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Jeff Caplan

Dirk Nowitzki
The bearded Dirk Nowitzki spent most of last season scrambling to help the Mavs to a .500 record.

After reaching the top, climb back proving difficult for Mavs


Posted Aug 19, 2013 3:40 PM

This is the latest in a series of articles on the teams that did not make the playoffs last season, previewing their prospects of making it to the postseason in 2013-14. For a look at other teams in the series, click here.

The Dallas Mavericks of the 1990s were as synonymous with the NBA lottery as cowboy boots in Big D. Then along came Mark Cuban, and from 2001 to 2011 no franchise experienced such sustained regular-season success outside the eternal San Antonio Spurs.

Yet as stunning as it was last May to see Dallas awaiting its spot in the annual ping-pong-ball parade for the first time in 13 years, it was not unforeseen. One of the fastest falls in NBA history has followed this franchise's first NBA title in 2011. The Mavs haven't won a playoff game since hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy, failing to even get the opportunity last season after finishing 41-41.

Having dismantled the title team after the lockout (in particular, allowing center Tyson Chandler to walk continues to haunt the franchise), having failed to sign or trade for a superstar the last two summers and having again made sweeping roster changes around a dwindling core, Dallas enters the 2013-14 season with a mishmash of talent and plenty of outside skepticism.

Where they've been

To the mountaintop. Many thought Dirk Nowitzki would never get there after the crushing 2006 Finals loss to the Heat and 2007's first-round flop against the Golden State Warriors as the league was buffing up his lone regular-season MVP trophy. But two years ago Nowitzki and a hearty group of role players won over fans across the country as they took on the then-highly villainous Miami Heat in the first season of the Big Three.

Now Cuban and his management team are being dragged through the mud for their free-agent failures and a revolving-door roster that has them miles from title contention. They were swept out of the first round in 2012 by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Last season was a nightmare as Nowitzki started it in rehab after undergoing the first knee surgery of his career. He didn't return to All-Star form until after the All-Star break as his streak of 11 consecutive All-Star appearances ended.

Surrounded by a gaggle of players on one-year deals, all of whom have scattered elsewhere, Dallas never discovered a consistent beat and was awful in late-game execution, leading to a bevy of demoralizing close calls and their worst record since 1999-2000.

Where are they now

Stuck on the mountainside. Last week, Dallas introduced six free agents coming in with two draft picks as well as Israeli point guard Gal Mekel. The Mavs are selling this edition as a heady, experienced group that will be multidimensional offensively with Monta Ellis being a prime weapon as Nowitzki's newest sidekick, and better defensively with center Samuel Dalembert providing the rim protection they dearly lacked last season.

Dallas should be pretty good offensively, and far less turnover prone with Jose Calderon at the controls. But it's the other end -- as well as on the boards where the Mavs struggled -- that has to be concerning. A starting backcourt of the slow-footed Calderon and the gambling Ellis isn't a great starting point. Shawn Marion, an underrated defender his entire career and crucial during the '11 title run, is a step slower at 35 and Nowitzki, 35, has regressed as a rebounder in each of the past five or six seasons.

The acquisition of DeJuan Blair provides a needed physical edge and a garbage man. But a front line rotation of Dalembert, Nowitzki, Blair, Brandan Wright and Bernard James won't exactly strike fear in opposing offenses, especially when you consider some of the bigger front lines in the West including the Clippers, Grizzlies, Spurs, Thunder and even the Lakers and Warriors.

Biggest hurdle

Chemistry. It never developed last season and part of that was due to Nowitzki missing the first 20-something games after surgery. Once again, Rick Carlisle has to figure out the tendencies of a boatload of new players and construct schemes that highlight their strengths and mask their obvious defensive limitations.

Last year, Carlisle had to call off his "flow" offense run so effectively by Jason Kidd and revert to calling plays nearly every time down the floor. The result was a disjointed offense that had trouble getting the ball to Nowitzki in his sweet spots.

And the coach clearly has the other end of the floor on his mind. When asked last week how he'll start off training camp, he quipped, "Defensive practices."

Where they're going

If you believe Cuban, back to the playoffs: "We're excited about this team. I don't make predictions about the playoffs, but let's just say I'm going to be very disappointed if we don't make a lot of noise." Even after whiffing on Dwight Howard, Cuban's convinced that with a brainier backcourt, specifically at point guard with Calderon and Devin Harris, plus the driving capabilities of Ellis and perimeter shooting of Wayne Ellington and Vince Carter, that Nowitzki will be better off and the offense will be more dynamic.

Cuban might end up being right on that count, but it's no guarantee of a return to the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference. If this group doesn't forge something in the first two months, the late February trade deadline could provide the season's biggest fireworks.

Jeff Caplan has covered the NBA since 2005. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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