It truly is shaping up to be a big season for the Dallas Mavericks in 2023-24, as the team seeks to bounce back from their terrible 38-44 season. And indeed, Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving appear to have the reinforcements they will need to lift the Mavs back into playoff contention, given their eventful offseason.
But before then, let's take a look at examples of Mavs teams that the 2023-24 squad will be hoping to emulate. The Mavs have existed for 43 seasons thus far in the NBA, giving them plenty of iterations to use as benchmark for what constitutes success in the coming seasons.
Speaking of Dirk Nowitzki-led teams, we're going to start off these rankings with the 2010 Mavs. At this point in time, critics have already soured on Nowitzki's chances of being the lead dog on a title-winning team. The sweet-shooting German may be one of the best floor-raisers in NBA history, but after the Mavs flamed out of the 2007 postseason in one of the most embarrassing playoff exits ever, it seemed like the entire team would never recover.
Of course, they would eventually. But not yet in 2010. Despite winning 55 games, tied for the franchise's fifth-best win total, the Mavs failed to make it out of the first round for the third time in four years. Even then, the team that eliminated them was the San Antonio Spurs, so it wasn't exactly an upset (even though technically it was), especially when the margins were razor-thin in the Western Conference that year.
The Mavs and Spurs have had a ton of playoff battles over the years, and in 2009, it was Dirk Nowitzki and company's turn to gain the upper hand. In a reversal of their 2010 fortunes, the Mavs defeated the Spurs despite being the lower-seeded team, although, again, it bears mentioning that there wasn't much to separate the Western Conference teams from each other.
However, even though the Mavs advanced to the second round, that was as far as they were going to get that year. The Denver Nuggets handily defeated them in Round 2, dispatching of them in five games. Dallas had no answer for Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony, as they'll have to wait two more years before making the ultimate breakthrough.
By the start of the 2000s, the Mavs have become legitimate contenders in the Western Conference, with the deadly international duo of Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash serving as the foundation of their transformation into a powerhouse team. With Don Nelson at the coaching helm, the Mavs played up-tempo, space-the-floor basketball way before playing five-out was cool. Nowitzki partnered with fellow stretch big Raef Lafrentz in the frontcourt, and as a result, the Mavs became one of the best scoring teams in the NBA during this period.
In 2002, the Mavs ended up winning 57 games, which was good for “just” fourth in the stacked West. However, they ran into the Sacramento Kings, the team which many believe is the rightful champion of 2002..
The Kings ended up exploiting the Mavs' defensive deficiencies, and were simply the better team. There's no shame in losing to the team with the best record in the NBA, hence the 2002 Mavs' placement on these rankings.
Letting Steve Nash walk in free agency remains one of the worst blunders in franchise history, as the floor general won MVP in his first season with the Phoenix Suns. Nevertheless, the Mavs didn't exactly feel Nash's loss too much based on their results on the court, as they remained highly competitive thanks to the addition of Jason Terry from the Atlanta Hawks, the selection of Devin Harris in the draft, and continued development of Josh Howard. Michael Finley was still in town, making an impact for the team as a two-way scoring wing.
Despite losing Nash and undergoing a coaching change from Don Nelson to Avery Johnson, the Mavs won six more games than they did in 2004, even progressing deeper into the postseason. But as was the case for the Mavs in the 2000s (other than 2006), they were perennially a worse team than the league's tier one contenders — and the same was true in 2005.
In terms of regular season dominance, the 2007 Mavs belong on top of this list. Dirk Nowitzki and company won 67 games during this season, entering the postseason as the favorite to win it all. However, it was their regular season greatness that proved to be the undoing of their season, as earning the one seed meant that they needed to face the Golden State Warriors in the first round — with former head coach Don Nelson on the opposing team's bench.
Not only did Nelson know the ins and outs of how to defeat the Mavs, the Warriors also presented a ton of matchup problems for the best team in the league that year. They loved to go out in transition, and they spaced the floor, targeting Nowitzki's defense on the perimeter. Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, and Jason Richardson all had their way with the Mavs' defense, and the We Believe Warriors were born.
Just to rub salt on the wound, given the timing of the MVP announcement, Dirk Nowitzki had to accept his award in a sullen mood, as the award presentation came after the Mavs were already out of the postseason. Talk about heartbreaking. At least Nowitzki got his ultimate career vindication four years later.
In 2022, it seemed like the championship picture was as wide open as it's ever been in years. Even then, the Mavs didn't exactly look like a championship team, as they went down 3-2 against the Suns in Round 2.
