On December 10, the Dallas Mavericks lost to the Indiana Pacers 106-93. The loss dropped Dallas to one game under .500, 12-13. It was the Mavericks sixth loss in eight games and things were not looking good.
The Mavericks were struggling with a static roster and new coaching staff. Role players were slumping, Kristaps Porzingis still had an awkward fit, and Luka Doncic was laboring a sluggish start amid questions about his fitness. To make matters worse, the next day after that game, it was announced that Doncic would miss some time to heal a bad ankle that had been nagging him for the previous couple of weeks.
Doncic would end up missing the next 10 games. In the middle of that 10-game stretch, after four games, the Mavericks would suffer another COVID outbreak, similar to the one the previous season. The Mavericks were 14-15, with no Doncic and now missing most of their regular rotation, outside of a few stalwarts like Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Dwight Powell. To make matters even worse, the Mavericks at the time were technically outperforming their record. According to projection formulas based off the Mavericks analytics, Dallas at the time was actually playing like a 37, 38 win team. So there was a chance those numbers would catch up to the Mavericks, regardless of team health returning.
The Mavericks dove into the discount aisle of NBA players, snagging up G-League players with exemptions the NBA granted to keep the season going while the league endured positive COVID tests. The Mavericks were giving substantial minutes to guys like Marquees Chriss, Theo Pinson, and Brandon Knight.
It was so bad, that after Doncic’s injury and even before the COVID outbreak, I would tweet something that ended up being the dumbest thing a person has ever tweeted.
If you’ve been online following the Mavericks at all, you’ve likely seen that tweet, shared by parody accounts and fellow fans, ruthlessly and rightfully dunking it into the earth’s core. Why was that tweet sent to hell? Because on January 2, three weeks after Doncic left with the injury, Doncic returned. The Mavericks beat the Oklahoma City Thunder and were 18-18. Dallas went 5-5 without Doncic while also suffering one of the worst COVID outbreaks in the league. It would have been acceptable and logical for the Mavericks season to end right after that Indiana game. It wouldn’t have been shocking to see the Mavericks limp to a 1-9, 2-8, or 3-7 record without Doncic, further plunging the Mavericks below .500 and into a hole they might not have been able to climb out of. No one would have really been all that mad, aside from frustration at the bad luck of a COVID outbreak and Luka’s injury happening simultaneously. Just shrugged shoulders and a hope to regroup and try again next season with better health in mind.
Instead the Mavericks held the fort down. Guys that hadn’t played real NBA minutes in months were suddenly playing not only big minutes, but winning minutes. Chriss and Pinson impressed so much they stuck around for the rest of the season. Those guys did everything possible to keep the season afloat and when Doncic returned, Dallas was off to the races — behind a rejuvenated Doncic, a spectacular trade of Porzingis for Spencer Dinwiddie — the Mavericks won 36 of their final 48 games. That’s a 36-12 record, a .755 win percentage that would equate to about 62 regular season wins if the Mavericks kept that up for a full season. A reminder: only one team in the NBA this season, the Phoenix Suns, won at least 60 games.
It still feels a little surreal that the Mavericks are here. Everything that could have gone wrong did, yet Dallas posted the best season its had since 2011. Everything revolves around Doncic, but credit must be given to the rest of the regular rotation — Finney-Smith had a career-year on offense, Powell looks like he never tore his Achilles, and Brunson maintained his elite efficiency despite a big leap in minutes, role, and volume. Dinwiddie has been so much drastically better in Dallas compared to Washington that I almost wondered if he sandbagged in D.C. so he could pal around with another crypto-bro in Mark Cuban.
The way Twitter and social media react to sports, there’s a big “what have you done for me lately” vibe. A successful regular season can be erased with a sour playoff run, no matter what the expectations were before the playoffs started. Championship or bust is a sucky way to view sports. In the NBA there are 29 teams that end the season with a loss. The odds aren’t great! Point is, don’t sleep on this regular season. The Mavericks were on the brink of collapse and completely turned it around — it’s remarkable, regardless of how the next month goes.