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Suddenly, Mavs seem to have 'real potential' for future

DALLAS -- Mark Cuban actually made some sense when the subject wasn't Russell Westbrook during the Dallas Mavericks owner's pregame chat while sweating on his Stairmaster.

"I like our squad right now," Cuban said before the Mavs' 104-89 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder that pulled Dallas within two games of the Denver Nuggets for the Western Conference's final playoff spot. "We basically went from 4-17 to, all right, this squad has got some real potential. We did it on the back of undrafted free agents and one trade. There's a lot to be said for that."

As the countdown to Dirk Nowitzki hitting the 30,000-point milestone continues, the Mavs' youth movement around their living legend has provided legitimate reason for optimism.

Typically, a team that dumps a couple of accomplished veterans such as Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut at the trade deadline is in full tank mode. That's definitely not the case in Dallas, which is 4-2 since the All-Star break with rookie point guard Yogi Ferrell and 22-year-old center Nerlens Noel filling the voids left by the vets' departure.

But it's not like Dallas, which notched wins over a pair of West playoff teams in the Memphis Grizzlies and Thunder this weekend, just started playing solid basketball after the break. The Mavs are 15-9 since Seth Curry was inserted into the starting lineup at shooting guard on a regular basis.

That's not a coincidence, as the 26-year-old Curry has established himself as a consistent, efficient scoring threat, averaging 16.8 points while shooting 52.2 percent from the floor and 46.9 percent from 3-point range during that span. Cuban has seen enough to be convinced that Curry, who signed a two-year, $5.9 million deal last summer that looks like a huge bargain, should be a long-term core piece for the Mavs.

"We want him to be forever," Cuban said before watching Curry lead the Mavs with 22 points on 10-of-16 shooting despite drawing Thunder defensive stopper Andre Roberson. "He's our kind of guy -- shoots, plays hard defensively, great in the locker room. We call him Swaggy Swag. High swag level, low volume level. Those kind of guys are good. Swaggy Swag's a keeper."

Curry, who has put up 20-plus in five of six games since the All-Star break, isn't the Mavs' only young keeper.

Harrison Barnes, 24, has been worth every penny of the max contract he signed last summer. He has blossomed when given the chance to be a go-to guy after spending his first four years as a complementary player for the Golden State Warriors. The question about Barnes now is not whether he can be a foundation piece, it's whether he can be the best player on a good team.

Ferrell, the rookie who made good after getting a 10-day deal, is now 9-4 as a starter. He has proven that he belongs in the NBA after spending most of the season in the D-League. He'll get the rest of the season to make a case that he can be a starter on a team with playoff aspirations.

Dallas didn't have to give up much to get Noel in a trade from the Philadelphia 76ers, but he won't come cheap in restricted free agency this season. He looks like a difference-maker worth paying good money for the Mavs, who benefit as much from his finishing ability on offense as his rim protection and versatility on defense.

And undrafted rookie Dorian Finney-Smith has proven he can be a defensive-minded role player.

"We have a group of young guys who jell well together," Barnes said. "We're playing well together, and we have this consistency of lineup. We're trying to develop rotations, and guys are growing. Between the guys we have who are undrafted, who have 10-day contracts and are trying to play for deals, we're going out there to win. Everyone is on their toes and ready to go."

You can understand why some Mavs fans hope Dallas falls short of its playoff goal this season. It'd be nice to get a lottery ticket in what's considered one of the best drafts in years.

But there's also a major benefit for the young players on the roster to be playing in -- and winning -- games that actually matter. If the Mavs end up with a mid-first-round pick, so be it.

"You're learning to play the right way," Curry said. "Last year, I was in a situation in [Sacramento] where we played some young guys at the end of the season, and we weren't playing for anything, and it felt different. I mean, you want to win games, but you're playing basically just to play well and show individually what you can do. Here, you've got to play the right way. You've got to play within the system to win games, play both ends of the floor. That's a more valuable learning experience than just going out there trying to play well for yourself.

"As long as we continue to play well and turn the season around like we are, I don't see why this wouldn't be a nucleus that would get better and continue to be better as a team."