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Bulls vs. Mavericks preview: Two great coaches, two flawed rosters

Ronald Martinez

[Thanks to Alex for today's game preview -yfbb]

Tonight, the Dallas Mavericks come to the United Center to most likely manhandle the Bulls with two potent shot creators and yet another point guard who would immediately be the best PG on our team if he joined us tomorrow. The Mavericks' record sits at a respectable 16-13, which puts them at 8th in the West with a record that would slot them in at 3rd in the pathetic East, tied with the Atlanta Hawks -- who themselves are about to slide now that their best player, Al Horford, is very possibly done for the regular season and playoffs with a right pectoral tear. To the surprise of many, the Mavericks have actually been pretty solid this season, and Rick Carlisle has been able to hone Monta Ellis's offensive explosiveness into the most efficient it's been to date. Their record also should not be considered indicative of their overall quality this season, as they have just lost three of their last five contests -- two against better teams, the third was an anomalous OT defeat at the hands of the win-challenged Boogie Cousins Kings.

The Mavericks, exceptionally thin on quality bigs who play near the basket, are doomed to be a playoff also-ran, though, if they don't make a move or two. This is a team that has one semi-valuable expiring contract in Shawn Marion's $9 million deal and a handful of trade-friendly assets (Ellis -- though I wouldn't move him the way he's been playing; DalembertBlairCalderon; CrowderHalf Man Half Amazing; draft picks), and really should be looking to win now while the 35 year-old Dirk continues to play at a high level. Of course, the Matrix loves it in Dallas and is still valuable in that, at 6'7" and 220, he can still defend both forward positions and gobble up a solid amount of boards for his position (7.1 rpg, 4th among small forwards). They could really use some rim protection at center, maybe they could coerce Milwaukee into moving the suddenly-volatile Larry Sanders since the Bucks are clearly no longer a viable playoff contender? Maybe one of the bigs from Denver or Memphis, or possibly Amir Johnson from the ongoing Toronto fire sale?

On the Bulls injury front, Luol Deng will sit as he continues to nurse his sore left Achilles, while Joakim Noah will play despite a sore hip. Tom Thibodeau has inexplicably continued to start Captain Kirk even in light of new Bull DJ Augustin's much-better play. Maybe he is secretly on board with the whole tanking thing, after all? I don't see how we can get this one sans Deng and with a hobbled JoNo. We have enough trouble containing Dallas even with those guys, since the Mavs' two biggest scoring threats play different positions than our two best defenders, and even if Noah did play and was switched onto Dirk while Boozer was hidden on Blair/Dalembert/Wright, Jo would have to leave the restricted area a good amount of the time (since Dirk has that patented Nowitzki fade-away) leaving it a bit exposed for Dallas's backcourt slashers (Ellis and Carter). I'm surprised there hasn't been more talk about the Mavericks making a push for Omer Asik, on defense he's pretty Tyson Chandler-esque (although he isn't nearly as sick at put-backs as that particular former Mav).

PG – Jose Calderon – When the Mavericks whiffed on Dwight this summer, they regrouped in a big way by upgrading their guard play. Calderon, signed to a $29 million, 4-year deal, has been stellar for them in setting up the reinvigorated Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki and in shooting the three-ball, averaging a probably-unsustainable 49% from deep on 5.6 three-point attempts a night. Calderon averages 89.5% on free throws a night, but only gets to the line 0.7 times a game, so that 89.5% number isn't as much of an asset as it could be to this Dallas team. But that's okay, because he has a lot of cutters to dish it to on this team, which he does at a decent rate of 4.6 assists a game.

SG – Monta Ellis – MONTA BALL has just been crushing it this year, and, assuming the Mavs right the ship soon and continue to cruise at playoff altitudes, Ellis is certainly worth a look as a coach's All-Star vote. I honestly thought that he was what he was at this point, a flashy, inefficient chucker. But now that he has a Hall of Fame pick-and-roll partner and a great, veteran-stacked offensive system in Dallas, he has morphed into one of the game's most efficient shooters. His biggest drawback continues to be his defense, but that's something that, at a LISTED 6'3" (I seriously doubt he's much taller than 6'1"), is going to be tough to really change against the bigger shooting guards. He's averaging 20.7 points on 46.2% FG % (his best field goal percentage since 2008), 5.8 assists, 1.8 steals, and 3.4 rebounds a game (pretty good considering, again, he's probably about 6'1" max). A fantastic slasher who, like Calderon, is a dynamite shooter from the charity stripe, Ellis is at a very good 82.9% on 5.9 free throw attempts a game. As a bit of an Ellis detractor in the past, I'm very interested to see what he can do against a hobbled Jimmy Butler.

