By Rob Mahoney
The Mavericks have managed to stay in the early Western Conference playoff picture with an 8-10 record, but any chance of actually making it into the top eight hinges on the return-- and the expected greatness -- of Dirk Nowitzki. The Dirk-less Mavs simply aren't in any position to win at the requisite level without him. In fact, Dallas' offense had become so inconsistent that the team picked up the 38-year-old Derek Fisher in a desperate grab at stability, and the rotations of the Mavs' defense haven't been quite right all season.
There's so much going wrong in Dallas' play, and some discouraging news on top of it all: Despite an initial targeted return of early-to-mid-December, Nowitzki now seems to be aiming for a later return date that would almost certainly come next calendar year. From Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News:
Nowitzki said the recovery process from his October knee surgery remains slow and he’s not close to returning.
“It [the knee] is better,” Nowitzki said. “But now, obviously, not doing anything for six weeks, there’s a lot of strength that you lose. Your quad muscle gets weak. And so the last week or so we increased the work load and tried to get the quad strength back.
“We said from the beginning the only way I could get back on the court was when the swelling is gone and the quad strength is back. And so we got a long way to go.
“Now, it’s already December 5th. I don’t think middle of December is happening now to be honest. That was my goal a couple weeks ago. But the swelling was in there too long and it held me back too long and I couldn’t start working soon enough.”
Should Nowitzki's return be delayed any more than it already has, Donnie Nelson, Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle may have no choice but to entertain the idea of liquidating their tradeable assets. Keep in mind: This is an oddly constructed roster with few prospects and little salary committed beyond this season. Without Nowitzki in the mix for a lengthy stretch of the season, the Mavs' won't be building anything, and thus may be forced to confront their limitations -- a course of action that Cuban has long hinted could be a possibility should Dallas slip into mediocrity.
Such a downturn could force the Mavs' hand when it comes to some of the more difficult decisions on the agenda, and might well nudge a perennial playoff lock into the lottery for the first time since 2000.
All of this might seem a bit presumptuous, but the reality is that even a fully healthy Nowitzki can only do so much to pull the Mavs out of their current rut. His return would boost Dallas' 18th-ranked offense, but his presence won't make Elton Brand any more spry or Chris Kaman any more attentive defensively, and it won't quell some of the turnover troubles that have plagued the Dallas guards in recent weeks. Even with Dirk in the lineup, this will still be a team working uphill the rest of the way, and with the Rockets and Warriors threatening to snatch away playoff spots, the outlook is anything but rosy for Nowitzki and the makeshift Mavs.