On December 21, the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks were an unstoppable force. Fresh off of back-to-back road wins against the Miami Heat and Orland Magic, the Mavericks had won 16 of 17 and were an impressive 23-5.
But the team would soon face adversity like they never expected. In a December 27 road victory in Oklahoma City, Dirk Nowitzki sprained his left knee as he came down awkwardly after being fouled. Though listed as day-to-day, the 11-time All NBA performer would miss the next nine games.
Just three days after Dirk’s injury, small forward Caron Butler tore his patellar tendon in his right knee requiring season-ending surgery. Many, including former Lakers’ coach Phil Jackson, thought the injury would cripple the Mavs.
"He just leaves a vacuum that's going to be very hard for them to fill," Jackson told the L.A. Times.But the team evolved and filled the void in a variety of ways. Coach Rick Carlisle soon began experimenting with a variety of lineups that would eventually reshape the team and pay huge dividends for the NBA Champs.
For starters, J.J. Barea’s minutes rose from 19.4 in December (pre-injury) to 25.3 by March. The injury also forced the Mavs to utilize a three guard lineup at times, pairing Barea with Jason Kidd and DeShawn Stevenson. This lineup was proven particularly useful against a slow-moving Lakers team in the Conference Semifinals. Barea was phenomenal in that series, slashing and gouging the Lakers for 11.5 points in only 18 minutes per game.
In a seemingly minor roster move just two days after the Butler injury, Brian Cardinal’s non-guaranteed contract became fully guaranteed as the Mavericks elected to waive small forward Steve Novak. Though Cardinal played a grand total of 37 minutes in the playoffs, his physical play, aggressive defense and 3-point range were critical in Games 5 and 6.
And on January 24, the Mavericks signed forward Peja Stojakovic to be the starter at shooting guard for the remainder of the season. Though Stojakovic was ineffective in the Miami series, he was a key part of the Lakers’ series as he shot a deadly 52.5% from 3-point range and contributed 12.5 points per game.
The roster changed following the Butler injury, and the roles of other key contributors shifted as well. Stojakovic and Cardinal provided needed minutes at key times off of the bench. And the maturation of Barea was instrumental in providing interior scoring from the bench.
Butler was undoubtedly a key piece in the Mavs plans early in the season, averaging 15.0 points per game as the starting small forward. Though a loss to Miami would have been a convenient opportunity to blame the Butler injury, the win provided another explanation.
Though the Mavs were crippled without him, they were built around his absence.