We’re two weeks away from training camp, which means the NBA season really is right around the corner. Over the next couple weeks, we’ll be diving deep into the numbers to see how the Mavericks can return to the playoffs this season. Today, it’s all about beating the teams you’ve got to beat.

We always hear that the biggest games of the season come against the best teams. In recent years, it’s been when Golden State comes to town. That might still be true, but now you’d also watch out for both L.A. clubs, Milwaukee, Houston, and so on. There are a lot of good squads in the NBA, and the cliché goes that, as a competitor, you naturally get up more for games against the top teams. Delon Wright put it very well this summer, saying that playing on national TV gives everyone a little extra juice because every player knows that millions of people are watching. And those games are almost always between winning teams. They just mean a little more.

That’s certainly true, but only to a degree. However, it can be argued that the most meaningful games of the season, at least when it comes to clinching a winning record and pushing for a postseason berth, come on random nights against teams with losing records, or on the second night of a back-to-back. Those are the games that the contenders find ways to win — and in order to be a playoff team, you’ve gotta win a lot of them.

NBA.com’s John Schuhmann put together a list of every team’s record against winning and losing teams last season, and the results tell us all we need to know about discovering the secret path to the postseason. And, surprisingly, the road doesn’t run through the Bay, Hollywood, or Houston. Nope, last season at least, it ran through places like Phoenix, Atlanta, and, unfortunately, Dallas.

Here’s the whole list. Notice the Mavs’ placements in both categories. (Click to enlarge.)

Only a precious few clubs finished with winning records against winning teams. In fact, the Mavs’ 17-28 mark against above-.500 squads, good for only a .378 win percentage, still ranked top-half in the entire NBA. Even strong sides like Philadelphia and Utah finished with a losing record against the top teams.

The key, however, is in the right side of the chart. That’s where the true path to a winning record lies. The 2018-19 Mavs went 16-21 against teams that finished .500 or worse in 2018-19, and although that .432 win percentage is an improvement over Dallas’s record against winning teams, it still ranked just 25th in the NBA.

If you want to be good, you’ve got to take care of business. Every single playoff team in the NBA last season won at least 57 percent of their games against clubs with losing records. For comparison, the Mavs would have needed to go 22-15 against below-.500 teams to win at that same clip. In that scenario, Dallas would have sported a 39-43 record on the year, good enough to tie for ninth in the West. Early losses last season to Phoenix, Atlanta, and the Knicks put the Mavs way behind the 8-ball right out of the gate, leading to a 2-7 record. Dallas eventually recovered to peak at 15-11, but it took a lot of climbing to erase that start.

Some squads, in fact, were so good against lottery teams that it made up for poor performance against playoff contenders. Indiana, for example, went just 13-25 (.342 win percentage) against winning teams, but the Pacers pummeled losing teams all season to the tune of a 35-9 record, giving them 48 wins and the 5-seed in the East. Similarly, Boston was just 14-24 (.368) against winners, but the Celtics’ 35-9 record against below-.500 clubs drove them all the way to homecourt in the first round of the playoffs.

The road to the playoffs, then, appears clear. It would be cool and all if the Mavericks can squeeze out another win or two against winning teams (or, better yet, if they don’t play a league-high 45 games against winning teams like they did in 2018-19), but what they really have to do is have a solid winning record against clubs that will find themselves in the lottery. Of course, every other franchise that was in the lottery last season is saying the same thing about the Mavs, and as my colleague Eddie Sefko has pointed out many times, there might not be many teams in the West who finish below-.500 this season at all. That might be true, but I don’t think the Mavericks want to be there to find out. This is one of those cases where you’ve got to beat them, not join them.

If Dallas wants to make its way back to the playoffs this year, whenever the Mavs do find themselves fortunate enough to face off against a team who won’t win 50 games, or even 41, they’ve got to take care of business.

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