Let's Face It: The Mavericks Are An Average NBA Team.

So. The Mavericks's record has dipped below .500 for the first time this season.

Although Rick Carlisle seems to have been channeling a seminal track from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, it's becoming more and more obvious that his messages can only take his team so far.

Coming off a disastrous game in which the Lakers got their revenge from opening night, the Mavericks faced the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night. Neither Darren Collison nor Elton Brand started. Both players received Carlisle’s message loud and clear.

Collison looked to make a difference once he entered the game and finished with 12 points, six assists and five steals, four of them coming in the first half. Brand, in his return to Philly, also answered the call: He had 17 points, a season high, and eight rebounds.

Unfortunately, the Mavericks still lost 100-98 and they only have themselves to blame. No matter what strings that Carlisle pulls to get his messages across, the inconsistency we're seeing from his players has been the most troubling aspect of this year's team.

After Collison's three was waived off in the waning seconds of the third quarter against Philadelphia, the Mavericks entered the fourth quarter trailing. To that point, the team was 1-7 when trailing entering the fourth. They are now 1-8. Yet the game was in hand for a while — until the Mavericks simply decided to fall apart.

At one point, they had six consecutive turnovers. Even worse: Eight of their 15 turnovers came in the fourth quarter. Collison had four turnovers in the game on his own.

And, as if turning the ball over wasn't bad enough, the team also committed fouls at an alarming rate. In fact, free throws were pretty much all that kept the Sixers in the game after Dallas recovered from another abysmal start, with Philly up 13-4 to begin the game.

It was refreshing, at least at first glance, to see a concerted effort by Dallas to get to the rim (as long as it wasn't Dominique Jones doing the driving). Yet the team's shot chart from this contest is deceiving: As the game progressed into the second half, the Mavericks only took 12 shots inside the paint and hoisted 19 from approximately 15 feet or further.

Deep twos are nobody’s friend. They'll poke your eye out.

Especially when you're the Mavs, who have just not shot the mid-range jumper well this season and are due for an even greater decline in perimeter shooting. These shots just take the team right out of a game when they stop falling.

Dallas has problems, yes. Lots of them. I have discussed them in this space before.

But it seems as though these issues are destined to permeate the team's entire season at this point. They still cannot rebound, they still turn the ball over too much, and they still send their opponents to the free throw line far too often (Philly got to the free throw line 18 times in the second quarter alone).

The record is skipping.

Just wait until Dirk gets back, though. Keep biding your time. It's Dirk! When he comes back he can right the ship, right?

That seems to be an axiom at this point. But can it honestly be taken as one? Hucksters peddle this idea to stir the fanbase to generate clicks, pageviews, and anything else that puts the spotlight on them.

Dealing in hypotheticals is for fools. No one can honestly say what will happen to the Mavericks once Nowitzki returns. And, truth is, his impact will not be immediate. He'll be out of shape. Casey Smith, the Mavericks' head athletic trainer, does a fine job rehabilitating players, sure. But they won't necessarily come back in game shape.

Consider, instead, this: It may already be too late for this team to salvage a playoff run once Dirk does come back.

The Mavericks' last eight games this year are against the Timberwolves, Sixers, Heat, Grizzlies, Spurs, Thunder, Nuggets and the Spurs again. Regardless of Dirk's availability, this stretch of games could easily break the Mavericks’ chances of making the playoffs.

And what happens if he is back for part of this stretch and the team still loses? Then his return will get over-analyzed, over-scrutinized and worse. Not only that, but the blame for any loss will be placed squarely on Nowitzki’s shoulders.

It's the same thing we saw last season when Dirk's hampered play became the sole blame target for the team's struggles.

Nowitzki's return cannot mend all the problems facing the Mavericks. Will it alleviate some issues? Perhaps. He remains one of the best players in the league. But he can only do so much, and much of what he can do is on the offensive side of the ball. The Mavs' problems to date are mostly on the defensive side — especially when it comes to rebounding. The cold, hard truth is that Nowitzki averaged fewer than seven rebounds last season and that's about all that can be expected of him once he does return.

Here's another truth: This is a mediocre team. They aren't the Wizards, Cavaliers, Hornets, Pistons, Raptors or Kings, no. But they certainly aren't to be counted among the NBA's elite, either.

It is a long season and Dallas is exactly where expectations should have them.

But the easy part of the schedule is over. And things could be rough going from this point forward.

It hasn't been a smooth ride thus far anyway. Why should that change now?

Photo via the NBA's official Mavericks site.

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