The Class of the Western Conference

The Dallas Mavericks lost in the first round of the 2003-04 NBA Playoffs. In the off-season, star point guard Steve Nash signed a five-year, $65 million contract with the team that drafted him, the Phoenix Suns. Nash led a Suns team that missed the playoffs the previous season to consecutive Western Conference Finals, picking up two MVP awards in the process. Despite Nash’s absence, Dallas counterintuitively improved, advancing to its first NBA Finals in team history last season. Currently, the two teams sit atop the NBA and are jostling to win it all. I decided to re-examine the Nash move to determine what led to each team’s success the past two seasons and who has the better chance to come out of the West this year.

Since Nash’s departure, the Mavericks regular season and playoff record has been 138-62, a 69% winning percentage. They lost to Phoenix in the second round of the 2004-05 playoffs. After the season, the Mavs made a controversial move when they waived two-time All-Star Michael Finley. Even so, Dallas got revenge on the Suns last season by defeating them in the Western Conference Finals before losing to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. How did Dallas improve after losing two key pieces of the 2002-03 Western Conference Finals team?

Dirk Nowitzki is the best answer. He has matured from being one of Dallas’ three big dogs to the lone alpha dog and has emerged as one of the top players in the NBA. Because Nowitzki started to feel more pressure to produce after Nash’s departure, he has developed his scoring and overall game. His Player Efficiency Rating surged from 22.5 in Nash’s last season as a Maverick to 28.1 last year, which placed him statistically in a group I will call, “great leaders.” As a silly comparison, Space Jam star Michael Jordan’s PER during the 1996-97 season was 27.8. Obviously, Nowitzki is not the best player in league history, as MJ might be, but he has just had two consecutive “great leader” seasons.

Although Nowitzki is Dallas’ best player and leader, the Mavericks are an elite team because of the head coach and off-season acquisitions. Dallas has never had trouble scoring in this decade, but Head Coach Avery Johnson finally made the Mavs tough on the defensive end. Also, the additions of Jason Terry, Devin Harris, Erick Dampier bought what Avery preached. Even DeSagana Diop has made a contribution to the team. Josh Howard’s 19.3 PER last season didn’t hurt either. The Mavericks made 46% of their shots in the last two regular seasons.

The Suns are incredible now with Steve Nash running the point and flawlessly leading Phoenix’s run-and-gun style to perfection. They won 67.8% of their games in the last two seasons including playoffs. Nash led the NBA in assists per game both years and had an average PER of 22.6 over the last two seasons. That’s a lower PER than Nowitzki, but Nash’s role as a pass-first point guard does not allow him to have a higher rating. As a team, the Suns shot 47.8% from the field. Phoenix also led the league in Pace Factor, a stat measuring the number of possessions per game for a team in both years. Having the ball more and shooting a better percentage than your opponent usually works out well.

Superstars do not win playoff series by themselves. That’s a fact that the unselfish Steve Nash is keenly aware of. Phoenix Head Coach Mike D’Antoni is one of the NBA’s most creative minds. Under his tutelage, Amare Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Raja Bell, Boris Diaw and Tim Thomas have raised their games to a higher level. Shawn

Marion’s quiet contribution of 20 points and 10 boards a night keep the Suns competitive.

With Nowitzki guarding Nash down the stretch on March 14, the Suns beat the Mavs in a double overtime thriller. Each team has won 11 games in this head-to-head series since Nash signed with Phoenix. Who will win the inevitable Western Conference Finals match-up between the Mavs and Suns this season? Phoenix lost their most recent playoff series without Amare Stoudemire, so maybe they’ll win. However, Jason Terry has vastly improved his game over the past couple of seasons, so maybe Dallas will win. Right now, it’s too close too call. Let’s just all hope for a good finish and that Scot Pollard’s free speech is respected.