The Dallas Mavericks were lumped in with the Portland Trailblazers as teams most likely to drop out of the playoffs this year. They missed out on Texas natives DeAndre Jordan and LaMarcus Aldridge, then overpaid for Wesley Matthews. The Great Emoji War was not kind to them. And yet here they are, with a 9-4 record, good for third in the Western Conference.

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At the center of the Mavericks surprising start has, of course, been Dirk Nowitzki. The German is shooting the highest percentage of his career, rebounding more than he has since 2008, and putting up his highest PER in nearly a decade. Last night against the Jazz, he dropped 19 on only 12 shots. Nowitzki has one of the highest usage rates on an offense that gets to the line really well and turns it over infrequently. For how much he’s slowed down, his trademark turnaround leaner is going to be pretty much unblockable forever.

A Nowitzki renaissance is, sure, slightly surprising given his gradual decline. But Deron Williams and Zaza Pachulia stepping up as leaders is a lot more unexpected. Williams has been hobbled by a raft of seemingly chronic ankle injuries, and had been on a steady decline from his all-star days in Utah ever since he came to the Nets. Now, he’s running the Mavericks offense down the stretch and hitting huge threes to close out games.

Pachulia, the best player from the Caucasus Mountains, is doing just about everything at a career-high level. He’s rebounding, shooting, and, crucially, drawing fouls better than he ever has before. His resurgence is particularly needed, since the Mavericks prospects at center were quite dire after Jordan spurned them. For a while, it looked like they’d need JaVale McGee to play heavy minutes. That is something that no self-respecting team should have to do.

Throw in Dwight Powell’s impressive versatility, Chandler Parsons playing himself into shape, and Rick Carlisle’s persistent wizardry, and you have a team that could push the someone in the first round if the matchups align. Coach of the Year usually says more about expectations than actual coaching skill, but Carlisle has both craft and narrative on his side, and he should be among the (very) early favorites.

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Since losing Steve Nash, the Mavericks have rarely been overwhelming, but they’ve always been balanced. Even in their title season, they were so great because they surrounded Nowitzki with a perfect combination of supporting players rather than an awe-inspiring roster. This team is not at the level of that 2011 team, but they are of similar construction.

Photo via AP