Another 50-win season leaves empty feeling

DALLAS -- Fifty wins doesn’t feel like a milestone for the Mavericks anymore. It’s more like a minimum.

There certainly were no wild celebrations after the Mavs extended their streak of 50 wins to 11 seasons with an unimpressive win over a wounded version of the Western Conference’s worst team.

“I think I’ve said it the last couple of years: I’d rather trade it in for a championship,” said Dirk Nowitzki, the lone man on the Mavericks’ roster throughout the 50-win run. “Eleven 50-win seasons don’t mean nothing.”

No need to dance around the elephant in the locker room. The fact that the Mavericks have failed to hang a championship banner in the American Airlines Center locker room makes them by far the most disappointing franchise that has had a similar stretch of consistency.

Consider the exclusive company:

*Bill Russell’s Celtics won at least 50 games for 10 straight seasons, spanning from 1958-59 to 1967-68. Boston won nine championships during that decade-long run, plus another after going 48-34 in the 1968-69 season.

*Magic Johnson’s Lakers won at least 50 games in 12 straight seasons, starting with his rookie campaign in 1979-80. The Lakers held five championship parades in downtown Los Angeles during that era.

*Tim Duncan’s Spurs recently extended their 50-win run to a dozen straight seasons. They’ve won three titles during that run, plus one more in the lockout-shortened season right before the streak started.

No wonder Nowitzki can’t even muster up false excitement about hitting 50 wins again, a streak that is evidence of his excellence and owner Mark Cuban's commitment. Historic as it is, it’s a hollow accomplishment without at least one ring.

The Mavs came oh-so-close in 2006, when they collapsed after taking a 2-0 Finals lead over the Heat. Count Mark Cuban among the many Dallas residents who will always feel the referees essentially ripped the trophy out of the arms by sending Dwyane Wade to the line over and over and over again.

But there’s no excuse for what has happened since then, as the Mavs have won a grand total of one playoff series in the last four seasons, including first-round exits as a No. 1 and No. 2 seed. The Celtics, Spurs and Lakers dynasties the Mavs share the decade-plus 50-win distinction with combined to get eliminated in the first round three times.

This Dallas team had a different feeling early in the season. The addition of Tyson Chandler, by far the best big man of the Dirk era, made this a darned good defensive team. For a couple of months, anyway.

Now? It’s hard not to get the same ol’, same ol’ feeling about these Mavs. Their defensive efficiency has dropped drastically since New Year’s Day, which not coincidentally was when rugged small forward Caron Butler suffered a knee injury that will sideline him at least until the playoffs.

In hindsight, an 18-1 run against a soft stretch of the schedule feels like fool’s gold. The Mavs, who won with magnificent offense, have lost five of nine games since then.

The Mavs, who trailed the Kevin Love-less Timberwolves with a few minutes to go in Thursday’s 104-96 win, have a 2-9 record against current Western Conference playoff teams in 2011. They’ve lost their last six games against those foes.

What gives them hope that this is the year a 50-win season finally comes to a satisfying conclusion?

“Anything can happen,” said Jason Terry, echoing Nowitzki. “Once you get to the playoffs, anything can happen.”

Added coach Rick Carlisle: “There are some things we’ve got to keep working on and working out, but I’m going to remain very positive about these guys. I believe in these guys.”

All due respect to the Mavs, but I’ll believe they’re a championship team when we see it. Finally, after all these 50-win seasons.