Mavs Enduring Unfamiliar Struggle as They Look to Escape Rock Bottom

Maurice Bobb@@ReeseReportFeatured ColumnistDecember 10, 2016

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 08:  Head Coach Rick Carlisle of the Dallas Mavericks reacts to an officials call during the first half of a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on November 8, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

DALLASIf there's a team in the NBA that's better on paper than their record suggests, it's the Dallas Mavericks. They have also been too good historically to be this bad now.

But numbers don't lie.

With a quarter-season in the books and a 5-18 record—tied for the worst in the league—after Saturday night's 109-87 loss to the Houston Rockets, there's no way around it. The same franchise that felled the mighty Heatles led by Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in 2011 to win its first Larry O'Brien Trophy, is having a terrible, horrible, very bad season.

The big ask is simple: What happened?

Dirk Nowitzki (C) of the Dallas Mavericks celebrates with teammates after winning the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat on June 12, 2011 at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida.  Jason Terry scored 27 points and Nowitzki finished with 21 points an
MARK RALSTON/Getty Images

"We've had, what, three or four games with our starting lineup together," Mark Cuban told Bleacher Report. "We have to adjust to personnel we have and we've made those adjustments as best we can. But there's no good way to spin it; it is what it is. When we're healthy, I think we have a team that competes and makes the playoffs easily. But it doesn't matter now (laughs). That's woulda, coulda, shoulda, right?"

Cuban is right. It wouldn't be fair to not weigh the injury factor in Dallas' season of woe. With Seth Curry (right knee sprain), J.J. Barea (left calf strain), Andrew Bogut (right knee injury) and Dirk Nowitzki (right Achilles strain) all sidelined at various times, the Mavs have had to use 12 different starting lineups through the first 21 games, according to B/R Insights.

But Dallas still has offensive gunners in Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes, who are averaging 15.7 and 20.6 points per game, respectively. And with a cunning head coach like Rick Carlisle, the team should have a better offensive rating than its current 28th ranking.

"I believe we're better than our record," Barnes said. "But at the end of the day we've let some games slip. The biggest thing is having a 'no excuse' mentality. We've had guys banged up all season. I wouldn't be surprised if that trend continues, but every single night, the guys who are suiting up, we have to have the mentality that you're going out there to play as hard as you can, to give the most focus you can to win the ballgame."

Dallas found a way to win Friday night with a 111-103 victory over the Indiana Pacers at home. It came two days after an embarrassing 31-point blowout loss to the Sacramento Kings in Dallas. The defeat was so bad that Carlisle broke from tradition and held an emergency film session after the game.

"For me, it was embarrassing to be in front of our home crowd like that just getting our ass kicked," Matthews said.

"That game ate at a lot of people, as it should. We know that we're better than that, so we came out and treated this as a blessing to be able to play this sport and went hard together. So I'm just proud of the way that we stepped up tonight (Friday night), proud of the way that we played tonight, and we're gonna make sure that never happens again."

Making sure the Mavs don't continue down the rabbit hole of infamy is easier said than done.

According to B/R Insights, their 17 losses are the most they've had through 21 games in any season of the Dirk Era (since 1998-99). Their 25th-worst three-point shooting percentage (33.1) is a huge disadvantage in a league that covets spread-the-floor offensive schemes.

With its compounding health issues, Dallas has had to dig deep into an already subpar bench loaded with scores of undrafted players who are trying to prove themselves. That means plenty of mistakes and a steep learning curve at the expense of winning.

"There's no silver linings in any of this," Cuban said. "But guys are getting to play. We'll try to win games and get better as a team, that's it. Try to do better, that's how players get better and that's how you set up a platform so you don't find yourself four years away from being four years away trying to be four years away from beating teams that are four years away."

As the worst team in the Western Conference, making the playoffs seems like more of a pipe dream than Phil Jackson abandoning the triangle offense. But if Dallas can get its mangled roster back on the court, it should at least be able to shoot for respectability.

DALLAS, TX - DECEMBER 07:  Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks looks on as the Dallas Mavericks take on the Sacramento Kings in the second half at American Airlines Center on December 7, 2016 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledg
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

"For us to salvage the season, we have to first try to get to .500, which looks like a tough thing to do," Bogut said. "We gotta try to take baby steps, then get on a run, get guys healthy, so we can have our whole squad on the floor. I don't know how many games our whole squad's played, but it hasn't been a lot. But we can't use that as an excuse either, because we didn't play great basketball when we were all healthy, too."

As the big man from Down Under works his way back to health, he's quick to point out that Carlisle, who subscribes to the notion of unlimited timeouts, won't let this team quit or tank.

