The supreme goal of a defending champion is to protect their crown—to stay on top of the hill and continue fending off challengers.
Amidst this pursuit, rarely does a defending champion have to fight to simply make the playoffs. Barring any major personnel moves of their superstars, reigning champions are entirely focused on repeating their title hopes rather than merely squeaking back into the playoffs.
The 2011-2012 Dallas Mavericks, however, are a unique bunch. Minus Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea, their core remains in tact, namely Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion.
Despite this, they've hobbled through this season and don't resemble the same team that steamrolled through the 2011 playoffs and captured last year's title. This year's squad appears more aged and less explosive, more content and less driven, and more chaotic and less fluid.
It's resulted in the Mavs compiling a ho-hum 28-22 record going into Tuesday night's home tilt with Houston. Their record currently situates themselves as the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference, but the current No. 4-10 seeds in the West are only separated by a game-and-a-half.
It's safe to say that every game matters for the Mavs from here on out. They can't afford any more inexplicable blips, such as when they dropped consecutive games to Phoenix, Sacramento and Golden State (none of whom are currently in line to make the playoffs) earlier this month.
What should especially give Mavs fans concern is that their remaining schedule is treacherous. After hosting the Rockets, they're then on the road for nine of their 15 remaining games, against the likes of Miami, Orlando, Chicago, Memphis and the L.A. Lakers, to name a handful.
Plus, with the Phoenix Suns surging as of late, and with young teams like Denver, Memphis and Houston desperately seeking their own postseason run, the Mavs are legitimately going to have to battle for their life to revisit the postseason for the 12th straight season.
Some may scoff at these concerns, finding it ludicrous to consider that the Mavs may miss the playoffs. Or, some may be so in tune to the latest Lamar Odom criticism that they're overlooking the reality that the Mavs are in the thick of a playoff race.
Whatever the case, it's foolish to overlook the possibility. There's nothing wrong with being a one-year wonder, but missing the playoffs the following season would be beyond unbecoming.
Right now, the Mavs shouldn't be thinking about a repeat. First things first—and that's making the playoffs. If the Mavs get in, they have the veteran poise and experience to spark another deep playoff run.
But they must first get in, and to make this happen, they're going to need to topple some of the league's elite teams on the road in the next few weeks. We'll truly see what this year's bunch is made of, as the final stages of the regular season unfold.