Nowitzki has averaged 24.6 points on 54.7 percent shooting in the past five games. The Mavs have managed to lose all of them, their first five-game losing streak since December 2012, when Nowitzki returned from arthroscopic knee surgery to join a bunch of one-season space-fillers on the only Dallas team to miss the playoffs in the past 15 years.
Fast-forward four years, and the Mavs are stuck in pretty much the same spot. They’re 33-33 -- the latest they’ve been .500 in a season since finishing 2012-13 with a 41-41 record -- after Nowitzki’s efficient 30-point performance went to waste in Saturday’s 112-105 home loss to the Indiana Pacers.
“We’re a .500 team right now,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “We are our record. I told the guys after the game that we’ve got to understand that we’ve got to earn our way back up over .500. It’s not going to get easier.”
That’s true in the short term, as the Mavericks face teams with winning records in their next six games, including a total of three meetings against the top teams in the respective conferences. Dallas’ grip on a playoff spot is in serious jeopardy. They’ve fallen to eighth in the West standings, have the longest active losing streak in the league and sit only 2½ games ahead of the Utah Jazz.
It’s also not going to get any easier for the Mavs in the long term. They’re stuck on the mediocrity treadmill owner Mark Cuban has always feared -- having won a grand total of four playoff games since their 2011 title run -- and have no clear path back to being legitimate contenders.
When Cuban decided to strip down the aging roster after the championship season, it was a calculated risk based in part on the odds of being one of only a handful of teams that would have the space under the salary cap to shop for max-level free agents. The Mavs whiffed on all their big-fish targets in the past four offseasons, with Cuban calling Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews “guys that may not put you over the top right off the bat, but are team players that you can add to and hopefully other guys will want to play with.”
But Cuban readily admits that the Mavs are still searching for “the one transformational guy,” a quest that’s entering its fifth year and took a huge hit with DeAndre Jordan's decision reversal last summer.
Here’s a big part of the Mavs’ problem from a big-picture perspective: Teams that don’t have max cap space will be the exceptions this summer.
The Mavs are an average team with the second-oldest roster in the league. Their best player is 37 years old. Parsons, at 27, is the youngest player in the rotation and the only one who seems to still be ascending.
Dallas is paying the price for a decade of draft duds or dealing its picks because it didn’t value investments in young prospects. Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell, the two young players on the roster president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson claimed (with a straight face, even!) were hot commodities before the trade deadline, only play during garbage time. The Mavs don’t even have a pick in this summer’s draft unless it falls in the top seven, owing it to the Boston Celtics to wrap up the disastrous Rajon Rondo deal, which also cost them Jae Crowder, the only legitimate NBA talent Dallas has drafted in the past decade.
What will make the Mavs attractive to free agents who have plenty of options this summer?
“You don’t worry about long term right now,” said Parsons, whose return to Dallas isn’t a certainty after he opts out of the final year of his contract this summer. “You worry about short term now, getting into the playoffs and how we can stop this bleeding and find a way to get a win.
“Right now, it feels like everything we’re doing is wrong and nothing is working. We can’t beat anybody right now. You don’t think about new players or making moves or anything like that. It’s too late now. You can’t, so we’ve got to find a way within this locker room to start winning games.”
It’s on Cuban and Nelson to find a way to put together a roster that’s good enough to give Nowitzki a chance to do something more than compete for one of the West’s final playoff spots during the twilight of his legendary career. That isn’t an enviable task at this point.
They’ve failed in the past four years, but Cuban certainly isn’t ready to wave the white flag.
“We’ll always be opportunistic,” Cuban said. “It’s not like even if we had our draft pick and we were really, really bad, now all of the sudden we were going to be good. There’s a long list of teams who have been four years away from being four years away for a long, long time. It’s not like, let’s just build through the draft and that’s a sure way to success. It actually hasn’t worked very well lately. Teams that have had the most [high] draft picks and have done that haven’t done so well.
“It takes a little bit of luck. I don’t care who it is. Then you look at the teams that said, ‘OK, let’s just blow it up.’ Who’s it worked for lately?”
The Mavs’ attempts to reload without rebuilding haven’t worked, either. They’re stuck in an NBA no-man’s land, with giving Nowitzki a chance to contend for championships during his golden years looking less and less likely.
“I always make the best of whatever we’ve got,” Nowitzki said when asked how concerned he was about the long-term state of the Mavs. “That’s what I’ve always done my entire career with the players we bring in. I’m going to give it my best and try to compete at the highest level. That’s what I will do for the rest of my career.”