him on the floor because of less-than-favorable matchups. But even if the Mavs are at full-strength at some point this season, it will be nearly impossible to keep Wright off the floor. He added 12 pounds of muscle this past offseason while working with the strength coach of the Tennessee Titans in his hometown Nashville. Wright also spent time at his old high school, Brentwood Academy, shooting hundreds of jumpers over some of his 6-9 friends. He now feels comfortable shooting from 17 feet and was quick to tell me Wednesday evening that someone hacked his arm on a baseline jumper that didn't catch any rim. Wright finished with 12 points and seven rebounds against the Raptors, which has been a typical evening for him through five games.
With this interesting mix of players, Carlisle is once again showing why he's considered one of the best in the league. He has given point guard Darren Collison a lot of freedom in this offense and asked him to constantly push the tempo. In fact, he pulled him from the game Wednesday when he felt like he wasn't maintaining the proper pace. Collison has a chance to re-start his career after falling out of favor with the Pacers, and so far he's taking full advantage. With all due respect to Jason Kidd, it's refreshing to watch a point guard race up the floor and actually finish at the rim. Kidd should always be celebrated for his contribution to the championship team, but his fear of the lane restricted this offense at times. And yes, I realize this criticism makes me a basketball heretic in the eyes of some. But c'mon, even noted Kidd apologists have to admit that Collison has brought a new dimension to this team. Thank goodness Carlisle's good pal Larry Bird signed off on this trade before leaving the Pacers. It feels like a wonderful parting gift.
"He has strong leadership characteristics," Carlisle said of Collison. "He's got the skill and good knowledge. He's getting a better feel for guys around him."
And perhaps the most important player in Nowitzki's absence has been O.J. Mayo. In addition to being lethal from 3-point range through five games, he's displayed the ability to make things happen for his teammates. Mayo had a team-leading six assists in Wednesday's win and he could've had more. In the times I watched him with the Grizzlies, he appeared selfish with the ball at times. But that hasn't been the case with the Mavs. And once again, give Carlisle credit for getting Mayo to buy into his system. It seems like Mayo and Collison both realize they have an opportunity to alter their career arc with the Mavs. Mayo's been so hot lately that Toronto trapped him 25 feet away from the rim. And it didn't seem to frustrate him at all.
"If you've got two people on you, somebody has to be open," said Mayo. "Try to find them. Sometimes, you might not, but the hockey assist is always fine, too."
I jokingly asked Mayo if he feared Nowitzki might take points away from him when he returns to the lineup in a few weeks.
"That's a horrible question," he said while laughing.
For now, Mayo has all the right answers.