Mavs, please be sure to turn off the lights as you leave the playoffs

If it's springtime, it must be time for another Dallas Mavericks playoff collapse. It's become a staple of the season. You put away your winter clothes, you start to smell that heady mix of fresh cut grass and lawnmower gasoline, and you see Dirk Nowitski on TV trying gamely to explain how it all went wrong. For the Mavs, it's no longer a question of will they get bounced from the playoffs, but a question of when. And by who? And by how embarrassing a score?

Clearly, the mid-season blockbuster trade for aging point guard Jason Kidd wasn't the answer this season. He may still be quick of mind, but he's undeniably slow of foot these days. It also doesn't help when the only player who takes the court with any intensity against the New Orleans Hornets in the first round is a backup named Brandon Bass. Please also file under the "Not Helping" category the curious case of forward Josh Howard, who chose the first round to announce to everyone that he likes to smoke weed in the off-season. The angry, vociferous outcry in Dallas seems to have surprised stoner Howard, who subsequently disappeared in the playoffs like, well, a warm wisp of exhaled pot smoke. Forward Dirk Nowitski has also been taking his lumps for a while now, seemingly unable to escape the "soft" label even though he once finished a game after losing a tooth. It's now apparent, however, that Nowitski is not a leader. He'll score you points, but please don't ask him to set the tone. This is a guy who said in a recent interview he was glad the Mavs didn't have to face the Lakers in the first round. Way to inspire confidence, Dirk. Are you happy that you won't be facing the Lakers in the second round now, either?

In short, the Dallas Mavericks are a team that no longer believes it can win. The regular season sure seems manageable, but once the bright "win or go home" lights of the playoffs come on, this team wilts like a pile of $5/pound arugula. This irritating lack of mental fortitude can surely be traced back to the 2006 NBA Finals. In those playoffs, the Mavs scratched and bit and clawed their way through impressive series with the powerhouse Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs. They were a team possessed. In the Finals (the first ever for Dallas), they flew to a 2-0 lead against the insufferable Miami Heat... and then let the Heat come back and win the Series. Thus insuring we'd never be rid of Dwyane Wade's smug grin - the Cheese Fry sincerely hopes Wade never again makes it deep into the playoffs. If you had the misfortune of watching those NBA Finals, you'll remember seeing a thoroughly confused Mavs team who began to slowly but surely, game by game, loss by loss, meltdown once they realized they might not win the trophy. It was a disaster.

The Mavericks have tried twice since those 2006 Finals to reset, to dig deep and use the bitter bile of that humiliating loss to fuel their resurgence. They played the 2007 season with a proper chip on its shoulder: Nowitski won the MVP, the team earned a league-best 67-15 record and #1 seed. But then they ran smack dab into the Golden State Warriors threshing machine who won the series in 6 games. Oops. You know what happened this year.

As of now, the only fallout from this continued slide into mediocrity (many would argue that only owner Mark Cuban still thinks the Mavs are an elite NBA team) is the dismissal of head coach Avery Johnson. The Cheese Fry is a huge Johnson fan, but in the NBA the coaches are interchangeable parts, hired and fired and rehired like migrant farm workers. Johnson perhaps does share some blame, especially in the way he seemed to panic in the 2006 Finals against coaching and hair product icon Pat Riley. Johnson will go elsewhere and likely take another team to the Finals mountaintop.

The team he leaves behind in Dallas doesn't share so hopeful a future. The only player who might draw trade offers is its best player: Nowitski. But trading him may be very hard for Cuban, if only because it would signal once and for all that the championship window for this version of the Dallas Mavericks is closed. The NBA, with its petulant players and multi-million-dollar contract guarantees, is an unforgiving league. Make one false move and you're stuck with loser players no one wants but who must be paid anyway for the next 5-7 years. It can take a long, long time to rebuild and refocus.

Hopefully, if and when the Mavericks ever make it back to the Finals, they won't choke it all away.

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