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Bulls vs. Mavericks game preview: Dirk Nowitzki leads a hot West team against a hot East one

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

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

Tonight the Bulls, a team with a superstar whose prime may have an earlier expiration date than many of us had hoped, head to the Lone Star State to face off against the Dallas Mavericks, a team with a superstar who has outlasted ALL of his peers to become the oldest reigning All-Star in the NBA. Of course, the nature of the respective games of Derrick Rose (a slashing 6'3" speed demon point guard) and Dirk Nowitzki (a jump-shooting 7' power forward) might have something to do with this. I guess what I'm saying is I really, really miss Derrick Rose. Anyway.

The Dallas Mavericks, winners of 6 games in a row and 10 of their last 12, are one of those teams that appear to be treading water out West due to their relatively lackluster seeding, shuffling on any given night between the 6 and 8 seeds (they are currently 6th, mere percentage points ahead of Golden State). Their 36-23 record is, of course, good for 3rd in the East by a significant margin over the Raptors, and, even without a formidable low-post big a la Tyson Chandler in 2011, they are a team that, if put into the Eastern Conference playoffs, could put a real scare into a team like Miami, since Dirk and Monta would be match-up problems for anybody, but a speedy guard like Monta finally playing within himself could give the Man formerly known as Flash (heretofore to be referred to as "Flashes," to quote Jalen Rose) fits over the course of a whole playoff series (that Bucks-Heat 4-game series sweep last year doesn't count, that Milwaukee team was a mess and poorly coached; and even still, the Bucks did put a bit of a scare into Miami for about three quarters of Game 1).

Here's my big question for Dallas going forward: what exactly are they trying to do? They have one of the top five coaches in the game, in my opinion, in Rick Carlisle; they have Monta Ellis at the peak of his scoring powers; they have finally upgraded their PG position to the level of basically 2011 J-Kidd but with better shooting and a little less ball-handling (due to Monta handling some of that workload); Matrix continues to grind and put up OK numbers; and Dirk is still Dirk. But the best this team can hope for is probably a 1st round upset and a 2nd round playoff out this year. And that's a shame. Dirk and Marion were never really given an opportunity to defend their 2011 title after Mark Cuban let several key cogs walk in free agency, in a failed effort to forego chemistry and instead recruit an A-lister like CP3 or Dwight; instead they've opted for cheap free agency pieces in the ensuing summers -- in 2012 they were booted in the first round, and last season they finished at .500, which wasn't enough for a playoff berth. This 2014 incarnation, with its major off-season backcourt upgrade, is the best Dallas has been since they won it all.

That being said, it was clear that, heading into the All-Star break and trade deadline, the Mavericks had some very visible needs to address if they wanted to step into title contention this season. They needed a major defensive upgrade at center and some backcourt defenders and/or scorers behind Ellis and Marion. Those pieces were definitely out there to be had at the trade deadline (Asik, Turner, Young, Hawes, Gasol, Deng), and even in buyout season some tantalizing fits are still available, if a bit less awesome (a shooting PG like Fredette -- although it sounds like our Bulls have the inside track on ol' Jimmer -- or possibly the ex-BG7; or a defensive-minded slashing wing like Ronnie Brewer; there are still some OK vet centers out there to be had, namely Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, Lou Amundson and, uh, fucking Kwame).

Dallas is a team that is absolutely loaded with expiring contracts (they only have $26.6 million in committed salaries next year, and Dirk is scheduled to take a pay cut in his next contract with the team), and Omer Asik could probably have been had for a future first-rounder (their current first rounder belongs provisionally to the Thunder as a top 20-protected pick, so it'd probably have to be a 2016 first rounder, or maybe a handful of second-rounders 'cause you know Morey would be into that), an expiring who still had some cache as a player (Marion or Vinsanity/Brandan Wright?), and maybe a provisional future pick in '16 or something. They should really be in win-now mode for as long as Dirk Nowitzki continues to be an All-NBA caliber player in a loaded conference, which he is. Mark Cuban owes him that much.

