The Dallas Mavericks are sitting atop the Southwest Division at 10-3 and just three NBA teams have a better record.
However, no one is mentioning the Mavericks as serious title contender or even one of the best teams in the league. That does not surprise star forward Dirk Nowitzki. He is not overly impressed with how his team is playing, either.
“We’re winning and that’s about the only good thing you can say about us,” Nowitzki said. “We’re playing some defense. Our defense has actually been really solid. On offense, we’re shooting in the low 40s, high 30s and that’s suspect. We’ve got to get better.”
The Mavericks are 13th in the NBA with 109.0 Offensive Rating. They are shooting .448 from the field and .349 from three-point range. Yet, the Hawks, Magic and Suns are the only teams with better records.
Defense has fueled the Mavericks’ success as their 102.2 defensive rating ranks sixth. They are also holding opponents to a .438 field-goal shooting percentage and .355 from beyond the arc.
The Mavericks have gotten back to the defense-first philosophy that Avery Johnson stressed during his three-plus seasons as coach from 2004-08, a tenure that included a Western Conference championship in 2006 and a league-best 67 victories in 2007.
“Last year coming into the camp, after Avery, we focused so much on offense, opening up the offense, letting (point guard Jason) Kidd run a lot of stuff,” Nowitzki said. “This year we said, “Screw that.’ We’re going to do all defense. We worked a lot on defense and it’s really paid off early but now the offense is slacking off.”
Perhaps the offense will pick up when the Mavericks get two of their frontcourt starters back. Forward Josh Howard has played in just three games this season because of a sprained ankle that has caused him to miss the last five. Center Erick Dampier has sat out the last four games with an undisclosed illness.
Dampier’s 126 offensive rating in nine games this season is the highest on the team.
Are the Nuggets Elite?
It is difficult to precisely defy what an elite team is. All the Denver Nuggets know is that seemingly no one refers to them as an elite team and they feel snubbed after making it to the Western Conference finals last season and getting off to a 9-4 start this season.
“We definitely feel we’re an elite team,” Nuggets guard J.R. Smith said. “I think obviously we believe it and I think we have something to prove every time we go out on the court. Everybody, for some reason, is counting us out but we love it. We love being the underdog.”
Many analysts feel the Nuggets need to add one more premier player before they can join the ranks of the elite. Smith disagrees, though.
“I think we have what it takes to make a run at the championship,” Smith said. “With the guys we have, we think we have a great core. We have great team chemistry. I'm happy with the team we have.”
New Jersey Threatening Unfortunate History
The NBA record for most losses to start a season is 17, set by the Heat during the team's 1988-89 expansion season and matched by the Clippers during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. At 0-13, the New Jersey Nets are closing in on that mark and now face a four-game West Coast swing that starts tonight.
The Nets open their road trip in Denver against the Nuggets, then face the Trail Blazers, Kings and Lakers. Should the Nets go winless on the trip, they would fall to 0-17 and be in line to set the dubious record Dec. 2 when they host the Mavericks.
No team in the league has been more short-handed this season than the Nets, who have lost 70 player games to injury, illness or personal matters. They have dressed eight players, the minimum allowed under NBA rules, in a number of games. Yet coach Lawrence Frank refuses to make excuses.
“No one cares, or should they but I feel sorry for our guys because the blemish that comes with (being winless) and why it's a story,” Frank said. “The story for me is that it’s eight guys who truly have worked their tails off. If they were coming in (not caring) in practice or not focused at shootaround then I'd say there's not much hope. But they're not. They work every single day. These guys care. I'll take 100 percent responsibility for where we're at.”
While the players might be working hard, they admit a victory would be good for morale.
“It definitely weighs on you,” wing Chris Douglas-Roberts said about being winless.
A More Positive Van Gundy
Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy is a perfectionist by nature. Thus, he can often be overly critical of his team.
However, Van Gundy says he will try to be more positive after talking with center Dwight Howard about why the players have not seemed to be responding well to his coaching this season despite the Magic’s 11-3 record.
“I asked and he answered honestly,” Van Gundy said. “I respect that and I’ll try to change my tone.”
Howard also suggested that Van Gundy let the team and media know about their discussion.
“Players are like little puppies,” Howard said. “We just like to be patted on the head sometimes, even when we make a mistake.”
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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