At 30-39 after a 111-104 win in Brooklyn on Sunday, the Dallas Mavericks sit just three games out of the final playoff spot in the West and are trying to avoid missing the postseason for just the second time in the past 17 years. So, what is the identity of this Mavs team?
"It's a mix of youth and experience," Wes Matthew explained.
At one end of the spectrum, there's rookie point guard Yogi Ferrell, who was waived by the Brooklyn Nets earlier this season and signed to a 10-day contract by the Mavs in late January.
"We knew he was a guy who had some NBA experience. He's an energetic, hard playing guy," head coach Rick Carlisle said. "At that point, we needed somebody with a pulse who could play the position a little bit."
With injuries to J.J. Barea and Deron Williams, who has since been bought out and signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ferrell was thrusted into a starting role and played 35-plus minutes in each of his first six games in Dallas. During that span, he scored 19 points in his home debut, a win over Cleveland, and followed that up several days later with a career-high 32 points and nine three-pointers in a win over Portland. The Mavs have since signed Ferrell to a two-year deal.
"It's been a whirlwind," Ferrell said about his journey from Brooklyn to Dallas this season. Carlisle had a simple message for Ferrell when he joined the team: be aggressive, look to score and don't be just a point guard who sets the table for the rest of the team. Ferrell also received some sound advice from people within the Mavs organization. "They told me you can't try and come in and fit with the team," Ferrell recalls. "You have to come in and do what you do, show what you can show. You can't be timid."
Ferrell and Seth Curry are the current starting backcourt for a Mavs team looking to make a playoff push. Along with Harrison Barnes, who signed a $94-million max contract with Dallas this past offseason and is leading the team in scoring, averaging 19.8 points per game, the Mavs have some semblance of a core group for the future, although the team is still very much about maximizing its potential for the present.
As Ferrell is just getting his feet wet in the NBA, Dirk Nowitzki is on the other end of the locker room playing in the twilight of his career. In his 19th season, Nowitzki, who was out an extended period earlier this year with a right Achilles strain, is averaging 14.4 points in 26.4 minutes in 43 games, the lowest totals of his career since his rookie season.
Despite battling injury and with his numbers declining, Nowitzki gave every indication earlier this month he plans on returning next season. Since winning the championship in 2011, Nowitzki and the Mavs have not won a playoff round. Yet, the face of the franchise is committed to the process of helping this team transition into life without him, whether the Mavs make the playoffs or not.
"With a young team, there will be some ups and downs," Nowitzki said. "There's mistakes you have to learn from, play through and get better from. It's not going to get easier. We have to be better."
All around the locker room, coaches and players speak about Nowitzki in high regard, a respect earned by how he's approached the game the same way throughout his career.
"He's so consistent with everything," Carlisle says. "A guy like him, who is so committed to the process, he does the little things every single moment he is in the arena, and it [just] progresses the level of greatness, and allows him to continue to play at a high level even at the age of 38."
Ferrell beamed with enthusiasm when asked what it was like to play with an all-time great like Nowitzki.
"It's fun," said Ferrell. "Especially when he gets going and starts knocking down five shots in a row. When he gets zoned in, he makes everything. Being on the court with him when he hit 30,000 points, even as a rookie, that's something I can take with myself just knowing I was out there with a Hall of Famer."
Nowitzki is not ready to start reminiscing about his career just yet. When asked about whether he views himself as a role model to European players who have joined the NBA in the past two decades, he chose to deflect the praise and talk about his predecessors instead. "There were guys before me that paved the way," Nowitzki said. "Whether it was Detlef Schrempf, Toni Kukoc, or Drazen Petrovic. If I helped paved the way for a couple of these young guys, then that's awesome."
As for reaching the 30,000-point mark earlier this season -- becoming only the sixth player to do so in NBA history -- Nowitzki is, like the Mavs, focused on the present. "It's been great [getting] support from everywhere," Nowitzki says. "It's been very humbling. I'm blessed, but to me, it's over now. We're trying to fight for the playoffs. Everything else will be unbelievable after my career and something I look back on with pride, but for now, [we] just keep plugging."