"Coach, he's not gonna quit regardless if this team is a playoff team or not," Bogut added. "Regardless of our record, regardless of whether it's December or April, he's a guy that's not gonna quit. And just because we're not picked to do anything and we've got a bad record, he's not gonna mail it in. You gotta respect that about him, he really cares. He really cares about guys getting better, and he really wants to win games."

But what if they don't win games? Will Cuban shake this team up like an Etch-a-Sketch and start over?

"If we're far enough out, it doesn't mean, again, we're not gonna go for the race-to-the-bottom route, no matter what," Cuban said. "Or trade off guys to get second-round picks or give up the money and then just play a bunch of guys who probably won't end up in the NBA. If we make trades, it's for value."

The Mavs have a few interesting pieces who could draw interest on the trade market, but for now, Cuban has his sights set on using his first-round pick to draft a foundational player.

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 01:  Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, watches on during their game against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center on December 1, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees t
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

"You hope the Tim Duncan situation happens where the guys that are hurt, maybe they're not all David Robinsons, but they come back in aggregate much better," Cuban said. "Our other guys get better and we add someone who is a difference-maker to a foundation."

Cuban then compared the Mavs' current plight to that of the Dallas Cowboys: "We're kind of where the Cowboys were last year, high hopes and then injuries. So hopefully we'll have the same results in the draft. We've got some good pieces that can be good players on a great team, but we still need that superstar starter for the future."

The Cowboys' fourth overall pick, Ezekiel Elliott, is making waves as a star running back in his rookie campaign, but Cuban is more interested in how Jerry Jones "backed into" franchise quarterback Dak Prescott with the 135th pick.

"I'm more about trying to tell the NBA and this new CBA to add a fourth round," he said, laughing. "I don't care if there's a third round."

The NBA draft is more than six months away, so the Mavs will have to buckle up and try to right the ship through the bumpy waters they're sure to experience the rest of the way, like their lopsided loss to the Rockets.

“Yeah it’s frustrating,” Matthews said. “We were giving up transition points, even after makes. They were throwing it over our heads. Lack of execution and a lack of discipline on all of our parts, fouling jump shooters. All that gave them a lead and a cushion and all of that stuff is self-inflicted. We gotta get a win. Can’t do anything about it now. We got Denver coming in. They play an up-tempo game, they got talent. Detroit after that, then we got Utah. The gift and the curse of the NBA: short memory.”

"It's just a process, man," Rockets forward Corey Brewer said. "Things happen a lot of times. They got Harrison Barnes they gave the big deal. Bogut's trying to fit in. Dirk's been hurt. It's just real tough for them right now. I think the organization, they're gonna figure it out. They got a good coach. I love Rick. Dirk can still play, man. He's just having a couple injuries right now, but with a healthy Dirk, I think they're good."

For Dallas to even sniff .500, it'll need Barnes to take another step toward justifying the four-year, $95 million max contract he signed over the summer.

Of the 31 players who are averaging 20-plus points per contest this year, Barnes has the lowest true shooting percentage at 52.6 and is averaging the least amount of assists with 1.2 per outing.

"I feel confident about what I've done thus far," Barnes said. "I've definitely had to grow, and I still have a lot of room to go, but I've adjusted well on the fly and I just want to continue to get better."

After the Mavs' bounce-back win over Indiana, Carlisle pointed out that a big reason for the jolt to the team's energy and chemistry—outside of the impromptu film session—was the unity they showed when the entire team and coaching staff attended Matthews' charity event Thursday night.

He made a point to mention how the team bonding exercise spotlighted how the leadership in the locker room was "steadfast about the importance of competing and doing winning things" that the Mavs need to weather their bad run.

"No one's happy with where we are," Cuban said. "But guys are still hanging together. That says a lot to their character. There's an old saying, 'Character is revealed not when you're winning, but when you're losing.' That's where you see real people come out, and we've always said we have a lot of great character guys and, for better or worse, that's been proven now."

       

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats accurate as of Dec. 10 and courtesy of ESPN.com, NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.

Maurice Bobb covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseReport

Related

    KAT Involved in Car Accident, Questionable vs. Knicks

    NBA logo
    NBA

    KAT Involved in Car Accident, Questionable vs. Knicks

    Adam Wells
    via Bleacher Report

    Shaq Releases 1st Song in 20 Years

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Shaq Releases 1st Song in 20 Years

    Kyle Newport
    via Bleacher Report

    DPOY Favorites Dominate Differently

    NBA logo
    NBA

    DPOY Favorites Dominate Differently

    Will Gottlieb
    via Bleacher Report

    Predictions for the Final 25 Mavericks Games

    Dallas Mavericks logo
    Dallas Mavericks

    Predictions for the Final 25 Mavericks Games

    Mavs Moneyball
    via Mavs Moneyball