This was supposed to be a throwaway season. If the Dallas Mavericks made the playoffs, fine. If not, then so be it.
That's the truth whether Mark Cuban chooses to admit it or not. We all know it -- and that includes the players.
After all, the Mavs let Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson leave in free agency in their quest to create salary-cap space that will enable them to sign Deron Williams or Dwight Howard, who are expected to become free agents in the offseason.
Maybe the Mavs will sign one of the All-Stars. Or both. Perhaps neither.
Either way, it's hard to figure a coach coming off a championship has ever been thrown into a more difficult season to succeed than Rick Carlisle.
He's had to maneuver through a lockout that essentially denied every team of training camp and the preseason. There have been injuries to Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd that have already forced them to miss a combined 14 games (the Mavs are 10-4 in those games). And there's the enigma wrapped in a riddle -- as a friend refers to him -- known as Lamar Odom.
Despite the turmoil and a 1-4 start that included a blowout loss at home to the Miami Heat in the opener, Carlisle has the Mavs 21-13 and poised to finish among the top four teams in the Western Conference.
He'd be feeling even better about his team if the Los Angeles Lakers hadn't beaten the Mavs 96-91 on Wednesday night, but Carlisle rarely loses sight of the big picture.
"I'm disappointed tonight, but I'm not dismayed," he said. "I thought our effort was there, we just didn't make enough plays at both ends. Sometimes that happens.
"The break is coming at a good time. Our health is an issue; we've got to get that right."
One of Carlisle's strengths is that he holds his players accountable, demanding they play a style that gives them the best chance to win in the playoffs.
He believes defense and a free-flowing motion offense win championships.
It's the style the Mavs used to win last season, and he's convinced them that the same formula can result in another title this year. That's among the reasons they are playing defense even better than they did last season, even though Chandler and Stevenson are gone.
Shawn Marion is playing defense at a level that should get him some votes for Defensive Player of the Year, and Delonte West (who's expected to miss about three weeks with a broken finger) has been a tough-minded defender, as has Brendan Haywood.
Shocking, I know.
Every coach preaches defense. Not all of them can persuade their teams to commit to it.
"It's an easy sell," Carlisle said, "and if guys don't do it, we either take them out of the game or deactivate them or Mark will get them out of here."
See, the best coaches never compromise their fundamental principles.
Carlisle gets it.
But he's also flexible enough to let Kidd run the offense without many play called from him -- a change from his first few months with Kidd. Once Carlisle discovered Vince Carter could be a weapon in the post, the Mavs quickly made it a staple of their first-quarter offense.
With one of the NBA's deepest benches, Carlisle has committed to playing Kidd no more than 30 minutes in most games, which is why West started the second overtime against Portland earlier this month. Carlisle wants Carter to play about 25 minutes and Dirk about 32.
The goal is to get a healthy team into the playoffs -- even if it means losing an occasional regular-season game. That's why the Mavs gave Dirk eight days off in late January to improve his conditioning and strengthen his balky right knee.
And he's played like an All-Star lately, scoring more than 20 points in 10 of the past 11 games. He had 25 points and 12 rebounds against the Lakers.
"He's had a tough challenge this year, but he's done a good job," Jason Terry said. "This could've been really hard because of the lockout and all the talk about the throwaway season and planning for next year, but Rick never wavered in his approach.
"All he's ever talked about is defense and winning, and that's what we're doing."
This team still has much work to do to fulfill its potential and defend its title, but Carlisle provides hope given the talent on this roster.
Not bad for a throwaway season.
Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.