The Mavericks trail the Los Angeles Lakers by two-and-a-half games, and despite their recent turnaround, they are still facing an uphill battle.
Dallas would face either San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the first round if they were to make the playoffs. It would be hard to see this Mavericks winning either of those seven-game series.
Because of this, many Mavericks fans are already focusing on what the team will do to improve this offseason.
Its been well documented that the Mavericks have only five players under contract for next season, and they will have room to make a move in free agency.
There are big names out there that Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson may well be eyeing in free agency or a trade.
However, Dallas has to face the realization that it is entirely possible that none of those players will be a Maverick next season.
Dallas may have some money, but it doesn't exactly have as much as some people may think.
Sure, Dallas has 10 players on its roster with expiring contracts. But remember, the Mavs are paying Dirk Nowitzki more than $22 million and Shawn Marion more than $9 million next season, if they don't trade either one of them.
The NBA luxury tax threshold is around $70 million. For every dollar an NBA team goes over that limit, it has to pay a $1 tax, a penalty that will increase in amount next year.
Dallas's total cap for this season is $69,652,089, according to Hoopshype.com. While there are ways around the cap situation (most notably the Larry Bird exception), let's assume the Mavericks want to spend no more than $70 million for next season.
With $31 million already locked up between Nowitzki and Shawn Marion, plus another $5 million for Vince Carter, Jared Cunningham and Jae Crowder, Dallas has about $34 million to play with for next season.
If you assume Dallas is interested in bringing back some of its players from this season, that will, of course, cut into that amount.
Darren Collison has certainly had an up-and-down season. But he is averaging more than 12 points and five assists per game, so most fans would agree he is worth bringing back at least in a backup role. Collison is a restricted free agent, and the qualifying offer on him for this offseason will be slightly more than $3.3 million.
It seems unlikely that any team would offer more than that, so if Dallas is looking to bring him back, that is the price it will have to pay.
O.J. Mayo also seems as though he would be coming back to Dallas next season. Mayo is the team's leading scorer at 16.6 points per game and has shown the ability to dominate games from the 2-guard position, albeit inconsistently.
Mayo will likely want more than the $4 million he is making this season and will probably opt out of his player option.
If the Mavericks want Mayo back, they may have to pay between $7-$8 million on a multi-year deal.
Between Mayo and Collison alone, that's another $10 million that Dallas would spend.
Even assuming Dallas doesn't bring back Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, Brandan Wright, Mike James and others, that still puts the Mavs at $46 million spent before they dive into the rest of free agency.
At that point, Dallas can still sign a big-time free agent if it chooses. But if it does, it won't have much room to improve the roster in other places.
The flashy thing may still be to go after a star player and pair him with the core of this year's team to go after a title.
However, Dallas clearly has more problems than bringing in one player can solve if it wants to get back on a championship level.
The Mavericks clearly need at least one if not two defensive specialists who can shore up that side of the ball. Too many times this season, the Mavericks have played lackadaisical defense and lost games because of it.
While a player like Howard would certainly fill that gap, there are less expensive options available.
Point guard is also an issue. While Collison may be worth bringing back, there is no doubt the Mavericks need to bring in another lead guard who can challenge Collison, or even start over him.
Brandon Jennings may jump off the page in terms of his scoring, but with other offensive weapons around him like Mayo and Nowitzki, he may not be the right fit. Jose Calderon, Jarrett Jack and plenty of other good, cheaper point guards are also available.
In hindsight, Dallas should have taken this approach last year, rather than put all its hopes into the Deron Williams and Howard sweepstakes.
The Mavs' plan should be to focus the money they have left on fixing the holes in their roster, especially on the defensive side. They also need to work on getting younger and signing players who can help rebuild this team for the next several years.
What should be the biggest Mavericks priority this offseason?
Finally, they need to find complementary players through the draft, free agency or trades who fit the their scheme.
The reason Dallas was able to win the 2011 NBA championship was not because it had the most talented team. It was because everyone on its roster knew their roles, played within themselves and worked toward a common goal.
But signing seven or eight players to one-year contracts is not going to build any kind of legitimate team chemistry. Whether they admit it or not, more than half the Mavericks' roster already is thinking about themselves and how they can audition for a job (and a bigger paycheck) next season, whether it's with the Mavericks or a different NBA team.
Not signing a superstar to complement Nowitzki may seem like a disaster at first glance. But with the $24 million or so they should have remaining, it would make sense for this team to sign several good players to longer-term deals instead of just one elite one.
The Western Conference is brutal, and if the Mavericks are going to contend with teams like San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Los Angeles (both of them), Denver, and Houston, they need to have a complete roster from top to bottom.
Nowitzki is still capable of leading his team deep into the playoffs. He is, after all, just two years removed from being an NBA Finals MVP.
However, for him to do so, he needs to have the right group of players surrounding him, and Dallas needs to be good in all facets of the game.
The Mavericks need to be smart with the cap room they do have this offseason. If they try and fail once again to sign a star, and instead are forced to bring in another half-dozen players on one-year deals, it's going to lead to another year of mediocrity, at best.