Dallas was only a seventh seed last season, so it would seem like this is a death blow to the team's chances. This aging roster can't afford to lose anything, let alone a large, 16-game chunk from their superstar.
Not so fast!
Fortunately for the Mavs, and unfortunately for NBA fans, injuries abound among their competitors. The Minnesota Timberwolves are currently coping with Kevin Love's broken hand and Ricky Rubio's knee rehab. The Golden State Warriors have yet to clear Andrew Bogut for playing time.
Beyond Minnesota and Golden State, it is difficult to find a new playoff team. Portland could do it, but with a lot of reliance on rookie point guard Damian Lillard. Sacramento has the talent, but it's run by distracted buffoons. New Orleans? I love Anthony Davis, but that's too tall an order in his first year.
So if the Mavericks can just foul off some pitches for fewer than 20 games, they stand to be in good position for a playoff berth. Luckily for them, Rick Carlisle is one of the best defensive coaches in basketball. Nowitzki is not a bad defender, but his absence shouldn't exactly hurt the D in Dallas. While he's out, the Mavs will seek to grind out victories, likely near a .500 clip.
The Mavericks will struggle to generate offense, of course. They were a mediocre offensive team last season, and it only stands to get worse without Dirk.
But patchwork units made up of Darren Collison, Elton Brand, Shawn Marion and O.J. Mayo can score enough not to be completely humiliating. Dallas is not laden with talent, but it is deep. There are no stars on this squad—save for Dirk—but there are few bad players. In addition to the aforementioned Mavs, Chris Kaman provides value on the block, and exciting rookie Jae Crowder stands to impress as a mistake-averse wing defender.
This presents an opportunity for Collison, who is better at generating his own offense than providing for others. Here, some of the knocks on him could become positive attributes. He's not exactly a point guard, but without much surrounding offensive talent, it may be time for Collison to go into his early-career chucker mode.
The Mavericks don't need transcendent offense—they need simply mediocre.
My belief in Mavs resilience is mostly based on their coaching. Mark Cuban has greatly underserved this roster with a series of poor moves and calculated risks that did not pan out. Even with the dregs Cuban left for him, Carlisle should be able to generate defense and victories.
In the meantime, the other playoff hopefuls will try to race Dallas back to health.