The Dallas Mavericks continue to climb their way back to relevance this season with a late push that has put them two-and-a-half games out of the eighth spot, and two games under .500.
While that seems mediocre, it is the closest that the Mavericks have been to the .500 mark since December 20 when they were 12-14.
That game was just three days before Dirk Nowitzki returned on December 23 to play his first game of the season in a Mavericks uniform.
Nowitzki missed the first third of the year due to knee surgery that the seven-foother had in October.
All in all, the Mavs now find themselves with a 22-21 record this season with Nowitzki in the lineup. Dallas may end up sneaking into the playoffs, but if they are going to do so they will have to pass Utah and the Lakers to get there.
Unless Dallas gets in and pulls off a shocking victory over San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the first round, their season will unfortunately end up a disappointment.
Even after losing Jason Kidd and Jason Terry after last season and failing to sign any star players like Deron Williams in the offseason, the Mavericks were still expected to contend in the West with new additions O.J. Mayo, Chris Kaman and Elton Brand complimenting Nowitzki.
However, Dallas has struggled defensively, and Nowitzki hasn't been the player that we have been accustomed to seeing during his illustrious career.
In the 43 games he has played this season, Dirk is averaging 16.5 points per game, his lowest since his rookie season in 1998-99.
Nowitzki has just been unable to find his rhythm offensively on a consistent basis. In some games he looks like the Nowitzki that is a four time first-team All-NBA selection, and in others he looks like a 34-year-old coming off of knee surgery who has lost a step.
His shooting touch is still there, but Nowitzki isn't getting the support from his knee that allows him to take the ball to the basket strongly and finish through contact.
You can tell that he is relying on his jump shot almost exclusively to score points. Dirk has already taken 116 threes this year despite playing in just 43 games.
In comparison, just three years ago in the 2009-10 season, Dirk shot just 121 threes while playing in 80 games.
The jury is out on whether or not Nowitzki can get back into his championship form, and only a full offseason of recovery will determine whether or not he can get back to the level he was in his prime.
Still, the question that has to be asked is if the injury hadn't occurred, and Nowitzki was able to play the entire 2012-13 season healthy, how would the Mavericks' season have turned out?
With the aforementioned free-agency signings and a healthy Dirk playing all season long together, you would have to assume the Mavericks would be in better shape than they are right now.
The last time Dirk Nowitzki had a full offseason to prepare was in 2010. Later that season he would go on to win the NBA championship and the Finals MVP, playing the best basketball of his career.
Last year, it was the lockout that hindered the play of the German superstar, and this year it was his knee.
The Mavericks have had the bad luck of having to play with a less-than-100 percent Nowitzki this year, while still adjusting their game plan to suit him returning to the offense.
While the Mavericks are still a top-10-scoring team with Dirk in the lineup, before he was playing the team just seemed to have a much better flow on that side of the ball.
The current roster is built for an up-and-down game with Darren Collison running the point and O.J. Mayo taking over the primary scoring spot from the two-guard position.
Mayo was having an explosive early start to his season, but his numbers have gone way down since Nowitzki came back to the lineup and the team adapted a more half-court style of play.
It is no coincidence that the Mavericks went on their worst dry spell of the season soon after Dirk came back into the fray. They started just 1-8 in his first nine games of the season and have had to try to climb their way back ever since.
Still, if the team was able to experiment early in the season with a completely healthy Dirk, it would have allowed Rick Carlisle to tinker with the team's approach in training camp to find the right match as opposed to having to work on the fly in late December after the team already had become accustomed to the style they were playing in.
With many of the Mavericks on one-year contracts and likely departing after this season, we may never really get to see how good this team could have been if all of the pieces had fallen into place.
Dallas's late-season push seems to indicate that they finally have figured it out, but it may very well be too little, too late as the Mavs will make a push to revamp their roster once again in free agency.
Even with a totally healthy Nowitzki playing, it's doubtful that the Mavericks would have been able to jump into the upper echelon of teams in the West. San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis, the Clippers and Denver all have more talent than the Mavericks even when DIrk is playing at his absolute best.
However, it seems likely that the Mavs could have situated comfortably into that six-through-eight range and tested a top team in the playoffs.
Instead, Nowitzki's injury has set the franchise back for the time being, and Mavericks fans are only left wondering what might have been in 2012-13.
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