The Mavericks have won three of their past seven games, and two of their last four. This is not impressive, but for a team with five wins total, getting three of them in their past seven games is a better sign than they've had in a while. Dallas is 5-of-17 as of Saturday morning, with a game vs. Houston looming Saturday night. (Both teams are on a back-to-back.)
Things have not gone as hoped. What's weird with Dallas, as I discussed with SBNation.com's Tim Cato this week, is that Harrison Barnes has been terrific. He's averaging 21 points and six rebounds, while shooting 46 percent from the field. He's been great. But Dallas is still terrible. There are injuries, tons of them, most notably to Dirk Nowitzki, but there are way more signs that this team is just flat-out sunk this year.
Now, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that Nowitzki is close to returning from a strained Achilles in the next week.
Forward Dirk Nowitzki, who has played in only five of the Mavs' first 22 games because of a strained right Achilles, could be ready for practice next week, according to owner Mark Cuban.
"Hopefully he'll start practicing next week, so we'll see," Cuban said prior to Friday's game against the Indiana Pacers. "I've been saying a lot of hopefullys the whole season, so I'm not making any predictions."
"Dirk, he's working his (rear end) off," Cuban said. "The guy hates it because he's working so hard and he isn't able to play. His health has to improve - there's no other way to say it."
Now, it's December. There's a lot of time here. But I think you have to ask the question ...
Wouldn't it be better to just shut down Nowitzki?
The Mavs have just five wins through 22 games. Let's say the threshold for the playoffs is 41 wins, which is exceptionally low given the current state of the race. Let's assume the Blazers continue to struggle guarding a pack of tranquilized slugs, the Grizzlies remain plagued by injuries, the Lakers keep pressing due to the youth movement and injuries while the Kings, Nuggets, Pelicans and Wolves stay terrible (all of which are likely).
You have to get at least to .500 in that scenario. That means the Mavericks would have to go 36-24 the rest of the way for a .600 win percentage for the rest of the season. This would assume no more injuries, and either no trades or getting back a king's ransom for Andrew Bogut.
The playoffs aren't out of sight, but if you're playing the odds, the most likely outcome is that the Mavericks miss the postseason by a wide margin.
So if that's the case, what's the benefit in bringing back Nowitzki?
Mark Cuban has made it clear the team is not tanking. He says there's no Tim Duncan or LeBron James or Shaquille O'Neal in this draft, and that purposefully trying to lose is bad for team culture. Hard to argue there. You don't want Nowitzki to go out on a bottom feeder, OK. But he previously said he has intentions to play beyond this season. What you don't want is a serious injury that could be the one that does in his career. He deserves to go out on his own terms. (Note: I am not a doctor and have no idea if the Achilles strain can lead to a tear. The Mavericks would not let him play if he were under risk of that, that I'm certain of. I'm talking about any number of injuries that could be the finish for him, and he's certainly not 100 percent.)
At some point you have to weigh probable outcomes. Probability does not equal inevitability. But what are the odds of Nowitzki suffering a career-ending injury, vs. the odds of them making a playoff run? And in that scenario, what are the odds of that run being significant for their long-term future vs. the odds that they do land a star in the draft, even if that player is not a franchise-changing one?
Basically, here are the ranked possibilities, from best to worst.
1. The Mavs make a miraculous run, reach the 8th seed and get drilled into the Earth's molten core.
2. The Mavs get it together, finish just outside of the playoffs, wind up with a marginal draft pick and, I guess, hope for free agency to come through for the eighth time in a row?
3. The Mavs shut Nowitzki down, don't tank but let them lose on their own accord, get a quality draft pick while maintaining integrity and save Nowitzki for his swan song.
4. The Mavs bring Nowitzki back, make a marginal run, Nowitzki suffers some sort of significant injury, they get a bad pick and the whole thing starts all over.
It's not that you can't see the logic in Cuban's pursuit of competitive play. It makes sense. Tanking is poisonous for a veteran locker room; those guys aren't here to play for the future. But being overly cautious with Nowitzki is best for all parties. The problem could be Nowitzki himself. He's a competitor, and he only has so many games left. He may want as many opportunities as he can get.
It just seems like there are no good options for the Mavericks, and maybe avoiding the worst-case scenario should be foremost in their minds.