What do we make of the Dallas Mavericks?

Through the first 29 games of the season, they looked like one of the best teams in the league -- a 24-5 record, a new defensive presence and emotional leader with Tyson Chandler, and a legitimate MVP candidate in Dirk Nowitzki.

Then Dirk gets hurt, then Caron Butler is lost for the season, and for a couple weeks, Jason Terry becomes the team's number one scoring option. Terry is a nice player, but your team will struggle when Terry is the top guy. As another example, think how much the Lakers would struggle if Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol were out, and Lamar Odom were their first option. When the Mavericks are healthy, Terry is in a great spot -- sometimes he'll score a bunch in the 4th quarter to close out a game. Other times he'll disappear, but the Mavericks have been good enough to where they don't necessarily need Terry to have big games for them to win.

Dirk is back now, and he had a great game Monday in Detroit -- 32 points on 10-17 shooting (his shooting percentage has been fantastic this season, 54.3% -- in his career he's been above 50% only once). But with Chandler missing his second game in a row due to an illness, the Mavericks lost for the 6th time in a row -- their longest losing streak in nearly 11 years.

Luckily, it's still early. Chandler will be back, and Dirk will continue to be Dirk. But as we go forward we'll learn just how crippling the injury to Butler is. When the season started so well, one of the team's strengths was its depth. But when the top two guys are hurt, that depth disappears, and then you have guys like Brian Cardinal and JJ Barea playing more minutes than they probably should.

In the three weeks since Dirk hurt his knee in Oklahoma City on December 27th, we have seen just how precarious the Mavs' spot is as one of the top teams in the West. They've gone from the second-best team by record in the West, to fifth. if Dirk stays healthy, the free fall will stop and the Mavs' standing in the West will level off. But we've seen a glimpse of just how close Dallas is to being an average-to-below-average team, and it's scary.

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