Can Mavs climb out of Lone Star cellar?

HOUSTON -- If the Dallas Mavericks manage to sweep the home-and-home series with the Houston Rockets over the next four days, we can continue entertaining their slim hopes of making the playoffs.

The reality, however, is that Dallas’ 12-year postseason streak is on its deathbed.

Really, there shouldn’t be any shame to that. It was a remarkable run that featured 11 50-win seasons, two Finals appearances and one title. All great things must come to an end.

Granted, the San Antonio Spurs might be an exception to that. They’re about to win 50 games for the 14th consecutive season. The last time the Spurs failed to win at least 50, they celebrated the first of their four NBA titles, parading down the RiverWalk after Tim Duncan’s lockout-shortened sophomore season.

It’s been a hard fall for the Mavs over the past 21 months. They’ve gone from the NBA penthouse, popping a $90,000 champagne bottle in a Miami Beach club while celebrating the franchise’s first title, to the Lone Star State cellar.

And the Mavs have their work cut out for them if they’re going to catch the Rockets, much less the Spurs, anytime soon.

The Spurs' ability to sustain excellence is unparalleled in today’s NBA. That will be tested when Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili call it a career, but it’d be foolish to doubt a franchise with the league’s best coach (Gregg Popovich) working with a brilliant front office.

The Rockets, who have won only one playoff series since two-time champion Hakeem Olajuwon left town, appear poised to soar again soon.

After three frustrating years of being better than .500 but not good enough to make the playoffs, Houston general manager Daryl Morey made a breakthrough move just before this season started. He acquired the bearded face of the franchise, James Harden, in a blockbuster deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The 23-year-old Harden, who is averaging 26.3 points and 5.7 assists per game, has proved to be a legitimate superstar after getting out of the shadows of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He’s surrounded by a good, young supporting cast that is locked into reasonable contracts (26-year-old center Omer Asik and 24-year-old point guard Jeremy Lin) or rookie deals (small forward Chandler Parsons, power forward Donatas Motiejunas, power forward Thomas Robinson, etc.).

And the Rockets will have the cap space to be major players in free agency again this summer, when they can potentially acquire a co-star for Harden.

Of course, there are no guarantees for Houston, which will have to fight to stay in the playoff picture with the Los Angeles Lakers making a charge. There have been many young teams that looked great on paper that fizzled out, but Houston has an excellent plan and has already executed several steps.

The Mavs, on the other hand, have a plan that has been publicly questioned by its superstar, the lone player on the roster who is a sure bet to still be a Dallas resident in two years. As Dirk Nowitzki has said several times, this is a big summer for the Mavs.

Much work must be done for the Mavs to approach the high standard they established over the past dozen years.

This isn’t a franchise that will be satisfied to fight for eighth place in the West or settle for third place in the state of Texas.