** This article was published Tuesday, three days before it was announced Dirk would miss the next 6 weeks after arthroscopic surgery on his knee.
Can the Mavericks survive Dirk's absence?
No. Not really. No. It's not even that hard a question. In theory, the Mavericks have a lot of guys who can put up SOME points, but if Chris Kaman, Elton Brand and OJ Mayo could hold down an offense, all three would have had different careers.
But to a certain degree that's not the question. The Mavericks, remember, won a championship in a year Dirk missed around 11 games for the injury that caused this injury (played 12 minutes in the game he got hurt in, 15 in his comeback game). They lost 8 of those games, so they didn't survive Dirk's absence either.
The question, clearly, is "how long can the Mavericks survive Dirk's absence?"
Here's the thing. Although a lot of people are pretending they didn't watch 2010-2011, such that it's widely paraded as a fluke, it wasn't even close to that. If they'd won half those games they played without Dirk, not exactly unlikely, they'd have had the best record in the NBA, and they beat everybody they beat in the playoffs. It's the cognitive dissonance of trying to pretend the Mavericks did a smart thing, letting the best possible complement to Dirk Nowitzki in the frontcourt walk out the door.
That team ripped off a 10 game winning streak, then an 8 game winning streak, and over the course of 23 games lost three by a total of three points. They had a more than large enough cushion to give Dirk time to get healthy. Even with those 8 losses, they were tied for the 2nd best record in the West.
But contrast that to last year, when Dirk struggled through the injury for the first half of the season, eventually missed four games and was never quite right. In that case, even four games was almost too many. Spurred on by Jason Terry, the Mavericks actually won three of those and needed every one. At 33-33, Dallas wouldn't have made the playoffs last year.
This turns what seems like an easy question into a hard one. After all, a Mavericks team with a limping Dirk is no threat to anybody. Though, too, the recovery from arthroscopic surgery can be long (5-6 weeks, generally), if Dirk had it today, he'd miss maybe the first ten games or so. He'd miss more than that, in terms of being able to find a comfort zone with his new cast and crew, and that shouldn't be underestimated. But in a proper 82 game season, having a healthy Dirk for 72 sounds a lot better than a Dirk with a ticking time bomb knee that could go out at any crucial stretch.
But that might not be true. This team might not be good enough for that to be true. I wouldn't say the loss to FC Barcelona, which was a loss to a cohesive team, one of the best in Europe, is indicative of much, but at the very least it indicates a floor for how bad the Mavericks could be without Dirk. And that team can't afford ten games. It definitely can't afford 15 or 20, as we get closer to the season.
That, I think, is how the Mavericks front office feels too. On some level it seems deeply obvious. Why not take care of the problem, get a healthy Dirk with a lot of games left to play, rather than worry? Especially now when he could be rehabbing almost by the time the season starts? The answer is, as usual, because the Mavericks have a lot of useful spare parts, but only one beating heart.
And it could be, too, because Dallas' status as a destination for free agents is about as tenuous as they come. If they have a good year, if Dirk shows he's got some time left, the Mavs have a lot of money to spend. That may be more important than any on-court successes this year.
On the other hand, another year in which they look done would presumably insure an unwillingness on the part of marquee free agents to have that money spent on them. The front office may not be willing to bet on a quick return for a 34 year old, or a lot of success if Dirk doesn't get a full offseason to get in shape, and to mesh with his teammates. Hard to blame them.
Either way, the decision will be made soon, to the extent that it can be. If Dirk is going under the knife, it will either be this next week or when the issue absolutely forces them to, which could be any time this season. For what, it's worth, 5 weeks in-season is around 18-20 games. And no, I don't think the Mavericks can survive that.