At 41-28, the Dallas Mavericks have already tied last season's win mark and find themselves in the midst of a battle with the Portland Trailblazers (44-24), Golden State Warriors (43-26), Memphis Grizzlies (40-27) and the Phoenix Suns (39-29) for the No. 5 to No. 8 seeds in the West. While the bottom of the West is a warzone, the top of the conference seems to be settling into place.
The San Antonio Spurs (51-16), Oklahoma City Thunder (49-18), Los Angeles Clippers (48-21) and Houston Rockets (45-22) are currently occupying the top four seeds in the West.
Though the Mavericks are far from locking a playoff spot, we can't help but speculate how they could fare in the first round against the best of the West if they do make the playoffs, who they happen to be a combined 3-8 against.
San Antonio Spurs (3-0 vs Mavs)
With the Thunder currently banged up and Westbrook taking games off to rest his knee, it looks like the Spurs may be a lock for the No. 1 seed. The Spurs are able to exploit about every Mavericks' flaw. Tony Parker is one of the quickest point guards in the league. They have one of the best ever post players in Tim Duncan. Their roster consists of 3-point shooting across the roster with the likes of Danny Green, Matt Bonner, Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills. Taigo Splitter, Aron Baynes, and Jeff Ayres give this team a presence on the boards. Finally, they have Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw, who have the ability to matchup and bother the Mavericks' go to guys, Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki. Look no further than the three convincing wins against Dallas this season. Safe to say, this is the matchup the Mavericks would love to avoid at all costs
Oklahoma City Thunder (1-1 vs Mavs)
At this point, a Mavs vs. Thunder first round is looking fairly likely as a 2-seed vs. 7-seed matchup. Dallas will have their hands full on the perimeter thanks to the perimeter-scoring tandem of Kevin Durant (31.8 pts) and Russell Westbrook (21.4 pts). Shawn Marion would undoubtedly have the responsible of guarding MPV candidate Durant, which leaves Jose Calderon and Ellis to fend for themselves against the fierce Westbrook. Serge Ibaka (15.2 pts, 8.8 rebs, 2.8 blks) is having a career season, emerging as the Thunder's third option. With his improved offense, Ibaka would also give the Mavericks plenty to worry about with his rebounding and rim protection.
The Thunders' supporting cast of Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler, Kendrick Perkins, Jeremy Lamb, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, and Derek Fisher isn't exactly the most terrifying in the league, but with Durant and Westbrook drawing so much attention, they are able capable of having a large impact due to the lack of attention drawn to them.
It's tough to use the season series to gauge this matchup. The Mavericks were only five games into the season when they were smashed 107-93 in Oklahoma city, still adjusting to a new roster and without key reserves Devin Harris and Brandan Wright. In the second matchup, the Thunder played without Westbrook and two starters in Perkins and Sefolosha.
This will be a tough series for the Mavericks, who would need to have a near flawless performance to take out a Thunder team they've beaten just twice since the 2011 Western Conference Finals.
Los Angeles Clippers (2-0 vs Mavs)
With Chris Paul running the show, the Mavericks' perimeter defense once again would be tested. If having to deal with Paul isn't enough, the improved play of Blake Griffin will also test the Mavericks' interior defense. The Mavericks will also have to deal with DeAndre Jordan on the inside, who has feasted on the Mavericks this season, averaging 16 points and 15.5 rebounds in the two Clippers' wins.
Outside of Paul, Jamal Crawford and possibly Danny Granger, the Clippers' aren't exactly filled with playmakers. The Mavericks ability or inability to contain Paul will be the deciding factor to this potential matchup. If Dallas can't find a way to minimize Paul's influence on the offensive end, the Mavericks won't last long in this potential series due to Paul's ability orchestrate Lob City's offense.
The same way the Mavericks would struggle to contain Paul, the Clippers will have the same issues with Nowitzki and Ellis. Nowitzki has averaged 25.5 points against the Clippers defense, who only have Griffin, Jordan, Ryan Hollins and Glen Davis at the power forward and center positions. Though Ellis has put up just 13 points a game (48% fg), he has averaged 11 assists (most against any team this season) in the two matchups.
Even with the Clippers rightfully expected to be a heavy favorite, it won't be a stretch to see these games come down to the wire, with the Clippers only winning the two meetings by a total of nine points.
Houston Rockets (2-2 vs Mavs)
Even with James Harden (who played in only in 2 of 4 games against Dallas this season), Dwight Howard, and Chandler Parsons giving the Mavericks fit this season, this team has to be the Mavericks' dream scenario simply because they are the "least worst" matchup.
The Mavericks have had trouble containing Houston's trio, who have combined for 71.5 points on the Mavericks' defense, which is a huge increase from their 59.6 points they average on the season. As the Mavericks have struggled to contain the Rockets' stars, the Rockets have had that same problem against the star Mavs. The Rockets have had no answer for Nowitzki this season, who's averaging 31.5 points (most against any team) and 8.5 rebounds in the four matchups, and Ellis (20.3 points/game).
If Houston's trio has been so dominant, why would the Mavericks want to face them? Two Reasons. Number one, the Rockets don't have a dominant point guard that can easily breakdown the defense and demand the Mavericks' full attention, allowing Marion, Crowder, and Harris to focus more attention on Harden and Parsons. Second, the Rockets' supporting cast of Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, and Terrence Jones isn't the most reliable offensive threats, which can allow the Mavericks to help on the Rockets' Big 3. That being said, the Mavericks can't fall asleep on the Rockets role players, as they are still capable of having big games and impacts.
Like the previous teams, this is a series that would take a complete team effort to win. The Mavericks have struggled to contain the Rockets' Big 3, rebound, and defend. Samuel Dalembert would need to not just avoid foul trouble, but must have a positive impact on the floor. Ellis would also have to be able to defend either Harden or Parsons, and the Mavericks' role players would have to step up, can't rely on Nowitzki to averaged 30 in a series.
However, a series against Houston is looking more and more unlikely. In theory, the Rockets could push and overtake the two-game lead the Clippers hold over them for the third seed, and Dallas could also make up a couple of games on Golden State. But imagining such a severe shake-up this late in the season is probably too much of a long shot.
It's easy to get excited for a Mavericks' playoff push, but at the same time expectations must be maintained. Depending on the matchup the Mavericks' chances go from non-existent to slim.
We can't forget who the Mavericks are.
They're a team that struggles on defensive end and on the glass: two dimensions that are needed to take out a top NBA team. Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and Rockets are all teams that have stars, players and schemes that can and most likely will exploit those Mavericks' flaws.
Rami Michail (@RamiMichail) is at Cal State Fullerton majoring in Kinesiology. You can find him at TheSmokingCuban.com (Editor), CrabDribbles.com (Writer) and here at MavsMoneyball.com (Contributor).