The Mavericks, aided and abetted by a slate of easier games, have kept themselves where they hoped to be and where they need to be for another week: in the vicinity of .500.
If they have any hope of making the playoffs, they'll have to stay close enough to the race not only until Dirk comes back, but until Dirk is playing like himself once more, which could take an additional week or two.
So the question we are here to answer today is a simple one: How likely are they to do it?
That depends on many things.
If the playoffs ended today, the Mavericks would be in it. This is kind of an illusion, since the Lakers are currently out of it and are pretty likely to figure that much out, Houston, who is on the outskirts, is figuring out how to play around James Harden and Minnesota, having just received Love back, is waiting on the possibly imminent return of Ricky Rubio.
None of these things are more or less an illusion than the Mavs without Dirk, it's just not wise to take what's happening so far as gospel, either way.
If you figure Dirk's back by Christmas, the Mavericks have only 7 more games without him. If you figure he's not back until Jan 5th, he misses 13 more. Just as important as the number of games he'll miss is the number of games to go by the time he comes back. In scenario A, 28 games will have been played and 54 to go, in scenario B there will be 34 games played and 48 to go.
What the Mavericks have done basically well without Dirk is win the winnable ones, which sounds like nothing but isn't.
Outside of an OT (and ugly) loss to Charlotte, and to the stumbling, but dangerous Pacers and Lakers, all of their losses have come against teams with .500 or better records, and all but one other (Minnesota) have winning records.
Meanwhile, they've beaten a bunch of teams with losing records, as well as the Knicks (15-5). In other words, they are not only at .500, they're playing exactly like a .500 team should play. Which isn't the worst thing, if you'll remember previous teams without Dirk.
So let's go with that.
If Dallas beats the teams .500 or worse and loses to the teams with winning records, the next 7 games will be middling at best. Boston, Philly, Miami, Memphis and San Antonio should all beat them, while the Wolves, 9-9 having played only a few of those games with Kevin Love, are hardly a slam dunk and only the Raptors seem like a fairly likely win. The likely enough scenario, unfortunately, is very nearly a worst case scenario: the Mavericks go 1-6, or 2-5, and greet Dirk with a 3-5 games under .500 team.
Considering they play OKC and San Antonio again before 2013, Dallas could enter the new year with a record as many as 7 games under .500
From that point, it doesn't look that good but it's possible. A great player should be worth about 10 games to a team, and if the Mavericks are 7 games under .500 without Dirk, they should end the season a little above (it's 10 games over the course of a season, and this will be over the course of 50 something games, but these are approximate numbers anyway).
In the last full NBA season, 2010-2011, the 8th spot in the West went to Memphis, at 10 games over .500. In 2009, believe it or not, it went to OKC at 18 games over .500. In 2008, it was Utah at 14 games over .500.
If Dallas is 7 games under .500 on January 1st, they are pretty unlikely to end the season 10-15 games over .500. That being said, the West has kind of plateau'd, as many of the competitive-but-not-title-worthy teams have gotten deliberately worse rather than carry big salary and veterans over the last few years.
Scenario B, given the above assumption that the Mavericks are likely to lose to the Spurs and Thunder with or without Dirk, post-Christmas, isn't actually a whole lot worse. I guess that qualifies as good news. The Mavs have a good shot against Denver (currently 10-11), should beat the Wizards (Jan 1st), and New Orleans (Jan 5th). You'd have to add a loss against the Heat, using our brilliant scientific formula, but if the Mavs are 7 under at the start of the New Year, they're likely to actually gain a game by Jan 5th.
The difference is, of course, the number of games in the rearview mirror, and the number to go.
I think ultimately what I'd say is this. In most other seasons, one might expect the Mavs to be out of the playoff race by now. But in this season, maybe the record isn't as important as the standings. Dallas is not likely to maintain their place in the standings with the murderous slate of games coming up, but nor are they likely to fall more than 4 or 5 games out of it by Dirk's return.
Again, this would certainly seem to defy the math of previous years, in which such high numbers were necessary for the 8th spot, but there's nothing inevitable about numbers year to year. Frankly, if the Mavericks can't overcome a 4 or 5 game deficit to the 8th seed in the West, whoever it is, in 50 or so games, there wouldn't be much point in their having done so, if you see what I mean.
So, the math doesn't look great, but it doesn't look appreciably worse if Dirk is out a little longer than expected and it does not yet look impossible. We'll revisit this, obviously in a week or two.
I will also add on to the top of all this that though it has come against far lesser opponents than they had faced in the week previous and will face in the week to come, the Mavericks are obviously playing much better right now, led by the emergence of Ovinton J'Anthony Mayo.
This recent win streak is a wild card, and time will tell whether it is truly a star worth wishing on, but it's probably not fair to let the Spurs and Thunder answer that question.