As was the case last year, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers are the favorites to make it to the NBA Finals from their respective conferences. But I've never believed that any one or two teams are untouchable when compared to the other teams. In retrospect, there are exceptions, such as the Boston Celtics of the Red Auerbach era or the Chicago Bulls of the 90's. But the way people are talking, it's a foregone conclusion that the Cavs and Lakers will play each other in June for the championship. I beg to differ; there are several teams in each conference who will also contend for the championship.
The Dallas Mavericks
Why they can win: The Dallas Mavericks have always been able to score, whether it was was the 03-04 team with Steve Nash, Michael Finley, Dirk Nowitzki, Antoine Walker, and Antawn Jamison, or the 05-06 team that made it to the NBA Finals with Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Devin Harris, Jerry Stackhouse, Keith Van Horn, Josh Howard, and Marquis Daniels. Those teams could score in a variety of ways, whether it was from the perimeter, driving to the lane, or posting up. This year's version of the Dallas Mavericks is no different and is, in my opinion, even more potent on the offensive end. Dirk Nowitzki is still the focal point of the offense, but his supporting cast has changed dramatically; only two players not named Dirk Nowitzki remain on the team since their 2006 Finals run- Jason Terry and Erick Dampier, the "second best center in the NBA," as he so brazenly proclaimed himself at the time.
Jason Kidd now starts at point guard after being traded from the New Jersey Nets for Devin Harris two seasons ago. At the time, that trade was seen as a mistake for Dallas, but considering that the Mavericks are now contending for a championship while the Nets are contending for the worst win-loss record in NBA history, that no longer seems to be the case. With the assembled team, Kidd is a much better fit at point guard than Harris would have been because of his passing (2nd all-time in assists with 10,854) and experience (16 seasons in the league with two NBA Finals appearances). He knows when and where to get his teammates the ball and he does it extremely well. In the off-season, Shawn Marion joined the team after a trade and added his versatility to the mix: he's bigger than most other small forwards, can shoot from the perimeter, and gives Kidd an excellent target on the fast break. Backing up Kidd is Jason Terry, one of the league's best sixth men, averaging 16.8 points. He missed five straight games at the beginning of the month due to a facial injury, but that didn't stop the Mavericks from a 13 game winning streak; rookie Rodrigue Beaubois filled in admirably by scoring 17 ppg during those games. And don't forget Juan Jose Barea who, despite his small stature (6' 0"), gives Dallas quality minutes when he comes in. I've seen Dallas close out games with him at the point with Terry and Kidd on the wings. Then there's the perennially great Dirk Nowitzki at the center of things, putting up 24.5 ppg and scoring from all over the court, taking advantage of all defenders, big or small.
What I outlined above reads like an all-star team, but it got even better for Dallas at the trade deadline. They traded Josh Howard (an all-star in his own right but had fallen out of favor with the team), Drew Gooden (a good post scorer and rebounder for the Mavericks during his half-season there), James Singleton, and Quinton Ross to the Washington Wizards for Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, and DeShawn Stevenson. While Howard and Butler shared similar scoring averages at the time (Howard has since gone down for the year with an ACL injury), Butler fits in better with this team. Not only does he bring the same scoring, but he is also a more willing teammate than Howard. Further, Butler gives the Mavericks three players teams have to worry about in clutch situations, along with Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry. Also, Dallas really had no interior scoring before this trade, something that Haywood is able to give them by scoring a solid 10 ppg. Stevenson gives the team another three-point shooter, which there's nothing wrong with.
Another reason Dallas can win this year is their improvement on the defensive end. While they still won't lock a team down the way a team like the San Antonio Spurs were capable of doing in their championship seasons, this year's Dallas team does have more defenders. Jason Kidd is fourth all-time in steals with 2,327 and he has the size (6' 4") to cause trouble for smaller point guards. Caron Butler can guard all three perimeter positions while Shawn Marion can guard forwards of all sizes. DeShawn Stevenson is also a handful for any perimeter player. In the paint, Erick Dampier has the size to defend centers, but he won't block many shots, which is why the addition of Brendan Haywood was such a big deal. He gives them a much needed presence inside, he also averages 10 rebounds per game, and he's more mobile and active than the clunky Dampier.
Tasked with running all of this is Rick Carlisle, who is in his second year with the team. Unlike Don Nelson, who coached the Mavericks from 1997-2004, Carlisle has a more defensive minded approach. In the 02-03 season, Carlisle's Indiana Pacers allowed only 95 points per game, which was good enough for third in the league behind the Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs. That team also won 61 games.
Why they can't win: As prolific as they are on offense and though they continue to get better defensively, I see one glaring weakness for the Dallas Mavericks. Above, I established that Brendan Haywood is a double-double guy and that Erick Dampier is a good defender in the paint. But after those two, who else is there? Dirk Nowiztki is 7 ft. tall and can play center, but he's not a very capable defender. Eduardo Najera is a pretty good player, but he's an undersized 6'8" when he's played at the center position. Similarly, Shawn Marion has the size to defend power fowards, but not centers. Against a team like the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, or Utah Jazz, it will be difficult for Dallas to do a whole lot defensively if Haywood ends up in quick foul trouble. I don't think anyone likes the idea of Dampier matched up against any of those guys. But suppose he gets in foul trouble as well? Dallas has no one else capable of effectively dealing with the likes of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum (if he's healthy for once in his life), Carlos Boozer, or Nene if Haywood and Dampier fall into foul trouble. This lack of depth at center could doom Dallas in the playoffs.