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Dallas Mavericks Must "Circle the Wagon" During Tough Stretch

The Mavericks are in the midst of their worst stretch of losing since early 2000 as they have lost their last six straight games.  Things will not get any easier for the Mavericks as they will go up against the Los Angeles Lakers, the two-time defending NBA Champions, on Wednesday night.  "We had a good practice (Tuesday), and it’s good that guys are talking about the things that are going wrong. That helps you address it both as players and coaches," Coach Rick Carlisle said. "Today, we’ve got to face the music, because it’s been a disappointing stretch, a lot of losses in a row and effort that’s really been beneath what we’ve stood for all year. So, now we’ve got to circle the wagon."

At times, the Lakers looked lost and lethargic but things have turned around over the last two weeks.  The ball is spreading around now; Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are dominating as a duo.  You have better consistency with Lamar Odom and Derek Fish.  Additionally, Andrew Bynum is rounding into shape after missing the first part of the season due to injury.  The Lakers will not have any pity for the Mavericks; they will still have that killer instinct and view the Mavericks as the team that started the year on a tear.  Dallas is hopeful that they can regain their form just as the Lakers did.

It was a rather eventful day on the Mavericks practice court as the team was prepping for their game against the Lakers as Owner Mark Cuban made a cameo appearance and Caron Butler appeared to give encouragement to his struggling teammates.  Things are incredibly rough for the Mavericks right now and it's time to take a look at the issues.

Caron Butler's Injury Hurts the Team More Than Most People Predicated

We've talked about it ad nauseum how effective Butler was playing before his injury.  We assumed that the only real struggle would be to replace his point total.  It is apparent now that all of the players took his departure very hard.  It can not be seen but it is also apparent that Butler had a huge impact inside the locker room.  The on-the-court issue is that everyone else has to take their game up another notch or two with added responsibility.  DeShawn Stevenson has to take on more minutes, guys like Brian Cardinal, Alexis Ajinca and Ian Mahinmi have to get more minutes than you would expect due to Shawn Marion getting heavy minutes at small forward.  The rotation, which was completely in sync, is now altered and not automatic because the team has to search for answers along the way.  It messes with the whole on-the-court chemistry. 

As mentioned, Butler was a viewer of the Mavericks practice on Wednesday and he talked about the situation of the team.  "It’s just tough right now," Butler said.  "Winning cures everything, and obviously losing hurts. And when you have a couple of losses in a row it hurts even more, especially with a team that’s used to winning and being successful.  So, we’ve just got to rally together, stay together, continue to trust and believe, and we’ll be fine.  And believe that we have what it takes in this locker room to get it done.  That’s why I crawled over here to support the squad today, because I know that guys can get down but never out."   Things have progressed for Butler to the point that once the calendar turns to February, he will travel with the team and engage in full-on cheerleader mode.

Butler ruptured his right patellar tendon in the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on January second and he vividly remembers the chain of events leading to the injury.  "It was a tough thing because I knew exactly what had happened when it happened,'' he said.  "The second I planted I knew something was wrong. I jumped on my feet because I knew my mother and grandmother and my wife - I had so many loved ones in the stands - that I wanted to walk off the court by myself."

The forward mentioned that a previous injury to his knee gives him some insight on what he needs to do in terms of rehabilitation.  He mentioned that the door is not completely shut on him returning to the team this year.  "I know what muscles to keep fired, what little things to do," Butler said.  "I just need some time. I've been through this before when I was 15 years old and it took about four-and-a-half months to come back from, and I was rolling. I was good.  I was healthy.  So I just need some time."  That time-line would indicate that he would hope to return by the end of April or early May, in the midst of the playoffs.  Depending on the schedule and win/loss situation, he believes he could return at the tail end of the first round or beginning of the Conference Semifinals. 

The problem then becomes, what do you do?  Butler is in a tough spot as his contract expires at the end of the year.  That means he's a valuable asset in terms of making a trade.  Butler did comment that he has not talked to the front office about the long-term future, but both parties do stay in contact and the team wants to make sure he is doing OK.  "You want to put (Free Agency) aside,'' he said.  "That will take care of itself. The only thing you can control is what you can control All I can do is ice and support my teammates. I'm a Maverick. When I start rehabbing and everything, then I'll get ready for free agency. But right now, I'm going to support my teammates.''