SF – Shawn Marion – On the last year of what is probably his final big-money contract, Matrix has been surprisingly solid for Dallas, even with his obviously-eroding athleticism impeding on his ability to score inside (he's down to just 1.7 free throw attempts per game, half his output at his peak in Phoenix in 2006). He is averaging 10.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.3 steals on 44% shooting from the floor, and has yet to miss a game for his team. If he continues to play this well, he is the most obvious movable piece the Mavericks have if they want to add a bit more bench depth and rim protection to this year's squad and promote Jae Crowder to a starting role with the club.

PF – Dirk Nowitzki – Dirk has been playing at his highest level since he won it all in 2011, after a subpar post-lockout season where he took a few months to round into Dirk form, and an injury-impeded start to last year's season. Even with another 20-point scorer on his team now, Dirk is very much still the man, averaging 21.6 points (after a dip to 17.3 last year), 6 boards, and 2.9 assists, shooting a ridiculous-but-not-unexpected 92.3% from the free-throw line, 49.9% from the field and 39.8% from the three-point line on a very high 4.6 attempts a night. The guy is just unreal on offense. I cannot emphasize enough how much I dig this Dirk-Monta combo and want to see it last for at least a few rounds in this year's playoffs.

C – DeJuan Blair – Blair and Samuel Dalembert have been trading starting center duties for Dallas this season, with Blair starting 10 games and Dalembert starting 18. At 6'7", Blair is fairly undersized to jump at the 5, but his girth (265 pounds without ACL's!) makes him a handful to deal with down low, and the league's relative dearth of traditionally-sized bigs means that he can be competitive playing in the post. Still, he probably isn't quite starting-caliber, and center is the most obvious positional upgrade the Mavericks need to address in-season if they have any hope of contending.

Key Bench Players

SG/SF – Vince Carter – The man with the coolest nicknames in the NBA has become a really solid bench player for Dallas since joining the team in the fall of 2011, much to the surprise of this fan who vividly remembers him being anything but clutch in missing two crucial free throws at the end of a must-win Eastern Conference Finals game in 2010 against the Celtics, and many not-clutch years on the Nets and Raptors. At 37, Half Man Half Amazing can't beast for crazy dunks all the time anymore, but he still shows flashes of his former All Star self. He's averaging 11 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists in a somewhat scant 24.6 minutes per game, and while he's only shooting at a league-average level from three (34.5%) and a not-so-awesome 39.8% from the field, he numbers among the team's better slashers, shooting 83.6% on 2.6 free throw attempts a night. But he hustles on both ends of the floor now, which you couldn't always say about him in his prime. He is one of the few early-00's players who has been able to make a sweet transition to a bench role in the twilight of his career, and I want to see him continue to succeed in Dallas.

SF/PF – Jae CrowderKenneth Faried doppelganger Jae Crowder has been a nice asset for Dallas this season, averaging 5.8 points and 2.7 rebounds on 44.1% shooting from the field in only 17.8 minutes a game (which becomes a pretty-respectable 11.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per 36 minutes). At only 23, Crowder has plenty of time to develop into a solid 'tweener forward (he's 6'7", 240 and athletic), a transition that might be expedited if the Mavericks choose to move Shawn Marion before the deadline this year, which they should consider.

The Bulls’ Starting 5: Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Carlos BoozerJoakim Noah.

Overall Performance Outlook: The Mavericks are due for a W, and the Bulls are due for a comedown after two solid wins. The fact remains that this Bulls team, when not at least 92% healthy (with guess who as that other 8%), is a bit of a mess on offense, and their relative inability to create their own high-percentage shots or beat athletic teams down the floor (on the Mavs, that pretty much just means MONTA BALL himself, but still) is going to make wins against good teams very tough to come by.

Random Thoughts:

Thought 1 - Remember when Monta Ellis signed with the Mavericks for $8 million a year this summer and we thought he was overpaid? One takeaway emerges in after having actually, you know, seen Ellis in a Mavs uni... NEVER UNDERESTIMATE RICK CARLISLE.

Thought 2 - Do you think crazy-raw rookie Ricky Ledo can ever hit his skull-numbing ceiling?

Tip at 7:00 CST/8:00 EST on CSN-Chicago/ESPN-AM 1000.