Nowitzki's injuries, knee and ankle sprains that will sideline the reigning MVP indefinitely, couldn't have occurred at a worse time. Dallas was already struggling to incorporate point guard Jason Kidd into their lineup: Sunday's loss to San Antonio dropped the Mavs to 9-8 with Kidd, including a staggering 0-8 against teams with winning records. Since dealing promising point guard Devin Harris to New Jersey for Kidd, Dallas has fallen from fifth in the Western Conference to seventh, a half game ahead of Golden State and just two games up on ninth-place Denver.
"The West is really crazy," Dallas coach Avery Johnson said last week. "You can go literally from first to eighth within the next six or seven days. And that's the craziest thing about this league."
Now the Mavs must contend with the loss of Nowitzki (23.6 points, 8.8 rebounds), their leading scorer and rebounder, during the most pivotal stretch of the season. Over the next two weeks, Dallas will play two games against Golden State and one with Denver. A potential tiebreaker situation becomes critical in both cases. Dallas is 2-0 against the Warriors this season while splitting with the Nuggets. Winning all three games would be huge.
Can they do it? I have my doubts.
While the Mavs are scoring more and averaging more assists with Kidd in the lineup, they continue to struggle. Part of the reason is that teams have recognized that even with the sharpshooting Nowitzki on the floor, the Mavs are a poor perimeter-shooting team. As a result, defenses are packing the lane and making it difficult for Kidd to create off the dribble.
"Teams are playing five in the paint on us right now," Johnson told reporters Sunday.
There has also been a feeling of tension, however unintentional, between Johnson and Kidd. Johnson has been the primary play-caller since taking over for Don Nelson as the Mavs' coach in March 2005. That isn't a problem when you have a young point guard like Harris running the show, but it becomes an issue when you have a savvy veteran like Kidd, who called many of his own plays in New Jersey.
Though Johnson's more traditional offense is different than the Nets' Princeton-based motion system, it doesn't take long for an experienced player like Kidd to learn it. Johnson has certainly loosened the reins more with Kidd than he did with Harris, but he has not given the 14-year veteran the freedom to run the offense, leading some to question how much Johnson trusts Kidd in that role.
Johnson has to trust Kidd now. In order for the Mavs to maintain their standing in Nowitzki's absence, Kidd must carry them. The Mavs must be a full-throttle running team. Josh Howard (19.4 points) Jason Terry (14.9), and Jerry Stackhouse (10.5) have to step up their scoring. Brandon Bass, whose playing time was reportedly at the root of a Johnson-Mark Cuban dustup last week, needs to be a presence both inside and on the glass.
It's the only way the Mavs can survive. And even then, there are no guarantees.