2006-07: Greatness then a gut punch

Seventh in a series chronicling the Dallas Mavericks' streak of 10 seasons with 50 or more wins (previous installments).

The debate of rust vs. rest will forever vex head coaches of every sport and especially every NBA coach whose team has locked up the division title and still has a week or so to go in the regular season. Avery Johnson faced the dilemma as the most successful regular season in Dallas Mavericks history wound down.

Johnson chose to rest his players down the stretch and he rarely deployed a lineup that would play together once the No. 1 seed Mavericks opened their first-round series against Don Nelson's feisty, but hardly worrisome, No. 8 seed Golden State Warriors.

Dallas had clinched its first outright division title since 1986-87 and had won 65 games by Game No. 78. With the Chicago Bulls' 72 wins out of reach, Johnson took his foot off an accelerator that had been mashed all season. The Mavs started 0-4, the anticipated hangover after the Finals flop the prior season. But, motivated by it and their driven head coach, the Mavs proved to be the class of the league.

It will never be known for certain what happened in the first-round loss. Was it rust? Was the team burned out from Johnson's hard-charging style? Did Johnson's starting lineup switch to match the Warriors' smaller starters send the wrong signal? Was the Little General, just in his second full season as head coach, outcoached by Nellie the mad scientist? Were the Mavs simply outplayed?

All that is known is the Mavs followed up their epic Finals failure with the franchise's greatest regular season and then a humiliating postseason. It forced the NBA to celebrate the league's MVP after he had been eliminated. Dirk Nowitzki solemnly picked up his award and then vanished into the Australian outback.

Despite the setbacks, it hardly seemed plausible at the time that Johnson's tenure was fragile and that the entire future of the organization would soon change again.

Coach: Avery Johnson

Record: 67-15 (1st, Southwest Division)

Playoffs: Lost to Golden State (4-2)

Team payroll: $88.1 million*

Highest-paid player: Michael Finley ($16.1**); Dirk Nowitzki ($15.1)*

Offseason transactions: Drafted G Maurice Ager (first round, 28th pick); signed G J.J. Barea (rookie free agent); signed G Greg Buckner (free agent); signed G/F Devean George (free agent); signed F Pops Mensah-Bonsu (free agent); traded G/F Marquis Daniels to Indiana for F Austin Croshere; traded G Darrell Armstrong, F Rawle Marshall and F Josh Powell to Indiana for G Anthony Johnson.

In-season transaction: Feb. 22, 2007: Traded Anthony Johnson to Atlanta for a 2007 second-round draft pick (Nick Fazekas); April 2, 2007: Signed F Kevin Willis.

The high: The season was all about the regular season. The 67 wins was a franchise best and earned the Mavs the West's No. 1 seed. Their .817 winning percentage was the sixth-best in NBA history, and they were the sixth-fastest team in league history to reach the 50-win mark (59 games), and that was after an 0-4 start. The season included win streaks of 12, 13, eight, 17 and nine games. Dirk Nowitzki completed his best all-around season. He averaged 24.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and a career-high 3.4 assists. He set career-bests in field goal percentage (50.2), 3-point percentage (41.6) and free throw percentage (90.4). Nowitzki was rewarded by becoming the first player in franchise history to earn the league's MVP award. He was also a first team All-NBA selection. Nowitzki joined Josh Howard, an injury replacement, on the West All-Star team, marking the first time two Mavs were named to the team since Nowitzki and Steve Nash in 2003.

The low: This is all about the postseason. It was strange from the start when former Mavs coach Don Nelson brought his undersized Warriors to the American Airlines Center for Game 1. Mavs coach Avery Johnson decided to match small-for-small and deferred from his usual starting lineup by sitting center Erick Dampier. Golden State stole Game 1, a precursor of things to come as Dallas lost all three games in Oakland and became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 8 seed since the first-round expanded to best-of-7 in 2003. In the 111-86 Game 6 debacle that clinched the series for the Warriors, Dirk Nowitzki was frustrated by constant trapping defense and went 2-of-13 from the field. It set up a most uncomfortable MVP ceremony back in Dallas, one in which Nowitzki had a terrible time finding solace among Mavs owner Mark Cuban and NBA commissioner David Stern. Later, as part of a lawsuit between Cuban and Nelson, Cuban would contend that his former head coach used insider information to beat the Mavs.

The roster:

F Dirk Nowitzki (24.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg)

F/G Josh Howard (18.9 ppg, 6.8rpg)

G Jason Terry (16.7 ppg, 43.8% 3FG)

G/F Jerry Stackhouse (12.0 ppg, 38.3% 3FG)

G Devin Harris (10.2 ppg, 3.7 apg, 26.0 mpg)

F Erick Dampier (7.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg)

G/F Devean George (6.4 ppg, 21.4 mpg)

G Greg Buckner (4.0 ppg, 18.1 mpg)

G Anthony Johnson (3.8 ppg in 40 games with Dallas)

F Austin Croshere (3.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 11.9 mpg)

F Pops Mensah-Bonsu (2.4 ppg in 23 games)

F Kevin Willis (2.4 ppg in five games)

G J.J. Barea (2.4 ppg in 33 games)

C DeSagana Diop (2.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 18.3 mpg)

C DJ Mbenga (0.8 ppg in 21 games)

G Maurice Ager (2.2 ppg in 32 games)

*Source: Basketball-Reference.com

**The Mavericks waived Michael Finley on Aug. 15, 2005, taking advantage of a one-time amnesty provision that allowed them to avoid luxury taxes on the $51.8 million owed him over the next three years. Finley became an unrestricted free agent and joined the San Antonio Spurs, although the Mavs remained on the hook to pay his full salary.