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The Mavericks are — gulp — a good basketball team right now

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Since the start of the new year, Dallas looks like a new team thanks to health and changing lineups.

Philadelphia 76ers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Damnit, Mavericks.

After an entire season of kicking and screaming about not wanting to face the reality of a full-on tank, I had finally accepted that the way of the tank was the right path in my life. I watched a couple of Philadelphia games and embraced the tank.

So of course when I was at my lowest point, the Mavs decided to completely turn their season around in such a dramatic way that I’m unsure entirely what this team is. The helpless Mavericks from November and December are gone — in their place is a confident, swaggy ball of precision and flexibility. Seemingly overnight the Mavericks went from old, punchless and hurt to young (ish), fun and modern, in their own quirky way.

Consider this — over the last 15 games, the Mavericks have the fourth best net-rating in the NBA (5.4). If that were a season-long mark, that’d rank fifth in the league. Since the start of the new year, Dallas hasn’t just played like an OK team or a good team — they’ve been at a contender level. That’s astounding.

How? Why? I want to know. Let’s find out.

Reason 1: Dirk Nowitzki is back

Honestly, this is really all you need. The tl;dr version of why the Mavericks are good is Dirk is back and playing regular games and minutes. You can stop reading now.

NO WAIT COME BACK.

Phew. There’s more! Dirk being back helps for a variety of reasons — Dirk’s floor gravity is a real thing and him just standing on the court opens things up for every player next to him. I remember talking to Darren Collison back during that dark 2013 season and asked him what it was like playing with Dirk. He said the first time he came off that screen when Dirk set a pick, he’d never been so open in his entire life.

So yeah, Dirk helps. Even with his mortal shooting numbers (40.5 percent overall, 35.6 percent from three) the attention he commands is still unparalleled to any other big man right now. The Mavericks have a plus-7.9 net rating when Dirk is on the floor over the last 15 games.

Not only is Dirk back, but he’s playing center. Rick Carlisle toyed with some Andrew Bogut-Dirk lineups, but they were so disastrous, he’s gone to Dirk at center full-time and it’s been opening everything up. Dirk at center does two things — it keeps the Mavs athletically-even with most teams they face and it allows Harrison Barnes to continue playing his most optimal position at the four.

After the last few years where the Mavs were taken advantage of at Dirk’s older age when he played the four, Dallas feels so much more modern now. The floor is open, Dirk can keep up with another center and it doesn’t feel like the Mavericks are at a athletic mismatch at tip. The two-man lineup of Barnes and Dirk have an even plus-5 net rating over the last 15 games. It isn’t the best two-man grouping over this hot streak, but considering Barnes basically took over Dirk’s position while Dirk was injured, it’s nice to know the two can coexist when they like to inhabit the same spots (and take the same shots) on the floor.

Reason 2: The (right) Mavs are healthy (enough)

Dirk’s health is obviously key, but Deron Williams, J.J. Barea and Salah Mejri have all had turns of good health over the last month or so. Williams and Barea got hurt again recently, but when they were in lately, they took advantage of Dirk’s spacing at center, kept Devin Harris’ minutes in check and seemed pretty revitalized. Williams in particular looks much better than last season, with much better passing numbers. Williams had to share the floor for most of last season with a not-all-the-way back Wes Matthews, a rehabbing Chandler Parsons and a black hole of offense in Zaza Pachulia. This season, Wes is back to good numbers from three, Barnes has been a more consistent offensive force than Parsons was a year ago and Dwight Powell and Salah Mejri are much better roll men than Zaza. Williams looks much more comfortable making plays for players more capable of finishing them. Since December, Powell has turned into an elite rim runner — a lot of that coincided with Williams getting healthy.

The Mavs aren’t totally healthy, with Williams and Barea both unknowns and Bogut in and out of the lineup, but they’re healthy enough. That’s a big change from when Dirk, Williams, Barea, Bogut and even Mejri were all out.

Reason 3: Carlisle isn’t afraid to mix up the lineups

Dirk at center is obviously the biggest radical change, but Carlisle has experimented with different lineups despite the hierarchy of the roster. Dorian Finney-Smith got burn over Justin Anderson despite Finney-Smith’s undrafted rookie status, Seth Curry hopped Devin Harris and Barea and Bogut has been coming off the bench. Carlisle doesn’t care about status, he cares about results and it’s been fun to watch him tinker.

Two of the Mavs most used lineups over the last 15 games (Williams-Curry-Matthews-Barnes-Dirk and Williams-Curry-Matthews-Barnes-Mejri) are now two of the top three most used lineups overall this season. That’s a drastic change to what Carlisle was working with in November and December.

Reason 4: Seth Freakin’ Curry

Remember in the preseason when some of the fan base had concern Curry was going to be another John Jenkins or Wayne Ellington?

YO:

Curry has been human lava since 2017 kicked over, shooting 50 percent from three on 4.6 attempts per game. He’s hit the 20-point mark in three of his last five games. Before this season, he had four 20-point games for his brief career.