But Luka Doncic was just waiting for the right time to pounce, and pounce the Mavs certainly did. Dallas took Game 6 in convincing fashion, setting up a rubber match in Phoenix. No one could have predicted what came next. Doncic, Jalen Brunson, and Spencer Dinwiddie took turns embarrassing the Suns' defense, while Devin Booker literally cannot buy a basket. The Mavs headed into the locker room at halftime up by 30, 57-27, inflicting immense emotional damage to a wounded Suns team.
Alas, the Mavs ended up running into the Warriors (again) in the WCF. They simply did not have the necessary firepower on both ends of the floor to deal with the championship mettle Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green had. Even Kevon Looney dominated on the glass.
But as far as Mavs teams without Dirk Nowitzki go, securing trip to the Conference Finals and to lose against the eventual champion is nothing to hang their heads over.
The only Mavs team outside the 21st century to make it on this list, the 1988 squad won 53 games behind the likes of Mark Aguirre, Derek Harper, Rolando Blackman, James Donaldson, Sam Perkins, and Roy Tarpley. But not only were they successful in the regular season, they were also able to progress deep into the postseason, making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals.
To make things better for the 1988 Mavs, they also came within a win away from making it to the NBA Finals, taking three out of seven games from the eventual champion Lakers.
It's easy to forget how serious the Mavs were in their quest to win a title in the 1980s given how they weren't able to sustain their efforts. The following year, they traded away Mark Aguirre to the Detroit Pistons for Adrian Dantley, a player who didn't have many quality years left in him. But the purpose of these exercises is to take a trip down memory lane, and it was a joy to remember that this Mavs team was a legitimate threat to win a championship.
Unlike in 2001, the Mavs were finally able to defeat the Kings in Round 2 of the playoffs, pitting them once more against, you guessed it, the Spurs in the WCF. However, even with Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki combining to play some unselfishly sweet basketball, the Mavs were simply unable to match up with the 2003 Spurs, arguably the championship-winning version of that team with the most depth.
Even then, it's not the Mavs' fault that they ran into a powerhouse at the height of its powers, with two big men in the frontcourt (Tim Duncan and David Robinson) that gave Nowitzki and Raef Lafrentz troubles. In their own right, the Mavs were an elite team in 2003, winning 60 games with a +8.4 net rating, making them a team that's worthy of winning a championship — if only they didn't exist in the same universe as those Spurs.
When Dirk Nowitzki nailed the and-one layup to send Game 7 of their Round 2 clash against the Spurs to overtime, it felt like a seminal moment for the franchise. The Mavs were finally overcoming the hump in the Western Conference, and their performance against the Suns in the WCF only served as further proof of that fact.
So when Dallas went up 2-0 in the NBA Finals, it seemed like Nowitzki's coronation as champion was only a matter of time. But then the Miami Heat came back from the dead, with Dwyane Wade being too much to overcome for the Mavs. With Wade averaging a blistering 39.3 points per game in Games 3 to 6, the Heat won four straight, although those wins didn't come without their fair share of controversy.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban felt like they were on the receiving end of some poor officiating. Wade, after all, averaged around 18 free throw attempts in the Mavs' losses during the series. 2011 may have ended up healing the wound of his defeat, but even after 17 years, fans will still feel like they were robbed of the franchise's first title.
As mentioned in the previous entries, the Mavs' stock was on the downturn heading into the 2010s. Dirk Nowitzki wasn't getting any younger and neither was his supporting cast, and their performances during the previous years didn't exactly give fans a strong reason to be hopeful.
But in the 2011 playoffs, the Mavs flipped a switch. After taking care of the Portland Trail Blazers in a hard-fought first-round series, the Mavs had to face the Los Angeles Lakers in Round 2. This was a Lakers team that was in search of a three-peat — the second, perhaps, of Kobe Bryant's career — and thus the Purple and Gold entered that series as the heavy favorite.
Alas, the Mavs swept them — and that was when they put the league on notice. No one was getting in Dirk Nowitzki's way. No squeezing of his hands can ever sap the shooting touch that led the Mavs back to the NBA Finals, an apt rematch against the Heat five years after their first tussle in basketball's biggest stage.
Even with LeBron James and Chris Bosh teaming up with longtime face of the franchise Dwyane Wade, the Mavs train kept rolling along — coming back from a 15-point deficit in Game 2 and preventing James from dominating with some wonderful zone coverage. In the end, the Mavs finally won their first championship, defeating the Big Three Heat in six games.
Dirk Nowitzki can finally look back at his 2007 first-round exit in fonder terms, as it helped prepare him for the eternal glory that was to come in 2011.