Mavericks looking to escape ninth hole in West

Mark Cuban predicted this summer that there would be chemistry problems for the loaded Los Angeles Lakers and pretty much openly prayed to the basketball gods that the NBA's glamour team would "suck."

However, if you had promised Cuban before the season started that his Dallas Mavericks would be only one game behind L.A. when the Lakers came to town Sunday, he surely would have been pleased.

Well, that is indeed the situation with the Lakers arriving at the American Airlines Center for an ABC afternoon matinee (noon CT; ESPN Radio pregame show at 11 a.m. CT). Ninth place in the Western Conference is at stake!

That's right -- the two franchises that have combined to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy three of the past four summers are fighting for the spot that would get the fewest ping pong ball combinations in the draft lottery. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Of course, the Lakers and Mavs still harbor much bigger hopes. They're both planning to make a playoff push, with the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets 3 games ahead of the Lakers and 4 up on the Mavs.

If the Lakers and Mavs both fail, this would be the first postseason not to feature either franchise since 1993-94, when Dallas won a grand total of 13 games and L.A. went through three coaches.

That ain't happening, according to Kobe Bryant. The five-time champion recently issued a guarantee that the Lakers would be busy in late April -- and perhaps beyond.

"It's not a question of if we make the playoffs," Bryant insisted to Sports Illustrated. "We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone."

Dirk Nowitzki, the 11-time All-Star and (currently hairy) face of the Mavs' franchise, isn't nearly as bold with his forecast of Dallas' immediate future. The Mavs have a much more modest goal at the moment: Get back to .500 so they can finally shave those bushy beards Dirk and a handful of teammates have been growing since they made a pact last month.

"We're gonna keep pushing, gonna keep fighting," Nowitzki often says, which has more or less become the Mavs' mantra.

Frankly, the Mavs' struggles can't be considered a surprise. Nowitzki and Shawn Marion are the only pieces remaining from the cast that swept Phil Jackson into retirement in 2011, roaring past the two-time defending champ Lakers in the West semifinals en route to a long-awaited championship parade in downtown Dallas. There hasn't been much joy in Mavs-land since that glorious run.

After studying the new collective bargaining agreement, Cuban opted for the unpopular tactic of letting key championship pieces such as Tyson Chandler leave in free agency, making financial flexibility a priority over keeping an aging team together.

(That dastardly CBA prompted Cuban, who loves to prick the purple-and-gold, to oh-so-helpfully, hypothetically suggest Friday that the Lakers use the amnesty clause on Kobe this summer to avoid the large luxury-tax spikes that loom next season. That was received in Southern California about as well as a monsoon.)

Dallas' title-team leftovers were swept in the first round last spring, and the Mavs settled for putting together a potluck supporting cast consisting of one-year deals and expiring contracts after whiffing on Deron Williams while Cuban filmed "Shark Tank" this summer. The Mavs were expected to have to scrap for a playoff spot even before Nowitzki needed his right knee scoped in October, an operation that ended up sidelining him for the season's first 27 games, putting Dallas' dozen-year postseason streak in serious jeopardy.

But the Mavs will have enough cap space this summer to make Dwight Howard the face of the franchise's future should the perennial All-NBA big man decide the Lakers life isn't for him -- and picks Dallas over other potential destinations such as Houston and his hometown Atlanta. That actually seems like a distinct possibility after all the Kobe-Dwight drama during the Lakers' sorry first half of the season.

Aside from Cuban's snarky comments about potential chemistry issues, it was widely assumed that the Lakers would be a West power after they won the summer, pulling off deals to land a pair of future Hall of Famers in Howard and Steve Nash. The fact that the Lakers have been a $100-million mess has stunned folks around the league.

"They've had some issues -- everybody's following them -- but I still think they're so talented," Nowitzki said. "I still think they're going to make a run at it."

Maybe the Lakers' run has already started, as L.A. has won 10 of its past 14 games, providing some positivity to the ongoing soap opera.

The Mavs, meanwhile, have had a nice little run in relative anonymity, going 12-6 since their 13-23 start.

Two proud franchises meet Sunday with ninth place at stake and they've had to make recent progress to make this game that meaningful.