With a 44-16 record and a plus-3.9 point differential, the Mavericks are on pace to win 59 games this season, which would give them an astonishing and nearly unprecedented 11-straight 50-plus win seasons.
But after over a decade of playoff failures, many NBA observers are understandably bearish on the Mavericks' chances. Dallas is currently getting 12-to-1 odds to win the championship.
After their breathtaking implosions in the 2006 NBA Finals and the 2007 first round, when their 67-win juggernaut fell to an upstart Golden State team in one of the biggest upsets in NBA history, many people in Dallas and around the country gave up on the idea of a Dirk Nowitzki-led team ever winning it all.
Does he have the heart to win a title? The fire to carry a team on his back? The guts to hit a game-winning shot?
Leave aside the fact that the Mavericks had a great chance at winning a championship back in 2003 before he injured his knee in the Western Conference Finals, that Dirk hit a game-tying and-one to send a Game 7 in San Antonio into overtime and that worrying about the intangible mental characteristics of NBA players is an ultimately pointless and childish thing to do.
This Dallas team is different than its predecessors. While they probably shouldn't be the favorites to win the NBA title, they have as good a chance as anyone to finally hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy in mid-June.
Offensively, everything still revolves around the seven-foot German. In his 13th NBA season, he's finally figured it out: I am taller than nearly everyone who guards me. I have a fundamentally-perfect jump shot which I release over my head. I can pretty much get an uncontested jumper whenever I feel like it, and I hardly ever miss uncontested jumpers!
Of the top 20 scorers in the NBA, only four players shoot over 50 percent from the field—Dirk, Blake Griffin, Amar'e and Dwight Howard. The other three players, the three most explosive dunkers in the NBA, do most of their damage near the rim: 69 percent of Howard's shots are within five feet of the basket, with Griffin at 47 percent and Amare at 35 percent. Dirk is only at 12 percent!
**Stats courtesy of 82games.com.**
It's absolutely preposterous that a player who shoots jump shots 88 percent of the time has a field-goal percentage of 52 percent. It's something the game of basketball has never really seen before.
It all starts up front defensively for the Mavs, with Tyson Chandler (7'1", 235 pounds) and Brendan Haywood (7'0", 263 pounds) patrolling the middle. Chandler, who has the ability to guard back-to-the-basket bigs like Dwight Howard and face-up forwards like Amar'e, has been a revelation. He should be the second-team center, behind only Howard, on the NBA All-Defensive team this season.
**If the Mavs had Chandler and Haywood manning the middle instead of Shawn Bradley, Raef LaFrentz, Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop, they would have won titles in 2003, 2006 and 2007.**
Thanks to Mark Cuban's extremely deep pockets, the Mavericks are one of the deepest teams in the NBA. As a result, they can match up with every type of player defensively.
Haywood can guard centers, Chandler can guard any big men, Marion can guard swing forwards, Stevenson and Kidd can guard scoring guards and Beaubois can guard point guards.
**Which doesn't even count newly signed Corey Brewer, a former No. 7 overall pick and 6'9" forward who quietly became a defensive stopper in Minnesota.**
While losing Caron Butler was not nearly as big a deal as people were saying, his season-ending knee injury did leave a hole at the small forward position, since the Mavs prefer to play Shawn Marion off the bench.
Dallas has expertly worked the waiver wire in the interim, and they've picked up two players who can more than fill Butler's shoes.
If the Mavs want to go with offense in the starting five, they can use Peja Stojakovic, who hasn't lost the shooting touch that made him a two-time All-Star in Sacramento earlier in the decade.
And if they need defense, they can insert the newly-signed Corey Brewer, an athletic 6'9", 190-pound forward with the ability to ably defend three different positions.
The Mavs surround Dirk, one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA, with a bevy of extremely skilled veterans. Jason Kidd (36.6 percent from beyond the arc), Jason Terry (35.5 percent), Peja Stojakovic (a career 40-percent three-point shooter), DeShawn Stevenson (41 percent), JJ Barea (33 percent) and Rodrigue Beaubois (41 percent from beyond the arc last year) can all spread the floor.
And Marion, at the age of 32, has transformed himself into an extremely efficient half-court scorer, with a dizzying array of one-handed floaters reminiscent of Antawn Jamison, averaging 11.5 points a game on 50-percent shooting.
