Dirk Nowitzki is confident the Dallas Mavericks will make the playoffs. And he's confident their experience will prove valuable once the postseason begins. But Nowitzki also understands the reality facing his team:
Repeating as NBA champions isn't going to be easy for the Mavs, who have dug themselves quite the hole this season.
"It's tough," Nowitzki said. "If you are bottom four, you are basically starting out on the road right away. Last year, we at least had home court through the first round. So, basically, if we want to go to the Western Conference finals, we have to win a lot of road games – and we haven't won a lot of games on the road.
"Hey, but it is what it is. … Rested, I still like our chances."
The Mavericks (34-26) sit in sixth place in the West with a 2½-game lead over the ninth-place Phoenix Suns. Their season has been filled with challenges from the start. Dallas officials didn't re-sign starting center Tyson Chandler, starting guard DeShawn Stevenson and reserve guard J.J. Barea in the offseason, allowing the franchise to maintain financial flexibility for this summer when New Jersey Nets All-Star Deron Williams, a Dallas native, can become a free agent. All-Star center Dwight Howard also looked like he would be available until he opted at the trade deadline to stay another season with the Orlando Magic.
Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Delonte West, Kelenna Azubuike, Vince Carter, Brandan Wright, Yi Jianlian, Brian Cardinal and Ian Mahinmi could all become free agents for the Mavericks this summer. Terry said the uncertain future has weighed on the players.
"I go out there every day with that on my mind," Terry said. "It's reality. I could possibly not be in this uniform next year. It affects a lot of us.
"Over 50 percent of our team will be [free agents] next year. It's tough."
And that doesn't include Lamar Odom, who is already gone from the team and will likely be traded or bought out this summer. The Mavs had high hopes for Odom after acquiring him from the Los Angeles Lakers for an $8.9 million trade exception and a protected first-round pick. But Odom reported to the Mavericks in poor shape, struggled on the court and never adjusted. He took a leave of absence midway through the season, but his play never improved after he returned to the team.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban chided Odom for his listless play at halftime of a game this month, and the two decided it would be best to part ways.
"It's over with," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said.
"We tried to make it work, obviously, but sometimes it just doesn't work," said Nowitzki, who said he wouldn't "bash" his former teammate. "He even tried. But, ultimately, we got to move on."
The Mavs admit they're still adjusting to each other. Kidd has missed 16 games this season. West and center Brendan Haywood, new additions to the starting lineup, have missed 22 and 11 games, respectively.
The Mavs have used 12 different starting lineups but appear to be gaining some traction as the playoffs near.
"We are getting better," Kidd said. "We understand each other. We have a couple new guys in positions where we are asking them to do what J.J., Tyson and D-Steve have done. I think guys are starting to feel a little bit more comfortable and are playing a little bit better."
Only two of Dallas' final six regular-season games are at home. But the Mavs will get a chance to rest before the playoffs: They have four days off before their April 26 regular-season finale in Atlanta.
And Cuban doesn't think the Mavs are in all that different a position than they were last season. They also struggled a year ago – and went on to beat the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, sweep the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round, beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the West finals and knock off the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
"It was a year ago this week that the coach of the [Denver] Nuggets was saying he wanted to play the Mavs in the playoffs," Cuban said. "At this point last year it wasn't like everyone was saying, 'This is a dominant team,' or, 'They're the team to beat.' It was the exact opposite.
"They were saying, 'These guys have no chance.' That's what everyone is saying right now."
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