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The Mavericks versus January

With the toughest part of the schedule behind them, the Mavericks have a chance to climb out of the cellar in January.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Mavericks enter 2018 on an upward trajectory. After starting the season a putrid 1-7 in October, the good guys bounced back (comparatively speaking... they won four games in November). December proved to be their best month yet, winning eight more games to bring their record to 13-25.

They’re still among the worst teams in the league, but right now there’s a group of ten teams all boasting a record that borders on abysmal. And as we’ve mentioned repeatedly, the worst part of the Mavericks’ schedule is over. They have a chance to pull themselves out of the league basement in January.

After a game heavy December, the schedule downshifts a bit in January with only 14 games on the docket. It’s a home heavy schedule as well, with nine contests at the American Airlines Center and just five on the road. Interestingly, the East-West conference split is nearly even, with eight match ups coming against Western Conference opponents and six against Eastern conference teams. As in December, January features just two sets of back-to-back games.

Each game will get a difficulty level: EASY, NORMAL, HARD and (rarely) VERY HARD. This month will be the make-or-break month for Dallas as they attempt to maintain some hope about the playoffs.

Wednesday, Jan. 3 vs Golden State Warriors - VERY HARD - Facing the best team in the league is a rather rude way to enter 2017. It’s the first of a four-game road stand for the Mavericks, and they’ll have a few days off to prepare. Golden State will be playing off three days rest and riding high on the return of Steph Curry and their 141 point destruction of the Grizzlies. This should be penciled in as a Mavericks loss, but hopefully we’ll see Dennis Smith, Jr. get the best of Draymond Green on a play or two.

Friday, Jan. 5 vs Chicago Bulls - MEDIUM - This should be a truly fascinating match up. The Bulls were seen as a strong candidate for worst team in the league and played liked it for the first two months of the year. Then they went on the most surprising run of any team in the NBA this season, winning 10 of their last 13. This will be a collision of two relatively hot teams and because I’m a Mavericks fan, I’m giving the home team the edge.

Sunday, Jan. 7 vs NY Knicks - MEDIUM - The Knicks are currently right at .500, a surprise for a team that’s largely devoid of talent past Kristaps Porzingis. But KP is that good, so the Mavericks should be in for a battle when the Knicks come to town. Dallas has the better guard play, but the Mavericks have no answer to the Porzingis-Enes Kanter front court. Unless Dallas can find a way to keep those two off the glass, this could be a rough game for the good guys.

Tuesday, Jan. 9 vs Orlando Magic - MEDIUM - The Magic’s hot start has cooled considerably. Yet their roster still presents an interesting match up for the Mavericks. Orlando has so many wings, while the Mavericks arguably have none. This one should come down to coaching and veteran wile, so expect Dalllas to walk away with a victory on the final game of their four-game home stand.

Wednesday, Jan. 10 @ Charlotte Hornets - HARD - This is just a gut feeling, but playing Charlotte on the second night of a back to back on the road strikes me as a potential scheduled loss. Toss in the fact that the Mavericks have no one who can keep Dwight Howard off the boards and this one might get ugly early. Kemba Walker versus Dennis Smith should be awesome, though.

Saturday, Jan. 13 vs Los Angeles Lakers - MEDIUM - How is this the first time this season the Mavericks are facing the Lakers? I was so very tempted to put this game in the “EASY” category but that felt too bold. On the one hand, the Lakers have a terrible record. On the other hand, Kyle Kuzma is the kind of player the Mavericks have a hard time defending. Given that it’s a home game with a few days rest, I suspect Dallas runs away with this one. However, I still can’t wait to see Dennis Smith versus Lonzo Ball for the first time.

Tuesday, Jan. 16 @ Denver Nuggets - MEDIUM - On the one hand, the Mavericks beat the crap out of the Nuggets in early December. On the other, Denver is still the sixth best team in the West as of this writing. Denver was without their star player Nikola Jokic (he leads the team in points, rebounds, and assists), and he’s the kind of big that gives Dallas problems. Denver should be favored in this contest.

Saturday, Jan. 20 @ Portland Trail Blazers - MEDIUM - In another odd scheduling quirk, this will also be the Mavericks’ first game against the Blazers this year. Though I believe the Mavericks match up quite well against Portland, this game comes down to whether Dallas can limit Damian Lillard. While neither team is supremely talented, the guard play match ups should be very interesting. Look for this to be a big Dirk Nowitzki game as well, since the Blazers never seem to remember to guard him.

Monday, Jan. 22 vs Washington Wizards - MEDIUM - The Mavericks got their first road win of the season against the Wizards earlier this year. Despite the Wizards having more top-end talent, they have a fascinating tendency to play down to their opponents. Given that this is a home game for Dallas, I expect them to remain competitive. If the Mavericks can take advantage of the weak Wizards bench, they could come away with a season sweep.

Wednesday, Jan. 24 vs Houston Rockets - VERY HARD - The Rockets are so very good, despite their recent slide, and the Dallas Mavericks do not have the horses to keep pace with them. James Harden and Chris Paul will very likely overwhelm the Mavericks early.

Friday, Jan. 26 vs Portland Trail Blazers - MEDIUM - Beating the same team twice in a week is never easy, so I am going to cop out here and say that whoever wins the first match up, loses this one.

Saturday, Jan. 27 @ Denver Nuggets - HARD - Playing the second night of a back to back on the road is never easy. Doing so in Denver’s altitude is even harder. This has all the inkling of a scheduled loss.

Monday, Jan. 29 vs Miami Heat - MEDIUM - The Heat cooked the Mavericks very recently, shooting the lights out early and often. Despite that hot shooting, the Mavericks were in the game the entire time. However, Miami was also playing without three of its five starters. Assuming those players are back in the mix, Dallas could be in for a tough fight against a Heat team that’s right in the mix for the playoffs.

Wednesday, Jan. 31 @ Phoenix Suns - EASY - The Mavericks should beat the Suns because the Mavericks are a better team than the Suns. It’s really that simple and yet that sort of obvious statement often doesn’t matter in the NBA, as evidenced by Dallas losing to Phoenix in December even though they were up double digits at one point. If the Mavericks think they are still in the playoff hunt at this point, this is a must-win game.

In last month’s column I ended with this: “If Dallas enters 2018 with 10 victories, they have surpassed my expectations.” They’re entering with 12 wins and should have had more if we factor in a few terrible losses.

I consider 10 of Dallas’ 14 games this month winnable. Considering where they started, this is nearly miraculous. A 7-7 record seems likely and yet if the Mavericks still hold on to playoff hopes, a 10-4 record for the month seems necessary. After such a horrific start, the Mavericks really are dangerously close to No Man’s Land: they’re too good to be a true lottery team, but bad enough where they will easily miss the playoffs.