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How close were the Mavs?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, I noticed the moon. It felt like a long time since I'd done that. The cold yellow moon, grasped in the grey fingers of clouds. You never know.

Around here, we know that the Mavs could have made the playoffs if they'd just beaten the Lakers in that important game. I like to think this is true even though the Mavs ended up four games back, when it was all said and done. 'Cause who knows. And obviously, they would have been in, no question, with a healthy Dirk.

Okay. But that probably obscures how the Mavs really did last year. Although they weren't too far out of the eighth spot, they were 15 games out of the 5th spot, which might be a more important number. More than that, this was an unusually bad year for the West. Two teams made it just 8 games over .500. Ignoring the strike year because I don't want to do math, the 8th place team in 2011 was 10 games over .500. In 2010 it was EIGHTEEN GAMES OVER .500. 14 in 2008. For 8th place.

Although all of these are sort of obnoxious counterfactuals, there is a limit on how many games we can really imagine a healthy Dirk would have added to this team. If, as noted, even 15 games would have only nabbed the Mavs the 5th spot this season, that's an important plot point in our imagination of what the offseason must hold. The fact that it wouldn't even have gotten them into the playoffs in 2010 is probably irrelevant, but an interesting caution given that few of this year's contenders are likely to get worse and a few Western teams are likely to get better.

It seems strange to say, but in the Mavericks' checkered history (Deep playoff runs and first-round exits), the formula has always been simple.With just the one star on offense, they need defensive players at positions which can neutralize, to a degree, the other big stars out there so theirs can really count. It doesn't matter, in other words, if Dirk scores 30, if Durant and Westbrook score 80, as happened

With the Mavericks, having only one big star in their constellation, the formula has always been simple though rarely enough achieved. They need a couple guys to neutralize the other team's best scorers, a Marion-type and a tough, defensive center, so that theirs can put them over the top. They need someone else who can reliably help scoring and someone smart to get the ball to people at the right time.

They are therefore perched on the precarious edge of needing cosmetic upgrades vs. major changes. That is, in the contrafactual in which Dirk was healthy and played from the beginning, we can also add a capable point guard---just somebody like Kirk Hinrich--and a capable rim protector--say Omer Asik, and there's a chance that actually makes them a legitimately good team.

It's sort of like the Cowboys. People think they're awful, but they're winning an awful lot of games with no running back and the QB running for his life every play. They don't need a new TE, WR, QB, etc, they need O-linemen to give everybody two seconds. If watching basketball for 20+ years has taught me anything it's that what works when is one of the least predictable things out there. One more consistent scorer moves Vince and OJ to their right place in the hierarchy, a capable PG turns Darren Collison from a disappointment into a great backup.

But then, who knows. Maybe the West is too good, and too powerful, and too young for the Mavs to hope to compete without a Chris Paul or Dwight Howard, without a move the likes of which they're not likely to make.

I know only that I know nothing. The moon, clad in her gray raiment lifts her hand to the stars, glittering with fierce impatience. What is it she wishes to say?

Nothing, nothing, nothing.