The return to relevance for the Dallas Mavericks can be traced back to Dirk Nowitzki’s arrival in the 1998. Yes, Mark Cuban came along in 2000, but it’s doubtful the run of 12 consecutive playoff seasons that began in 2001 doesn’t happen unless Don Nelson drafts an unknown German teenager.
Those first dozen postseasons were capped by two trips to the NBA Finals and the 2011 championship that solidified Nowitzki’s standing as one of basketball’s all-time greats.
The Mavericks are back in the postseason this season after a one-year absence, nailing down the eighth seed in the Western Conference in a chase that went to the wire. The Mavericks begin a best-of-seven series at top seed San Antonio on Sunday.
The reappearance is notable as Cuban and Company attempt to maximize the future Hall of Famer’s golden years.
So where do the previous dozen playoff showings in the Nowitzki Era rank in terms of significance? Here’s a look:
Def. Portland (4-2), def. LA Lakers (4-0), def. Oklahoma City (4-1), def. Miami (4-2).
The Mavericks won the first and only championship in franchise history by exacting revenge over Miami (see: 2006) and delaying the start of the LeBron James-fronted Heat dynasty. Nowitzki earned The Finals MVP award, leading a veteran crew featuring Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion. The playoff run included a sweep of the defending champion Lakers in the West semifinals and knocking off upstart Oklahoma City in the conference finals. The Mavericks’ improbable run caught the nation’s fancy, briefly turning them into America’s Team. Rick Carlisle earned his due as one of the league’s top coaches.
Def. Memphis (4-0), def. San Antonio (4-3), def. Phoenix (4-2), lost to Miami (4-2).
Six-and-a-half minutes away from a 3-0 lead … and then it all fell apart. Bennett Salvatore calls that “phantom foul” against Nowitzki in Game 5. Dwyane Wade wears out a path to the free throw line. Nowitzki kicks a basketball into the stands and assaults a stationary bike. Cuban is docked $250,000 for verbally assaulting the league. Jerry Stackhouse is suspended a game for a flagrant foul against Shaquille O’Neal. Dallas becomes the first team in 29 years to blow a 2-0 lead in the Finals. The Miami Meltdown doesn’t/shouldn’t overshadow the franchise’s first West title, an epic seven-game semifinal with the defending champ Spurs — Nowitzki’s immortalized 3-point play forced OT in Game 7 — and revenge against Steve Nash’s Suns in the conference finals.
Def. Portland (4-3), def. Sacramento (4-3), lost to San Antonio (4-2).
Oh, Dirk. Oh, Nellie. That [blasted] Steve Kerr! Do the Mavericks get past the Spurs if Nelson played Nowitzki, who injured his knee in Game 3 and didn’t return for the remainder of the series, in Game 6? That’s when the Cuban-Nelson divide went from a crack to a canyon. Cuban probably fires Nellie if the Mavericks blow that 3-0 first-round lead over the Blazers. Instead, Nelson retreats to Maui that off-season to contemplate a contract extension. Mavericks-Spurs likely goes to Game 7 if Kerr doesn’t go nuts in the fourth quarter of Game 6. Also notable: Nick Van Exel’s last stand in Big D.
Def. Utah (3-2), Lost to San Antonio (4-1).
The fresh-faced Mavericks were back in the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, signaling the national arrival of the Big Three of Nowitzki, Michael Finley and Nash. Rallying past Utah in the first round — the Jazz led the best-of-5 2-0 before Dallas reeled off three straight wins — remains a franchise playoff highlight. Calvin Booth, anyone? The second round loss to title-tested San Antonio begat the West’s best playoff rivalry of the decade.
Def. Houston (4-3), Lost to Phoenix (4-2).
Off-season arrivals included Terry, Erick Dampier, Devin Harris and Stackhouse. Heartbroken still from Nash’s defection, Nelson resigns with 16 games left in the season. Johnson, in his first season as an assistant, moves over on the bench and begins to rebuild the Mavericks in his image. The early results are nearly disastrous as the Mavericks lose their first two playoff games at home. After two close wins in Houston, Dallas regains control and blows the Rockets out by 40 in Game 7. Nash piloted the Suns past his former squad in the second round, leading Nowitzki to question his team’s intelligence.
lost to New Orleans (4-1).
The Avery Johnson Era that started with such promise ended with a whimper in his hometown. Johnson had lost the team and the confidence of his owner, and the first-round trouncing to Chris Paul’s Hornets cemented the inevitable parting after the season. Midseason arrival Kidd never meshed with Johnson. The Mavericks, once a playoff up-and-comer, were now in a downslide.
lost to Oklahoma City (4-0).
The only winless postseason in Nowitzki’s career is notable for who wasn’t there. The defending champions never had a chance to defend after this lockout season began with Chandler, Kidd, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson elsewhere. The Lamar Odom experiment was a disaster, haunting the Mavericks for years to come. The Mavericks limped into the playoffs as the seventh seed, only to be run out by Kevin Durant and the Thunder on their way to the Finals.
Def. San Antonio (4-1), lost to Denver (4-1 ).
First-year coach Rick Carlisle guided Dallas out of the first round for the first time since the Finals run. Taking out the higher-seeded Spurs tickled Mavericks fans, and Cuban. The Nuggets exposed Dallas’ lack of athleticism in the second round, but the seeds of Carlisle’s philosophy were planted. Communication problems between the players and Carlisle surfacing early in season were generally smoothed out by the playoffs.
lost to Golden State (4-2).
Personality-driven rivalries are a common theme in Dallas’ 12-year playoff run, with those against San Antonio and Phoenix the most intense. But when it comes to postseason losses, none was more personal than this. Nelson got the ultimate revenge against Cuban when his Warriors knocked out the Mavericks, becoming the first eight seed to beat No. 1. Nelson was in Nowitzki’s head and Johnson’s, as the 67-win Mavericks tried in vain to match up with the 42-win Warriors.
Lost to Sacramento (4-1).
After four years of improvement since Nowitzki came aboard, the Mavericks take a step back. Dallas went from 60 wins in 2002-03 to 52 for ’03-04. The first-round ouster to the Kings came less than a year after a trip to the West finals. The fantasy basketball lineup of Nowitzki, Nash, Finley, Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker never clicked. But the ultimate loss came that July when Cuban deemed Nash too old/injury prone to bring back. Hello, Phoenix and MVPs.
Lost to San Antonio (4-2).
The trade-deadline deal that jettisoned a disgruntled Josh Howard and brought Caron Butler to Dallas appeared to have the immediate impact. Optimism reigned supreme as the Mavericks won the Southwest Division and entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed. That faded quickly as Terry, Marion and Kidd each had miserable showings against the Spurs. The Mavericks turned to seldom-used rookie Rodrigue Beaubois, but it wasn’t enough to avoid a first-round upset.
Def. Minnesota (3-0), Lost to Sacramento (4-1).
The Mavericks went a then-franchise record 57-25 during the regular season and entered the postseason as a favorite for the first time, easily dispatching of the Kevin Garnett-led Timberwolves in the first round. (Remember those Dirk-KG debates?) Dallas ran into a Kings buzz saw swung by Chris Webber, Mike Bibby and Co.