If you listen carefully you can hear the whispers. They were louder last spring but if you really strain you can still make out the faint sounds coming out of Texas. The sounds go something like this:
"Is Dirk really going to lead us to a Championship?"
"Does this team have the killer instinct to consistently emerge from the West?"
"Is Avery Johnson just a regular season coach?"
Are these questions fair? Maybe. Maybe not. In the world of professional sports there is a line of thinking that goes 'if people are asking the question there is a reason they are asking it'. In the case of these Dallas Mavericks, people are asking these questions.
Now, let's put aside the capitulation this team exhibited over a year ago against Miami in the NBA Finals. Let's also brush off the choke-job against the Golden State Warriors. The real question for this team going forward is can they win a title?
There is no easy answer to that question. After two successive collapses in a row (shoot, okay, no more mentioning them after this) it is hard for anyone to really put much stock into the notion that this team has the mental fortitude to grit out a title. For all that the league is supremely wide-open to anyone who feels they can string together a strong post-season push, the Mavericks have twice squandered such an opportunity - okay, last time, for real.
This is a very strong and deep roster that is, and always has been, at its most effective during the regular season. Even going back to the days with Nash and Finley on the perimeter this team would routinely plow through their 82-game schedule only to transform into a slightly weaker version of themselves in the Playoffs. Up to this point it is what has defined the Dirk Nowitzki/Mark Cuban era of Mavericks basketball.
Essentially what this team needs is someone they can look towards to win them games. Clearly Nowitzki is their best player, and one of the very best in the league, but he is overshadowed by a select few - Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Tim Duncan - who simply know how to take a team into AND through the Playoffs. Nowitzki is more of a talent than he is a performer. He'll have several spectacular outings, put up unimaginable stats for a player his size, but still when the intensity is ratcheted-up in the spring, he crumbles under the strain. It may not always happen right away, but it always happens.
In their run to the Finals it looked as though Jason Terry would inhabit that mantle, but his play was so uninspired four months ago it was hard to imagine the team even keeping him. There is a good chance that this year will see him coming off of the bench in an attempt to re-ignite his competitive fires that may have been tempered somewhat by his luxurious contract extension in '06.
So whom does that leave? Josh Howard? Maybe, since he's certainly the next most logical choice. His two-way game was taken to another level last season - his first as an All-Star - and he was the sole Maverick to come away from the Playoffs with nothing to be ashamed about in terms of his play.
The inability to answer this question, however, only hints at the uncertainty for the Mavs going into this season. It is utterly irrelevant if they storm through the months between November and April because the team has only to prove that somewhere deep down there is a team that can overcome its long-standing willingness to crumble before the finish line. If they can't, however, don't expect to see Donnie Nelson sit on his hands for another summer.