Dirk Nowitzki's Return to Starting Lineup Won't Save Mavericks' Playoff Hopes

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistJanuary 4, 2013

Dec 28, 2012; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) watches the game from the bench during the second half against the Denver Nuggets at the American Airlines Center. The Nuggets defeated the Mavericks 106-85. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Dirk Nowitzki may soon be reentering the Dallas Mavericks starting lineup, but fans will be awfully disappointed if they expect the superstar forward's return to bring forth triumph. 

Per ESPN's Tim MacMahon, Nowitzki practiced with the starters on Friday for the first time since returning from injury. Though they were noncommittal, Nowitzki and coach Rick Carlisle refused to rule out the forward starting Saturday night against the New Orleans Hornets:

Nowitzki and coach Rick Carlisle left open the possibility of the Mavs' star power forward making his first start of the season Saturday night against the New Orleans Hornets. Nowitzki, who missed 27 games while recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Oct. 19, came off the bench in his first six appearances this season.


While that's obviously good news for the Mavericks, Nowitzki's impending return to the lineup is too late for their playoff hopes. Dallas heads into Saturday night at 13-20, good for 12th in the Western Conference, and is four games behind the eighth-place Minnesota Timberwolves.

With only four games of separation, Nowitzki's return seems like it couldn't come at a better time. However, it's become readily apparent that his supporting cast will ultimately be the downfall of the 2012-13 Mavericks season. 

It's just the simple fact that the Mavericks are a very flawed basketball team. Since starting the regular season 11-10 thanks to a cushy set of early-season contests, they have fallen slowly off a cliff. Heading into Saturday's clash with the New Orleans Hornets, Dallas has lost 10 of its last 12 games to fall deep into the Western Conference standings.

This is the most basic math of all-time, but the Mavericks need to finish seven games above .500 to even finish the regular season at 41-41. I hate to burst anyone's bubble, but a .500 record isn't making the postseason, either. 

Let's just say Dallas needs to finish with a .545 winning percentage, which would match the 2011-12 Utah Jazz, last season's No. 8 seed. Over the course of an 82-game season, a .545 winning percentage translates to 44.69 wins necessary to make the playoffs. 

Since they don't make wins in .69 increments, let's just call it an even 45. To finish with a 45-37 record, Dallas would have to finish its remaining 49 games at 32-17, which is a .653 winning percentage. Just for reference, only four teams in the entire league finished with a .653 winning percentage or greater last season.

In other words, the Mavericks would struggle to make the postseason even if they were an elite team. That's one thing we can say for great certainty they are not. 

Prior to Friday night's action, the Mavericks ranked 23rd in the NBA in offensive efficiency, 25th in defensive efficiency and 29th in rebound rate. They are also 25th in point differential per game, tied for 26th in turnovers per game and are in the back half of adjusted team win score. 

To call this team mediocre would be a huge compliment. And the problem certainly isn't with Carlisle, who is arguably the best coach in the NBA not named Gregg Popovich.

Dallas' problem is incredibly simple: lack of talent. Built on a patchwork foundation, the Mavericks have slowly crumbled back to earth simply because they don't have top-tier talent. They only have one player, O.J. Mayo, scoring more than 15 points per game and their leading rebounder is forward Shawn Marion.

Obviously, some of these problems will subside once Nowitzki returns to his regular role. Mayo won't be alone on a scoring island and Marion won't have to masquerade as a banger in the paint.

With Nowitzki in the lineup, Dallas is likely to ascend a bit in the offensive categories and may even get a slight bump in defensive efficiency when he's back to full strength. 

However, one has to wonder whether that will come in time to make a significant difference. 

We're working with limited sample sizes here, so obviously all Nowitzki-related stats should be taken with a grain of salt. In the six games Nowitzki has been in the lineup, though, it's become readily apparent that he's still working out the cobwebs.

On a per 36-minute basis, Nowitzki's six-game sample doles out averages that are the worst since his rookie season. He's averaging 16.2 points and 7.0 rebounds while shooting 41.1 percent and still recording a high 22.2 usage percentage.

It's no surprise then that the Mavericks are a markedly worse team with Nowitzki on the floor. They score over nine points less and allow nearly 11 more points per 100 possessions when Nowitzki is playing compared to when he isn't. On a per 100 possessions basis, Nowitzki costs Dallas 19.6 points. 

Again, this is a minuscule sample size, so there's no reason to panic. It's just interesting how much worse the Mavericks are when their superstar is on the floor—especially considering he's 100 percent healthy, per ESPN's Tim MacMahon.

Perhaps playing off the bench for the first time since 1998-99 has messed with Nowitzki's rhythm. It seems like a relatively trite notion, but messing with a player's preparation (especially a long-time veteran) could be enough to cause a trickle-down effect.

It's plausible (though unlikely) that Nowitzki's return to the starting lineup springs him back to life and he begins playing like 2010-11 Dirk again. 

Unfortunately for the Mavericks, even that high level of play probably won't make enough of a difference. In that fateful 2010-11 campaign, Nowitzki produced a win score of 11.1. Prorated over the remaining 49 games, that would translate to 6.6 wins the remainder of the season.

What's more, considering age attrition and his injuries, it's unrealistic to expect Nowitzki to perform at an All-NBA level. He's 34 years old and if he has any prime play left, it's likely very little.

At this point in his career, Nowitzki needs help to hoist a team into contention. As they have found out all season long and will find out the remainder of the campaign, the Mavericks just don't have enough. 

Dallas fans may feel like they've struck the lottery with Nowitzki's return to the lineup, but the team will be facing a different kind of lottery come June. 

(Note: All stats are current though Jan. 4 and are courtesy of basketball-reference.com)