When Bogut again went out with a hamstring injury earlier in January, Carlisle instead went small and paired Curry with Williams in the starting lineup. It’s been great for Curry, who still needs to work on his lead ball-handler skills. Playing off-ball in the starting lineup has unlocked all of Curry’s strengths — he’s been deadly coming off screens, running secondary pick and rolls and attacking close outs after another guard or Barnes in the post initiates the offense. Think Raymond Felton last year but with a great jumper.

Curry’s offense is easy to define with his scorching shooting numbers. It’s his defense that’s surprised me the most.

Curry leads the team in steals and is second behind Matthews in deflections. He has really good hands and plays the passing lanes well but also smartly — rarely does Curry gamble away a possession leading to an easy bucket. If a ball-handler is inattentive while watching a set develop in front of him, Curry has a habit for poking the ball lose. He’s active in a way that isn’t hurting and that’s great considering with Curry in the lineup, the Mavs are at a size disadvantage on the wing.

There’s still a ways to go for Curry as a true point guard: Curry was careless with the ball against the 76ers on Wednesday early on and while he shares his brother’s shooting stroke, he doesn’t share his handles — Curry will regularly get ahead of himself and dribble the ball off his foot or lose it when trying to create as the play breaks down. That’s OK though because even with Williams hurt, Curry hasn’t had to play the lead guard all game because...

Reason 5: YOGI

He’s only been here for three games, but Yogi Ferrell is starting to feel like a toned-down version of Linsanity. The new Mavs starting lineup with Ferrell has a hilarious plus-27.4 net rating in 44 minutes.

There’s really two main reasons: Ferrell is a pesky defender (leads the team in deflections per game since he’s been here) and he’s staying within himself on offense. His shot is going to be inconsistent, but he’s aggressive enough that defenses have to be honest and he passes well enough (15 assists to four turnovers in three games).

If nothing else, Ferrell is fun. He’s a compact ball of energy and he’s easily the most athletic point guard the Mavs have had in the last two years, which is kind of weird when you think about it.

Reason 6: The schedule

Let’s be real — the Mavs had a very soft January in terms of schedule. It was well-deserved since the Mavericks played one of the toughest schedules till that point. The shift in schedule toughness came at the right time with Dirk’s return.

Reason 7: Carlisle

By now, you’ve probably seen this tweet from after the Mavs win over the 76ers on Wednesday:

When the Mavs season was going to hell back in 2013 when Dirk was rehabbing from his knee surgery, Carlisle was cranky and oddly aggressive. He killed Darren Collison’s confidence by basically calling him a really great backup, brought in older and washed point guards when the team had plenty of young ones and threatened fines over dress code violations. It was a weird and an unpleasant season.

So it’s been a relief to see Carlisle keep the ship steady despite coaching for most of the season the worst Mavericks team (at least, by record) he’s been a part of. He’s stuck with young guys (Finney-Smith, Curry, Powell DON’T LOOK AT JUSTIN ANDERSON), remained positive and has been unafraid to mix things up for the good of the team. Bogut went from the starter on one of the greatest teams in NBA history to coming off the bench for a sub-.500 team in one season, yet the locker room has never seemed in danger. Carlisle keeps tweaking, keeps game-planning and keeps NBA teams on their toes. He’s developed Barnes wonderfully, working with him heavily in individual sessions and keeping him accountable.

It’s been fun to watch Carlisle ply his craft with a group that’s clearly not as talented as his past teams but seems to work as hard as any other. He’s recognizing traits of what a modern NBA team looks like (playing Barnes at the four, playing one true big at a time) while still instilling the stuff he was already embracing before the pace-and-space era truly kicked off.

He’s also kept the Mavs wonderfully weird. Consider this:

Dallas is one of the slowest teams in the league in regards to pace. They’re actually the second-slowest team in the league. With Dirk at center, that totally makes sense — no sense in running him up and down the floor. What’s great is despite being slow, the Mavs are still modern — they’re sixth in the NBA in three-point attempts per game. The Mavs are the only bottom-five team in pace to rank in the top-10 in three-pointers per game. Dallas likes to walk it up in the half-court, but once the Mavs are there, they run teams through an endless supply of ball screens and cuts. It’s a slow but swift death in a way. Basically the Mavs are Talia al Ghul and the rest of the NBA is Batman.

I’m not sure how long this run can last, but the schedule isn’t getting that much harder. There seems to be some realness to this run — after all, the combo of Carlisle and a healthy Dirk has never failed the Mavericks before. What’s been nice has been the Mavericks embracing what a modern NBA team needs to be to win. Sure, they aren’t there yet (don’t look at their free throw numbers) but it’s progress. Barnes is the real deal, he can play with Dirk and the front office has filled the gaps with enough young and capable guys that can play off that duo.

The Mavericks are fun again and for now, they’re really good again.