The Veil is Removed and It Doesn't Look Pretty

Over the years, the Mavericks have been rather lucky when it comes to avoiding massive waves of injury.  Players would have nagging injuries here and there; Josh Howard's ankle was the worst injury the team really had to deal with over the past couple of years.  Now, they can't avoid injuries as Dirk Nowitzki sprained his knee and Butler his right patellar tendon.  They can't even catch a break when it comes to Tyson Chandler.  The center hasn't missed a game due to injury but he has missed the past two games due to illness.  The good news is that Chandler will return to the line-up for the Lakers game. 

With Butler's injury, players had to step up and that has not worked out as the team had hoped it would.  I will say though that when a team is without its defensive anchor and has to play in stretches without 3 of their top 8 scoring options, the team is going to look rather crappy.  The team realizes that the margin for error is incredibly slim so they might be playing extra cautious, that isn't their game.  They're shooting themselves in the foot by trying to be even sharper with efficiency, because they are not doing it and they're floundering.  Despite that, the over-thinking theory does not excuse their effort.  In stretches on the defensive end of the court, they have looked like they quit.  It's something that Mavs fans have seen before.  You know what they look like?


The Sick Child

Remember the Jason Kidd about the trade to get the Washington guys?  What led to those trades, the team basically maxed out their potential and the wheels were about to come off.  Despite the injuries, the team is definitely in the neighborhood of that scenario popping up again.  The front office has always responded when they see the "child" struggling and signs point to an ugly result.  Donnie Nelson has been an observer of Maverick practices from time to time but Wednesday was different as Owner Mark Cuban was an incredibly interested observer.  Cuban and Nelson watched from the balcony above the practice court.  As practice ended, the two went back in to the team office without speaking to the media.  It's definitely a strategic move to let the players know that the results as of late are unacceptable and the man who cuts the checks has his eyes on the team. 

As mentioned, the Butler "time-line" makes things a little interesting but the Mavericks simply can't afford to wait on Butler.  Even if he did return at the time, you can't expect to ease him into the flow of things in the midst of playoff basketball.  That is assuming that Butler can actually make that time-line and can avoid any major setbacks.  He has every right to be confident and positive in his belief in his return.  The Mavericks will have to move him though.  The thing that works out potentially for both sides, the Mavericks are likely to send him to a team that just values Butler for the expiring contract.  If Butler really loves Dallas, he can return as a free agent, just not at the price-tag he would have expected before the injury. 

The team can really be a threat when things are going right but it can also wilt when times can get dramatically tough, there's no way to dispute either side of the argument.  With the wilting, it has just been the nature of the team over the past several years and a trade usually gives them a boost of energy.  Basically, the team has gotten mopey and dejected.  Tyson Chandler is willing to admit a drop-off has occurred.  "I just think guys have just been down," Chandler said.  "What happens is guys go out, bad things start happening, guys start looking around and trying to figure out why and you start giving yourself a reason: 'Well, this and this and that.' We can’t look at that."  

It is just as much perplexing as it is frustrating to see how the team was rolling as well as it was to see a team fall off the tracks as they have now.  What they're doing is quite an historic feat.  They are only the seventh team in NBA history to record a 12-game winning streak as well as a 6-game losing streak within the same season.  MMB has the list of teams and is going to do some extensive research on the Google machine over the next few days to determine what trends can be made and if the Mavericks fall in line.

"We’ve got to get healthy and then we’ll see what happens," Nowitzki said.  "I think Mark and Donnie always look at improving this organization and giving it our best shot.  We’ll just wait and see what happens, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s no immediate help coming. We’ve got to look within the locker room and get it done."  That could sound ominous if you take that at face value.  The team knows that the front office will do their part to make the team better but they can't expect some player to randomly show up and be the savior.  The team has to work on improving on their own its ultimately the players on the court that win or lose games, not the front office.

It's apparent something needs to get done, circle the wagon, get care for the sick kid or fix what is under the veil. Either way, the team knows they want what the Lakers have, the goal has not changed.  Luck has not been on Dallas' side lately, it would be good if that changed.  Every championship contending team needs some form of luck, the Mavericks just might need a little more than everyone else.  Nowitzki has the right mindset; the team has to fix things with the pieces they currently have.  Knowing the Mavericks history and their M.O., it is very possible that the circle around the wagon could get a little bigger or have different faces between now and the end of February.