Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks head into the 2010-11 season with a chip on their shoulder. After claiming the second seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, the Mavericks found themselves suffering another first round defeat, this time at the hands of their Texas neighbors, the San Antonio Spurs.
Why, after having the second-most wins during the past ten years, would Dallas be considered a "Dark Horse" for the championship?
Miami in 2006.
Golden State in 2007.
New Orleans in 2008.
Denver in 2009.
And, finally, San Antonio in 2010.
While the team has been a regular season winning machine, their success in the Playoffs seems to have ended with that ill-fated Finals against Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal.
The Mavericks are now the NBA's best team at choking when it matters (LeBron's in Miami, now, so the Cavaliers don't count).
That more than qualifies them for "Dark Horse" status, but how could anyone, in their right mind, think they could turn it around and win it all?
Here are five reasons.
Doesn't it seem like there are people who can't win? They're the popular guys who marry the pretty girls only to watch them gain weight uncontrollably for the next ten years. In other words, they lose in the end.
Superficial, cruel, and callous, yes; but is it inaccurate?
These three players are at the heart of the Maverick's chances next year and they all share something in common. Complete frustration at the paths they've found themselves on time and time again.
At some point, it's got to turn around and, as none of them are getting younger, this is their time to take the regular season success into the Playoffs and earn a championship.
Having each reached so far in the Playoffs only to be devastated, they're hungry for a taste and, like their metaphorical pretty women, next year they'll finish the entire plate.
If the Los Angeles Lakers proved anything last season, having a huge front-court can change the outcome of games.
Tiring down opponents by clogging the lane with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, the Lakers cruised to a championship against winded, deflated opponents who couldn't crack the size puzzle.
The Mavericks, taking their cue from the Lakers (and to a lesser degree, the Spurs) have created a formidable front.
While the Mavs did enjoy two seven-footers in Nowitzki and Brendan Haywood, who only played 741 minutes for the club, they seemed to be missing something when it came to the other big man Erick Dampier.
Next season, the Mavericks will have the re-signed Haywood, the hungry Dirk, and the new addition Tyson Chandler, listed at 7'1", to keep things interesting in the West.
While another seven-footer recently acquired by the Mavericks could see limited minutes, French center Alexis Ajinca, could provide key minutes in stretches, especially in the Playoffs.
In case you missed the coming-out party, let's review what Rodrigue Beaubois was able to do during the series-losing game to the Spurs in this year's first round.
In just twenty minutes, he scored 16 points and grabbed five rebounds. While his one assist is terrible, he clearly was on fire. Now that he's proven he can play at an extremely high level when it matters, look for the Dallas staff to trust him a little more and take control of games.
Having a capable scorer to help Dirk, Kidd, and Marion will be very important.
This kid could be a difference-maker for years to come.
At least that's what Dallas fans should be telling themselves.
While Mark Cuban is a little too close to basketball for some people to stomach (makes you appreciate the photo, right?), there is no doubt that he's been committed to winning.
While all of the news this off-season has focused on the talented trio in Miami and some free agent losses in the West, Cuban has done everything within his power to make sure his club remains a contender.
Don't believe this article? Look at the fact that he re-signed Nowitzki for less money than he could have made on another team. Loyalty aside, that's some powerful persuasion without Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, or Chris Bosh to lessen the blow.
If there are any more moves to be made, Cuban will find a way.
Hey, at least he shipped Dampier from Dallas, that has to count for something.
To any non-fans of Dallas, this will sound a little like Shawn Marion has the prettiest stroke in the game on outside shots.
Open your mind for a minute.
Having the second-best record for ten years is no small task. Having the best record for a five-year stretch is simply amazing.
Regardless of the team's ability to choke in the Playoffs, there must be something about living in Dallas, or having an owner like Cuban or player like Dirk, that has led to such success.
Eventually, winning begets winning, and despite the attention on Miami, Chicago, and the defending champs, one of the best teams of the past decade will take the floor next season with winning as a priority.
After finally filling a void Dampier left each year and discovering some hidden talent, the Mavericks may be able to pull off one of the greatest upsets in NBA history next year.
Dark Horse, sure, but should they be?
Their regular season record speaks volumes, but it's their performance in the second season that gives them the status.
Disagree? Agree? In reality, it doesn't matter, right now the Mavericks enjoy a fifty-fifty chance of winning it all. Either they will or they won't.