A little over two weeks ago the Dallas Mavericks, losers of nine of their last 10 games and owners of a 13-23 record, had little practical hope of making the playoffs. The team and coaching staff kept fighting, insistent that Dallas could become a playoff contender. A recent 6-2 streak has justified their optimism and propelled the Mavericks to a 19-25 record, good for 10th in the conference and offering a small glimmer of hope for retaining the league’s longest active playoff streak. Does the recent quality of play foretell a return to the postseason for Dallas?
Hardly. The odds remain strongly stacked against the Mavericks, and as well as they’ve played recently, most analysts still view the possibility of Dallas stealing the eighth seed as remote. John Hollinger’s NBA playoff odds, assembled by simulating the remainder of the season 5,000 times, give Dallas an 18.1% chance of making the playoffs. According to the popular prediction market Intrade, there’s a greater chance of NASA announcing the discovery of extraterrestrial life by the end of 2015 than the Mavericks making this year’s playoffs.
Multiple factors conspire to make a Mavericks playoff run highly unlikely. For one: Dallas has left itself little room for error. The Western Conference’s eighth-seed typically averages 48 wins, meaning the Mavericks would need to win 29 of their remaining 38 contests to hit the mark expected of a playoff team. In other words, Dallas must win over three out of every four contests going forward, a proportion exceeding even their recent streak. A weaker race might only require 45 wins from Dallas, but even that would still allow the team only a dozen more losses going forward.
That challenge is made even more difficult by the remaining schedule, a murderer’s row that looks likely to produce far more than a dozen Dallas losses. The remaining 38 games for Dallas feature 27 playoff contenders (defined as current seeds 1-8 in the East and seeds 1-8, Portland, the Lakers and Minnesota in the West). If the Mavericks were to go .500 against the contenders while defeating every single lottery-bound team, they’d still miss the playoffs. Dallas will play Portland two more times, battle twice against Oklahoma City, Memphis, Golden State, Denver, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Houston and the LA Lakers and will also face off against the Spurs, Clippers, Bulls, Pacers, Hawks, Jazz and Celtics once each before season’s end.
The good news for the Mavericks is that a slim majority of those 27 contests will take place in Dallas. The obvious downside is that the Mavericks will still have to make a dozen trips to playoff-contending teams, a task which will only become more difficult as the season wears on older stalwarts like Vince Carter, Shawn Marion and Dirk Nowitzki. Dallas is currently an abysmal 7-16 on the road and only one of those wins — a short trip to Houston — came against a team currently slotted to make the playoffs. The only other notable road win (the season opener against the Lakers) seems like an eternity ago.
The only factor which could immediately alter Dallas’ course is the addition of a major mid-season acquisition. This seems highly unlikely, both because of the dearth of game-changing free agents available before the February 21st trade deadline and the difficulty of integrating a major player mid-season even if they did somehow become available. Additionally, there is only so much Dallas can do to control its destiny at this point, with Houston and Utah showing few signs of fading and other contenders like the Lakers and Portland playing some of their better basketball as the season’s second-half kicks into full swing.
The likely elimination of the Mavericks from this season’s playoffs will mark the end of an amazing streak but not necessarily the end of an era. Dirk Nowitzki is slowly rounding into form (he had perhaps his finest game this season against Portland on Tuesday) and his skill set is likely to age well. Mark Cuban has the negotiating room to surround Dirk with a competitive cast for the foreseeable future. That may not in any way aid Dallas’ immediate playoff hopes, but it does offer some reason for optimism for what lies beyond the current campaign.