- Jean-Jacques Taylor, ESPN Staff Writer
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Only an MFFL -- Mavs Fan For Life -- could love the collection of misfit players the Dallas Mavericks' front office put together last season and tried to persuade us was a playoff team.
With O.J. Mayo as the second-best player? C'mon man.
Any unbiased observer could tell last season's Mavs were never ever going to make the playoffs, especially with Dirk Nowitzki expected to miss the first couple of months.
That's not the case with this season's Mavs.
Monta Ellis is a legit NBA scorer by any standard. Jose Calderon is a legit NBA point guard by any standard. And Samuel Dalembert is a legit defense-minded NBA center by any standard -- even if he's on his fourth team in four seasons.
Add a healthy Nowitzki to this team, with Vince Carter providing offense off the bench, and the Mavs' one-year hiatus from the NBA playoffs will end this season.
The Western Conference is nasty, but the Mavs could and should win 50 games. Understand, that still might not be quite enough to finish higher than sixth in the conference.
Oklahoma City, Houston, San Antonio, the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis are the best in the West, but the Mavs are equipped to compete with the conference's best this season. And if everything falls just right for the Mavs, they're certainly capable of winning a first-round playoff series with this roster.
But don't get too giddy.
This team is going to get smashed on the boards most nights because it doesn't have many players who play above the rim. And most nights, the defense is going to drive coach Rick Carlisle crazy.
He'll demand the players compete as hard as they can on defense, but that's not what the players on this team do. This team is built to score like few others in the NBA.
In Carlisle's first three seasons, the Mavs were 55-22 in games decided by five points or fewer. They're 30-39 the past three seasons.
Last season, the Mavs were 5-8 in games decided by three points or fewer, and they were 3-8 in overtime. They lost their first seven games in overtime.
See, just a little better execution at the end of games and Mavs could win five more games pretty easily. Maybe more.
We all know Carlisle is good at designing plays that lead to buckets at the end of games, but now he has a point guard who can execute the plan.
Ellis has a career average of 19.4 points, and he's a much better passer than most folks realize. Check this out, he's actually a willing passer.
He's good in the pick-and-roll because he's such a good scorer that teams must defend him as though he's going to take the ball to the rim. When they do, Ellis has been tossing the ball out to Dirk for wide-open jumpers.
The Mavs' success has revolved around Dirk's ability for more than a decade, and this season is no different.
We can't expect Dirk, at 35, to score 25 points and grab nine rebounds. Those days are over.
But there's no reason he can't average 20 points and seven rebounds, while playing about 30 minutes a game. More important, Carlisle can't ride Dirk too hard, too often.
Dirk is as healthy as he has been in years. His basketball IQ is high and his stroke remains sweet.
No one should be surprised if Dirk, surrounded by a better cast, plays better basketball and puts up quality numbers even though he might be on the court a little less.
That will be more than enough to make the Mavs a team no one wants to deal with when the playoffs start.
6dEthan Sherwood Strauss
7dMatt Walks, ESPN.com