DALLAS – With or without Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks have virtually the same record this season — a losing one.
If they don't start winning at a pace reminiscent of the three 60-win seasons they've had in the Nowitzki era, the Mavericks are likely to miss the playoffs for the first time since the big German's second year in 2000.
But Dallas better be careful weighing all that history, Vince Carter figures.
"I don't think we can board watch as far as the standings are concerned," said Carter, who came into the league the same year as Nowitzki. "I think it just drives you crazy. You just go out there and you press, press, press, because you know you need the game. That's already understood anyway."
It's been understood since the season started. For the second straight year since winning the franchise's first championship, Dallas rebuilt the roster with Nowitzki as the anchor. But this time the Mavericks realized they needed to grab every win they could after they found out he would miss the beginning of the season because of the first knee surgery of his career.
When their star came back after missing 27 games, the Mavericks were in a brutal stretch of their schedule and couldn't find a way to win close games.
Nearly two months later, Dallas (23-29) is still finding ways to lose and entered the All-Star break 4½ games behind Houston for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Mavericks, who play for the first time in a week when Orlando visits on Wednesday night, were 12-15 before Nowitzki returned Dec. 23 against San Antonio, and they're 11-14 since.
"Some of that is guys sharing court time and chemistry and certain guys zigging while the other guy thought he was zagging," said Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson. "The whole mantra of the first half of the season was, 'Hey, let's win our share, let's stay in the hunt, let's get the big German back and see where things take us."
A lot of that strategy relied on new backcourt mates Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo, who helped Dallas to a 4-1 start before Collison started regressing and teams realized Mayo was the most dangerous scoring threat and started taking him away.
Collison lost his starting job after a particularly bad game in a blowout loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Mavericks brought in veterans Derek Fisher and Mike James as mentors, and even as replacements in certain situations in case Collison's struggles continued.
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle admittedly has been hard on the replacement for Jason Kidd, and Collison has responded by re-establishing himself as the starter.
"It's not about my mood," Carlisle said. "It's about us playing well and doing everything we can possibly do to play our best to give ourselves a chance to trend upward. I understand that this job that I'm in is about being demanding and it's about having standards of excellence that are uncompromised. We just haven't been able to sustain, but I still believe we can do it."
Mayo's biggest problem has been turnovers — he has a team-high 149 — and the issue was never more evident than the last time the Mavericks looked like they finally might be on to something before faltering.
Dallas had won two straight and had a chance to beat East playoff contender Atlanta two games before the break when Mayo stole the ball and was headed for a layup trailing by one in the final minute. He switched hands on the dribble just before he got to the basket, giving Devin Harris a chance to steal it back. Mayo had another turnover on a bad pass when the Mavericks had one last chance to tie.
"It's tough when you look at it now," said Nowitzki, whose scoring (15.2) and rebounding (5.7) averages are the lowest since his rookie season. "We've had close losses that could come back and haunt us. Atlanta, we shouldn't have lost. We've had too many of those close games where we've been on the short end of the stick."
The Mavericks thought they built a playoff contender even after Deron Williams spurned them in free agency, and they still have a chance to prove it assuming center Chris Kaman returns soon from a concussion that has sidelined him for eight games. The other significant offseason addition was Elton Brand, who was picked up in an amnesty claim from Philadelphia.
Carter came to Dallas in the first roster purge last year, when the Mavericks didn't bring back center Tyson Chandler and other important pieces of their title team and got swept in the first round by Oklahoma City. Carter's 10.1-point scoring average last season was the lowest of his career, but he's emerged recently as the biggest scoring threat behind Mayo and Nowitzki.
In the last game before the break, Carter scored 26 and hit five 3-pointers in the third quarter to carry Dallas past Sacramento, another reason the Mavericks probably will end up keeping him and Shawn Marion despite both names being popular in rumors leading to Thursday's trading deadline.
"I don't get caught up in what's being read and if we have a shot or not," Carter said. "If we don't believe in the locker room that we have a shot, we won't ever have a shot. It doesn't matter what's said outside the locker room, and I think our guys are pretty confident."
The playoffs start now for the Mavericks and their 12-year postseason streak.
Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/lschuylerd