In describing the first half of the Mavericks’ season, we are reminded of Tiger Woods when he was the dominant golfer in the world, winning everything in sight, and was asked to sum up his crazy season in one word.
“Notbad,” he said, unable to suppress a giggle about cheating on the one-word requirement.
That works for the Mavericks so far during a year that they expected to be a transition period, but were hopeful that it would be a strong jump from the past three seasons when they missed the playoffs.
So far, it has far exceeded expectations.
A fast start, an injury-induced lull, followed by a strong finish on the road has left the Mavericks in a favorable spot at the midpoint of the NBA regular season.
Could it have been better after 41 games? Of course. But every team in the league feels like that.
Always remember, it could have been worse than 26-15, too.
The Mavericks got off to a hot start, feasting on a favorable part of the schedule. They have had a winning record all season and put some air between themselves and .500 with a five-game winning streak that pushed them to 16-6
Since then, it’s been a tread-water proposition as they have gone 10-9 since Dec. 8.
But the result is that they have put themselves in a great spot. No Mavericks’ team that has won at least 25 times in the first 41 games has ever missed the playoffs.
This year, they are on pace to win 52 games, which would break through the projections that virtually all experts had for them in the preseason. A .500 record was considered a realistic expectation for this team.
But they are No. 6 in the Western Conference, just two games behind second-seeded Denver and only a half-game behind Houston for the fifth spot.
They are eight games ahead of No. 9 San Antonio, which means that the Mavericks are headed to the playoffs barring some sort of cataclysmic disaster befalling them in the second half of the season.
And they are learning that they have become a different sort of animal in the NBA food chain. With Luka Doncic solidly in the MVP race, this team no longer is an afterthought.
“We’re definitely getting (opponents) coming out and looking at Luka and our record,” said Dwight Powell. “The attention we’re getting, we’re getting teams’ best shots. It’s a different look than past years, but it’s good for us. It heightens focus.”
And sharpens a competitiveness that the Mavericks will need when the stakes rise.
And rest assured. They will rise. They are guaranteed to be playing pressure-packed games in February, March and April as the jockeying for playoff positions gets serious after the All-Star break.
That’s what we all have to look forward to.
Looking back, it was a first half that brought Maverick fans a lot of joy. Here’s a breakdown of the five best things that happened in the first 41 games – plus one nagging detail that needs attention.
Road sweet road: The Mavericks finished the first half of the season with back-to-back wins at Golden State and Sacramento on Tuesday and Wednesday. It was the kind of road success they’ve grown accustomed to.
The Mavericks are 14-5 on the road and only two teams (the Lakers and Bucks) have better records away from their home floors.
The Mavericks are the only team in the NBA to win at Milwaukee, Denver, the Lakers and Houston.
That bodes extremely well in terms of the mental toughness of this team.
The anchor, now and for years to come: Luka Doncic has made it very easy on the Mavericks. When it comes time to give him a new contract after his rookie deal expires, there will be no negotiating.
Maximum money. Period. End of story.
He’s solidly in the MVP conversation in his second season, averaging 28.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.0 assists per game. He is one of the top vote-getters for the All-Star Game (balloting ends on Monday).
Bottom line: the Mavericks have their cornerstone – their new Dirk Nowitzki, if you will – for the next decade or so. It’s up to them to build the franchise around him and this is a management team that has been there, done that. Doubt them at your own peril.
Time is on their side: This franchise is ahead of schedule in its rebirth. They expected this to be a year to set up the future. The future arrived early.
And it should only get better. They have missed Kristaps Porzingis for roughly one-fourth of the games so far. When he returns, he figures to bolster things during a stretch when eight of their next 14 opponents have losing records.
And, with the trade deadline fast approaching on Feb. 6, the Mavericks also have assets that are attractive if something should fall into their lap. As always, they will be opportunistic, but you get the feeling it would have to be a no-brainer, something they simply cannot say “no” to, for them to act.
Shooting stars: Finally, the Mavericks have identified their best 3-point shooters and are utilizing them accordingly.
Seth Curry (39.5 percent) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (38.6 percent) have separated themselves as the most reliable long-range threats on the team. While Doncic and Porzingis are going to take their share of 3-pointers, Hardaway and Curry should be first options, along with Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber and Delon Wright, all of whom have above-average 3-point percentages.
Speaking of supporting actors: The Mavericks’ coaching staff has invested years of mentorship into Finney-Smith, Kleber and Dwight Powell. Those hours upon hours of work have paid off handsomely this season as all three are major impact players in the rotation.
Rare is the night that at least one of them doesn’t have a big-time positive impact on the game.
Strength in numbers is a real thing in the NBA. Yes, you need your superstars. It’s very hard to win without them. But the Mavericks have a lot of helpers at the ready.
Homely at home: No team has everything go perfectly and the Mavericks have been anything but perfect at home.
Their 12-10 record is way below average for a team that is 11 games above .500. Of the 16 teams that would, at the moment, make the playoffs, only Memphis (11-12) has a worse home record.
“It’s something we got to work on,” coach Rick Carlisle said recently.
But, right now, this is what the Mavericks are – a great road team that loses focus at home.
What the Mavericks need to keep telling themselves is that January is not the time of year when you want to be your best. That should come in April and May. If they figure out the home woes in the coming month or two, and maintain their health, there is no reason they shouldn’t be a dangerous team come playoff time.
And if that happens, they will again be well ahead of schedule.