Suffer the playoff indignities that the Dallas Mavericks have over the past decade and no one even wants to hear about their supposed championship credentials. You think folks are skeptical about how far LeBron and D-Wade can go in their first year together in Miami? This is the NBA's No. 1 prove-it-to-me team among the elite.
Yet I'm gullible enough to believe that this is the season when Dallas can indeed prove something.
I've seen pretty much every significant dribble of the Mark Cuban era from up close, which is how I know things are different. This collection of Mavs is doing things we've never witnessed from a Dirk Nowitzki-led team, largely because Nowitzki -- who remains as freakishly potent and efficient as ever in his 13th season -- finally has the good fortune to be flanked by a dependable, difference-making center who does all the things Dirk can't do.
Tyson Chandler is the long, athletic, hyperactive 5-man that Nowitzki has never before had at his side. The Mavs would obviously feel even better about their title-worthiness if the West weren't so stacked at the top and if they had an explosive/proven shot creator from the perimeter to complement Dirk, too, but there's a noticeably different spirit and toughness coming from these Mavs in 2010-11, much of it emanating from Chandler. These Mavs, after adding some TC, are actually capable of playing credible D.
I totally understand the widespread instinct to dismiss such achievements, since the Mavs have been racking up regular-season plaudits for years. I could point to their 6-2 record against the Spurs, Celtics, Heat and Lakers -- with Nowitzki out injured for both of the losses -- but I know no one's terribly impressed by those kinds of superlatives. Ditto for the Mavs' current 16-1 roll and their gaudy record of 41-9 when Nowitzki is healthy. No one wants to hear it after three first-round exits in the four seasons since their trip to the 2006 NBA Finals.
The Mavs themselves understand as well as anyone that there won't be any national buy-in until they do some playoff damage. But if/when they deliver, it'll be because:
Dallas has quietly surrounded Nowitzki with a bevy of shooters, most recently adding Peja Stojakovic and the healed-at-last Roddy Beaubois to that Jason Terry-led crew, with J.J. Barea likewise playing the ball of his life since the calendar flipped to 2011 and with Caron Butler stubbornly telling anyone who'll listen that he's going to be back from knee surgery in time for the playoffs.
Dallas consistently generates the best ball movement in the league, features two accomplished game managers in Jason Kidd and coach Rick Carlisle and suddenly looks as deep as Cuban thought they were in the summer when he talked up their depth so much.
Dallas has built up a nice bit of self-belief and swagger on the road from all those quality wins outsiders are so quick to discount, in a locker room full of tested-but-desperate vets that possess a total of zero rings between them.
Oh, yeah: Dallas happens to employ the best player in the conference when it comes to guys who can single-handedly win you a game. At worst, Nowitzki is No. 2 in the category behind the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, assuming that Kobe is operating at full capacity physically when the playoff start.
Don't get it twisted. The Mavs have their usual array of flaws, starting with the fact that they've had trouble holding leads all season, play way too many close games for their own good as a result and still have to convince us (and maybe even themselves) that their offense won't bog down in the slower grind of the playoffs like it has so often in the recent past. Which so often results in a Dirk-or-bust formula that is way too hard to sustain against teams with multiple All-Stars.
Yet there's a reason Charles Barkley is always touting the Mavs as the best team in Texas. As debatable as that is when the Spurs have been ruthlessly good all season and are on pace to go 68-14, Dallas is a smart, hungry and dangerous sleeper in the title discussion, loving the fact that all the other 40-win teams -- even Chicago -- have been getting all the attention.
In a season when the West turned out to be more wide-open than any of us know-it-alls ever imagined in October, it would be somewhat fitting if the Mavs survived the four-way crunch with the Lakers, Spurs and Thunder and wound up repping the conference on the Finals stage. This much we know: It really shouldn't shock you if that happens, because these really aren't the same ol' Mavs, no matter what you're programmed to believe.
And this much we can guarantee: Mavs versus Lakers in the second round, which is clearly where we're headed, is going to be a sensational series. Dallas and L.A. haven't seen each other in the postseason since the epic seven-gamer they staged in 1988 with a spot in the Finals on the line, which means we've never been treated to seven games' worth of Cuban and Phil Jackson lobbing barbs back and forth. I'd likewise say that seeing the reigning champs at that stage, before the Lakers have a chance to roll up a lot of playoff momentum, is one more plus point to support a case that's bound to be scoffed at anywhere outside of Big D.
Scoff at your own risk.
Marc Stein covers the NBA for ESPN.com.