I was entertaining house-guests when it happened. And by 'entertaining' I mean following the Mavs/Thunder game on my phone. And then, it came across Twitter like wildfire: Dirk trips over himself and goes to the locker room. And that's when I knew things had to change.
Short-term, those people are never allowed in my house during a Mavs game ever again. But long-term, a Mavericks team that was looking a title contender is now a slightly better version of the Cleveland Cavaliers that LeBron left behind.
While they did rally to beat OKC, the Mavs' offense produced a season-low in scoring against the woeful Toronto Raptors, who themselves were down significant personnel.
While a game like that puts Dirk to the top of the MVP rankings, it also is bad, bad news in a Western Conference when a single win can mean the different between a two-seed and a seven-seed.
The Dirk-less Mavs put up a great fight against San Antonio, and sure, maybe in our darkest hours some of us were wondering how we could switch Jason Terry and Gary Neal a la Face/Off, but the real fact is this: Without Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs are barely a playoff team.
To understand how the Mavs are going to survive in this Dirk-less wilderness, we first must examine what Dirk brings to the team, besides those heavenly golden locks.
Who needs to pick up the slack with Dirk out?
According to Tim McMahon of ESPNDallas fame, the Mavericks get outscored by 13.7 points per 48 minutes without Dirk. When he does play, they outscore opponents by 13.3 points per 48-minutes. That's a 27-point differential that even Bron Bron, Kobe or Dwight Howard has.
If you clicked that link, you'll find all sorts of fancy numbers that all say the same thing: With Dirk, the Mavs are a fantastic basketball team. Without him, they're like the Wizards circa 2005, minus guns in the locker room and excrement-filled sneakers.
To replace him, the Mavs need more than just points, they need efficient points. Dirk is a high-usage player, and he rarely turns the ball over. In fact, last season he had a usage rate of more than 28 percent, and turns the ball over less than eight percent of the time, which as you can see, has only been done eight times in NBA history, three by Dirk (and twice by Michael Jordan, which means Dirk is clearly better than Jordan).
That's an efficiency that players on the Mavs are hard pressed to replace. As good as Caron Butler has been over the last few games, he's not a very efficient player. In fact, he is almost the opposite. His possessions almost always end with step-back jumpers, and while he's good at it, it's not the best way to play.
And now we get to Jason Terry. He goes from ice cold to red hot faster than my feelings about the Dave Matthews Band (I'm currently in hate mode), and sometimes he doesn't heat up at all (see: playoffs, NBA).
If Terry was even mediocre last night, the Mavericks pull off the win against the Spurs. Last night, and in last year's playoffs.
The problem with Terry is that by his very nature as a hot and cold shooter, it's a tough decision to pull him out for someone like DeShawn Stevenson. Terry is always the guy who shoots himself out of a slump, but that also tends to cost the Mavs games.
But Stevenson, as limited as his skill set is, can reliably hit a three, and he can always defend, which is more than you can say about Jason Terry at times.
(Side note: If you had told me a year ago that I'd be extolling the value of DeShawn Stevenson over Jason Terry, I would have punched you in the face/asked what you were smoking and to please get me some.)
To find success without Dirk, the Mavericks must rely on Caron Butler to be a 25 PPG scorer. It's that simple. With more versatile teammates than Butler had during his peak in DC, it's not outside the realm of possibility.
But Butler needs to make some adjustments too. Since he can't replicate Dirk's precision with the mid-range jumper, he needs to get more aggressive, and the Mavs need to shift from a pick-and-roll style offense to a drive-and-kick offense (which they should be doing when Dirk is healthy and on the bench anyways).
Butler has the physicality to drive to the hoop and draw contact and finish, he's like a poor man's LeBron in that sense. J.J. Barea is another player that is slippery enough to get to the rim whenever he wants, and he's been doing that more regularly.
The Mavs have enough shooters to kick it out to in Terry, Stevenson, Kidd, Cardinal and Novak, and players like Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion can be there to get offensive boards and clean up the messes.
But without Dirk, they just don't have the shooter who can hit from everywhere from the floor during the two-man game.
Hopefully, the Mavs aren't without Dirk for long, but he needs to fully recover before coming back, even if that does mean taking a few losses without him. He said his knee was sore for weeks (which also happened to be the weeks he was named Western Conference Player of the Week twice, in case you doubted how awesome he was), so he needs to get all the way healthy.
Because with Dirk and Chandler healthy (knock on wood) the Mavs finally have a versatile frontcourt that is capable of battling it out with bigger teams like the Lakers and Spurs, and hopefully come June they'll be leaving them all in the dust.