Here's a good way to think about how potent the Mavericks are offensively: They play two athletic seven-footers at center and surround them with a combined 27 All-Star appearances and a former Sixth Man of the Year on the perimeter.
Moving towards the trade deadline, the Mavericks were a few pieces away from being serious threats to win an NBA championship. They needed someone who could create his own shot off the dribble from the perimeter, and they needed a quick guard to match up with the new breed of lightning-fast points.
Rodrigue Beaubois, a second-year, 6'2", 180-pound guard out of Guadalupe, returned from a season-long foot injury a few weeks ago. He can fill both roles. He's exactly the piece Dallas needed.
He can get to the rim at will, as he proved in last year's playoffs against San Antonio, when he scored 16 points in only 21 minutes to lead a Mavs comeback in the decisive Game 6 that ultimately fell short.
What's most impressive about the Mavericks offensively is how crisply the ball moves around the perimeter and how little wasted motion there is—they are a team of hungry-and-smart veterans who know exactly what they are doing.
This is Kidd's 17th year in the NBA, Dirk and Peja's 13th, Terry and Marion's 12th, Stevenson's 11th and Chandler's 10th. You don't last 10 years in the NBA, the highest level of basketball in the world, unless you really understand how to play the game.
The Lakers are the biggest obstacle in Dallas' path. Lamar Odom, a long-armed and quick-footed 6'10", 230-pound forward, is the best defensive matchup for Dirk in the NBA. He might be the only player in the league who can consistently contest Dirk's shot—in two games at Staples Center last year, Dirk shot 5-of-14 and 7-of-18 and he went 5-of-15 in the Mavericks' victory over LA this season.
This is where Beaubois becomes crucial: he's the only other Maverick besides Dirk who can consistently create his own shot. And he's exactly the type of lightning fast point guard LA has traditionally struggled with. Against the Thunder (Russell Westbrook) and the Celtics (Rajon Rondo) in last year's playoffs, the Lakers had to switch Derek Fisher with Kobe on defense.
But Kobe, like the rest of the Lakers, isn't operating at 100 percent. How could he? LA, in making the last three NBA Finals, has been in 67 playoff games the last three years. They've effectively crammed four seasons into three years, which doesn't even count international play for Kobe, Odom and Pau. There's a reason only one team—Bird's Celtics—have been to four consecutive NBA Finals in the last 40 years.
And if the Mavericks can get by LA, their road to a title gets a lot easier. Since Tim Duncan can't guard Dirk on the perimeter, the Mavericks have always presented match-up problems for the Spurs—Dallas is the only team besides the Lakers to beat a prime Tim Duncan in the playoffs.
The Mavericks can put Chandler on Tim Duncan, while the Spurs have not had an answer for perimeter-oriented big men like Dirk since Robert Horry's retirement. DeJuan Blair is 6'7", Antonio McDyess is 36 and Matt Bonner is...Matt Bonner.
**Dallas is 7-3 against Boston, LA, San Antonio, Orlando and Miami. All three of those losses came with Dirk out of the lineup.**
Four teams look capable of making the NBA Finals out East—Chicago, Boston, Miami and Orlando.
With Chandler and Haywood, the Mavericks won't need to double Dwight Howard, which has been Orlando's undoing in their recent playoff losses. Boston depends on out-executing their opponents on offense and out-muscling them defensively; they won't be able to do either against Dallas. And at this point in their careers, Kevin Garnett no longer has the foot speed to keep up with Dirk.
Miami has two holes defensively—they can't guard low-post scorers (Dirk) or lightning-fast point guards (Beaubois). And Dallas has the size and athleticism up front to prevent LeBron and Wade from taking over the paint.
The Mavericks' toughest matchup would actually be the Chicago Bulls, the dark-horse team in the East. Dallas lost two nail-biters to Chicago this season; the Bulls have two long-armed 6'10"-plus defenders in Noah and Taj Gibson to throw at Dirk, and Dallas, like the rest of the NBA, has no answer for Derrick Rose defensively.
But Dallas could count on Tyson Chandler to shut down Carlos Boozer, as Boozer, at 6'9", has traditionally struggled against long, athletic defenders in the playoffs. This would put a tremendous offensive burden on Rose, since Chicago doesn't have any other shot creators on their roster.