PG - Jose Calderon - Since last we spoke about the Dallas Mavs in a game preview situation, 32 year-old Spanish sharpshooter Jose Calderon has remained the steady hand that steers the ship. He's averaging an elite 45.1% from three (with 5.5 three-point attempts per contest, down a bit from the 49% shooting on 5.6 three-point attempts that I had called "unsustainable" a few months ago, but, also in and of itself a rate that I would have thought to be unsustainable for Calderon at this point in his career), 45.2% from the field, and 82% from the foul line, averaging 11.7 points and 4.8 dimes a night, in a scant-for-a-starter 31.1 minutes per.

SG - Monta Ellis - The Man They Call MONTA BALL finds himself in the midst of probably his best year in the pros to date, operating as a secondary offensive focus to alleviate some pressure from the Greatest European Ever to Lace Up a Pair of Sneakers, a key cog on a very good playoff team that has a shot at winning 50 games this season. Ellis is averaging 1.8 steals, 5.8 assists and 19 points (making 48.3% on 2's and shooting an absolutely SICK-for-a-guard 45.6% from the field overall), while getting to the foul line 5.3 times a night (plus converting a very healthy 80% of those free looks). Also, he is liable to do this on any given night now that he's playing off a savvy veteran backcourt running mate (Stephen Curry was injury-prone and had yet to blossom into a Splash Brother when he was paired with Monta) who can create off the dribble. Point being, you do not want to leave this man open. Another really, really important note -- Monta has the coolest tattoos on this entire Mavericks team.

SF - Shawn Marion - 'Trix, at an ancient 35 years old, is still kind of kicking ass, relatively speaking. He might not be able to stay ahead of a lot of the cats at his nominal position (which, to be fair, is one of the most loaded positions in the NBA), he remains a very solid defensive small-ball 4. His numbers on offense are none too shabby, either: Marion is averaging 10.6 points (including shooting a very efficient 50.9% on 7.5 2's a game), 6.8 rebounds and making 80.8% of his free throws. A Marion side note: I saw him at O'Hare Airport one time in the summer of 2011, right after Big D had won the title. The Matrix had a hand towel draped over his head. I'm not quite sure what he was trying to achieve by doing this, but if the goal was to somehow conceal his identity from people, it failed egregiously because he was 6'7" and pretty clearly Shawn Marion.

PF - Dirk Nowitzki - I can't believe that Dirk Nowitzki STILL ranks among the coldest motherfuckers in the entire NBA. But he is. In principal, it does make sense that Dirk's particular finesse-based skill-set would not erode as quickly as that of his more traditional front court contemporaries, but still, it's kind of amazing that he's kicking as much ass as he is on the offensive side of the ball. I know what you're wondering. "Hey, how close is Dirk to ANOTHER 50-40-90 season?" The answer is very. Currently, he is shooting 49.5% from the floor (and this is a guy who takes 15.7 shots a game!), 40.5% from three, and a mega-sweet 91.6% from the free throw line. Damn this guy's good.

C - Samuel Dalembert - It's really disappointing to me that Dallas didn't upgrade (or even EXPLORE upgrading) this position at the trade deadline. Dalembert is only good for 20.1 minutes a night, 6.4 points, 6.4 boards, and 2.6 fouls. And this while staying the healthiest (i.e. judging in terms of games missed due to injury) he's been in a while. Yeesh.

The Bulls' Starting 5: Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah.

Overall Performance Outlook: Even despite Wednesday's blowout 20-point beat down of the Warriors, I think these Bulls will struggle on offense against a team that is a borderline juggernaut on that side of the ball (let's not talk about Dallas's defense), and Taj will have trouble leaking out to the perimeter to contain the seemingly-ageless Dirk and then recovering to the glass for defensive boards. Also, this is the third game in four nights for a Bulls roster that only really goes about 9 deep when totally healthy ("totally" not including D-Rose, of course). My thinking is, even if the game is close, we don't have anybody on the Bulls capable of doing this to the Mavs. They have a certain bench swing man still capable of doing this to you sometimes. What I'm trying to say is that this offense has a lot of ways it can hurt you if you're the Bulls.

Random Thoughts: What's Tony Snell's ceiling? I've got him pegged as a nice 3-and-D bench 'tweener who can be slotted at the 2 and 3; unless he adds about 40 pounds of muscle I don't know if he'll be quite the defender everyone projects him to eventually become. Tell me I'm wrong though, I want to be wrong. Just back it up with facts. You know, good ones.

Tip at 7:30 PM CST/8:30 EST on Comcast Sports Net/ESPN-AM 1000.