As Jason Kidd said recently, "Winning is a good deodorant." With the win over the Suns, we have a team that has turned around at least some doubting Thomases, especially with the nature of the win: A huge come-from-behind fourth quarter domination, featuring stop after stop and Dirk Nowitzki putting the team on his back (Nowitzki outscored the ENTIRE Suns team in the fourth quarter). Also, as I've mentioned almost ad nauseam against a steady stream of negatives aimed at the Mavericks, the team isn't as bad as its win-loss record looks.
So we have a bright spot or two (2-1 against winning teams in our last three games!), heading into the final stretch of the season. The question then is: How good are the Mavs?
Well, let's look at voodoo expert John Hollinger's rankings (which "predicted" the Spurs as the best team in the league last year), which have the Mavs at No. 8, sixth in the Western conference. However, his rankings change game-to-game, so it would be interesting to see how we compare to those around us. The Mavs increased .300 with the Suns win, so we can use that as a guidepoint: If we gained .300 again, where would we end up? What if we lost .300?
The answer is that, with a strong finish, the Mavs could conceivably finish at No. 6, with No. 5 being an outside shot. With a weak finish, we would end up No. 11. So, for what it's worth, Hollinger has the Mavs anywhere from No. 5 to No. 11. It should be noted that the Mavs have been trending UP recently, however, so that's a bright sign. It's also worth noting that, according to Hollinger, there are really only two real groups: Boston with a score of 111, and everyone else with a score of 107-105. In this sense, Boston will win the east, and just about anyone else he has ranked in the top ten could win the west, only to lose to Boston in the finals.
For what it's worth, Hollinger colleague Marc Stein has the Mavs ranked at No. 9 (up from a mediocre No. 15).
But enough with the Hollinger hoodoo and Stein's opinions. In pure performance terms, the Mavs, as I outlined last week, are one of the more complete teams in the league, being top ten in both offense and defense (currently ranked No. 5 on defense and No. 7 on offense). The team closest to that profile? Well, that would be New Orleans, with a No. 6 defense and a No. 4 offense. Or maybe the Los Angeles Lakers, No. 7 on defense and No. 3 on offense. Hmmm.
The good news is that the Mavs defense has been improving all season, and the Suns game gave at least a glimpse as to what the Mavs can do when they set their mind to it (even with a gimpy Nowitzki a few steps slow on the defensive end). Our offense is not as good as it was earlier in the year, but it is more versatile, an important consideration for the playoffs and people focusing on shutting down Nowitzki. Of course, the Nowitzki injury is the wild card, it is potentially exploitable, so we need to be realistic when he is on the floor. Fourth quarters like the one against the Suns are quite unlikely to be repeated.
But, the trend is good: Our offense hasn't fallen apart, even as it's become more versatile, and the defense is getting better and better.
Another trend that hasn't gotten much coverage is Dirk's improvement in the second half of the season. Stein mentions it today, discussing how the arrival of Kidd re-energized Dirk, and while that certainly helps, the reality is that Dirk has been getting better and better from even before then. Contrast this with last year, where Dirk's performance got worse and worse, only to bottom out in the playoffs. Maybe this quote from Dirk is telling, again courtesy Stein: "In some ways, I like this better," Nowitzki said. "We didn't play a meaningful game after March last year."
So where do we sit? An excited and engaged Dirk, albeit hobbled. A team with a top ten defense and offense, albeit not the win-loss record to show for it. A new point guard that creates a more varied attack and versatile offense, albeit one that doesn't score as efficiently as before.
The answer is probably right there in Hollinger's voodoo that he do: There is only one truly dominant team this year: The Boston Celtics. The rest of the teams all have as good a shot as any. In this scenario, the Mavs could exit the playoffs in the first round or make it to the finals. Either possibility is about as likely. The good news is one that you can't isolate in stats and previous game results: The Mavs seem to be improving as a team heading into the playoffs.
So how good are the mavs right now? As good as any team in the western conference playoff race. Or as bad as any team in the western conference playoff race. It makes for a fun April, that's for sure.