Does Dirk Nowitzki Make the Dallas Mavericks a Contender When He Returns?

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Does Dirk Nowitzki Make the Dallas Mavericks a Contender When He Returns?
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The Dallas Mavericks will be a contender when Dirk Nowitzki returns from arthroscopic knee surgery.

Several questions arise from this declaration:

1.  Will the Mavericks merely contend for a Western Conference playoff spot?  Or will they actually make the NBA playoffs for the 13th straight season?

2.  If the Mavericks make the playoffs, will they be legitimate contenders to reach the Western Conference Finals?

3.  Do the Mavericks have any chance to contend for the 2012-13 NBA championship?

Despite a disappointing start to this season, Dallas remains in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.

Dirk should be ready to play his first game of the 2012-13 campaign in about a week-and-a-half.  However, the Mavs have a brutal schedule in the second half of December and will likely be under .500 heading into the new year.

The good news is that Dirk and O.J. Mayo will soon be developing their long-awaited pick-and-roll chemistry.  Many expect this combo to immediately exceed Dirk and Jason Terry's pick-and-roll acumen.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

I doubt it.

Mayo has kept the Dirk-less Mavs afloat with his stupendous shooting from beyond the arc.  O.J also has the athleticism to get to the hoop, and he's dazzling when it happens.

However, I doubt even Dirk fully expects Mayo to duplicate "The Jet" right away.  Best-case scenario is that the Dirk/O.J. pick-and-roll chemistry fully arrives come playoff time.

But will the Mavs even make the playoffs?

Here's an in-depth breakdown of what I see happening in the Western Conference.

Playoff Locks:

Oklahoma City Thunder

San Antonio Spurs

Strong Playoff Bets:

LA Clippers

Memphis Grizzlies

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Contenders for Playoffs:

Minnesota Timberwolves

LA Lakers

Dallas Mavericks

Houston Rockets

Denver Nuggets

Utah Jazz

Golden State Warriors

Portland Trail Blazers

Currently, Golden State has the fifth best record in the West after a quarter of the season.  However, you'll notice I rank them as a fringe contender when listing the eight teams vying for the final four playoff spots.

I don't believe the Warriors are a fluke.  David Lee is a proven commodity, and they have some terrific young talent in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and 20-year-old Harrison Barnes.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Golden State's Harrison Barnes rocks the rim.

Portland is off to a bad start but has young talent comparable to Golden State.  At the end of the season, I expect the Trail Blazers and Warriors to be hovering near the .500 mark.

Not enough to make the Western Conference playoffs.

The reality of the situation is that six teams will be contending for the final four playoff spots. 

I rank Minnesota at the top of the list because I expect Kevin Love and/or Ricky Rubio to fully recover from injuries.  If these young stars avoid further setbacks and stay together, the Timberwolves could rival Oklahoma City by the 2013-14 season.

As far as 2012-13, the Mavs should be battling the Lakers, Rockets, Nuggets and Jazz for the final three playoffs spots in the West.

As we saw last week, the Lakers are more than capable of blowing out the Mavericks on any given night.  This could still happen with Dirk in the Dallas lineup.

However, we also saw Los Angeles implode at Houston Tuesday night.  Pau Gasol's "Big Boy Pants" is the latest among many Lakers' sagas that are keeping them under the .500 mark.

Ironically, Steve Nash should return to the Lakers at about the same time his buddy Dirk rejoins the Mavs.  Nash should calm things down in Los Angeles, if only metaphorically. 

Coach Mike D'Antoni will ask Nash to literally run up and down the court as if they were still back in Phoenix.  That's fine for about 20-25 minutes a night for Nash.  If he's pushed further, there could be yet another soap opera brewing in LA.

Which team will finish with a better record?

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Still, you would be ill-advised to bet against Kobe making the playoffs, no matter if he really loves or hates Pau on any given day.

This leaves Dallas, Houston, Denver and Utah battling it out for two playoff berths.

I like the Mavericks' chances due to the youthful rosters of the Rockets and Nuggets.  The Jazz are a tough team, and they have already beaten up the Mavs in Utah this season.

However, with Dirk back, Dallas should roll out the best team among these four squads.

Now that I've installed Dallas as the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs, we know the next question.

Can the Mavs upset Oklahoma City or San Antonio in a first-round playoff matchup?

The answers are no and yes.

Let's start with the situation in Dallas when the team enters the 2012-13 postseason.  First of all, I believe both Darren Collison and Brandan Wright will have earned their way out of Rick Carlisle's doghouse by this point.

Dirk's chemistry with Chris Kaman from Germany's national team will only improve as NBA teammates.  As mentioned earlier, most importantly, Nowitzki and Mayo will have become a prolific pick-and-roll tandem by playoffs.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Unfortunately, Shawn Marion can't guard Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook simultaneously should Dallas draw OKC in the first round again.  It won't be another sweep for the Thunder since James Harden has moved on to Houston.  But Oklahoma City would beat Dallas four games to one.

More likely, the Spurs will be the second seed and the Mavs' first-round opponent.  The lower seed in this playoff rivalry has fared well over the last few years.  I look for that trend to continue because Dirk will be back to full strength just as Tim Duncan is finally running out of gas.

The Mavs would then be a strong contender to make the the Western Conference Finals.  They would "only" have to beat the Clippers or Grizzlies in a second-round matchup.  However, I think Los Angeles or Memphis would capitalize on home-court advantage and survive a seven-game series against Dallas.

The answer to the third question at that start of this article was sealed when Tyson Chandler departed Dallas.  The Mavericks are no longer contenders to win another championship in the Dirk Nowitzki era, whether he's healthy or not.

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