Mac Engel

Mavericks are good, but that’s not enough in the West

Dirk Nowitzki, center, has been around  long enough to know the Mavericks have a lot of work to do.
Dirk Nowitzki, center, has been around long enough to know the Mavericks have a lot of work to do. S-T

No jock in this town has ever been as honest as Mike Modano, but Dirk Nowitzki challenges the greatest Dallas Star in terms of candor. They both border on fatalistic. Not Debbie Downer, but not exactly Tony Robbins.

If you want to know the state of the Dallas Mavericks, go to the source. Don’t go to Rick Carlisle, who as a head coach will remain forever positive (not a bad quality). Don’t go to Mark Cuban, who as the owner will give you spin, and some condescending tale that no one gets it the way he does. If you want to know about the state of the Dallas Mavericks, go to Dirk.

Dirk is too old, in NBA years, and too Euro not to be honest. He knows he is no longer the player who spoiled us all for more than a decade. And he is concerned. Concerned because he knows.

The Mavs are good, but the West is stupid loaded, his team is hurt, the remaining schedule is brutal, and the eyeball test says it’s just not there. Despite the presence of one of the top three coaches in the NBA, and a host of quality veteran players, this team has one-and-done written all over it.

I asked Dirk after the Mavs’ win over the Pelicans on Monday night if he has a feel for what this team is. He paused and said, “You know...unfortunately, honestly, we haven’t been healthy enough to put it together. I think here this month, or the last few weeks, our starting unit hasn’t been together much. We are looking OK, and then [Rajon] Rondo broke his face; that’s what he did, right?”

Rondo is back after suffering a cracked orbital bone, but Dirk has the right idea.

“The two Chandlers [Tyson and Parsons] have been out. It’s only 20 games left — gotta go for it, hopefully stay healthy and carry some momentum into the playoffs and go from there,” Dirk said. “You gotta deal with it the best you can. We are waiting on these boys to get right. We’ve got a murderous schedule the last 20 games, probably the hardest in the league.”

Such words of inspiration are not from Knute Rockne, Tony Robbins or Joel Osteen, but simply the God’s honest truth from a man who has been in the NBA since he was 20 years old. He is 36 now. For Dirk, there is no point in lying or spinning.

Beginning Thursday night in Portland, and Friday night in Golden State, 11 of the the Mavs’ final 20 games are against teams that would be in the playoffs if they began today.

That the Mavs figure to win 50 games again in this brutal conference is a major accomplishment, and another reason why this coach rivals the guy in San Antonio as the best in the NBA. I’m not sure Gregg Popovich could do what Carlisle has done with the Mavs this season in the Western Conference.

“I have never seen it like this, especially in the West,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams told me when I asked him if he could recall an NBA where there was no definitive favorite. “I have never seen the West like this.”

Every Western Conference first-round playoff series looks like it could go seven games. Everything after the first round could be a major letdown. The top eight teams in the West are so close that it’s plausible the bottom four seeds could win their first-round series, including the Mavs.

Yet there is something about this Mavs team that simply does not look right. They are good, they have a great coach, but they are 5-11 against the Western Conference teams that are in the top eight. Despite the additions of Rondo and Amar’e Stoudemire, something is lacking.

Maybe it’s the fact that they lean on center Tyson Chandler to do too much in the middle. For you analytics nerds, maybe it’s the fact the Mavs are below the NBA mean defensively, and their rebounding differential is second worst in the league. Maybe it’s the fact their recently acquired All-Star starting point guard can’t shoot and has not figured out how to fit in this offense.

That’s a nice way to say he’s not coming back, regardless of Cuban’s latest spin on Rondo. It has more to do with Rondo’s game than his personality.

Or maybe it’s the fact that Dirk is 36 and readily admits he can’t do what he once did.

What we have is the belief that maybe the Mavs can recapture 2011 and go on another run. What we have is a nice team, and an unyielding belief in a head coach who can turn water into Shiner.

What we have is another Mavs team good enough to win 50 games for the 12th time since 2001, and get booted out of the first round for the seventh time since 2004.

That’s not Debbie Downer, but it’s no Tony Robbins.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

Mac Engel, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @macengelprof and The Big Mac Blog

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