- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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DALLAS -- Nobody in the Dallas Mavericks' locker room thinks this team is playing anywhere near its potential.
Yet the Mavs are tied for the top spot in the Western Conference with a 10-3 record.
You won't hear any complaints about the results, especially from the guys who endured last season's awful start. The Mavs are proud that they keep managing to pull out wins despite a total of 30 games missed by six pieces of their rotation. But they certainly aren't satisfied with their performance at this point of the season.
"I love how we've been finding ways to win," coach Rick Carlisle said after Friday night's 104-102 win over the Sacramento Kings. "That's great, but I know we can play better.
"The challenge is to stay hungry when things are going good and be even more determined. The teams that are really good can do that. We're striving to do that."
Carlisle hammered the importance of learning how to win ugly during training camp. The Mavs, a mediocre defensive team last season, focused on improving on that end of the floor. Carlisle wanted a team that didn't have to rely on offense to win every night.
Mission accomplished so far, in that sense. The Mavs were 3-23 when they shot 42 percent or worse last season. They're 6-1 in such games this season.
That's a sign of major improvement. It's also an indicator of how much better the Mavs could be clicking offensively.
"We know we've got work to do," said Dirk Nowitzki, whose clutch scoring sprees have put him in the middle of premature MVP conversations. "We've got a lot of ugly wins. We know we have to get better from game to game, from month to month. But shoot, 10-3? I'll take it any day, ugly or not."
Now the Mavs have three days off to focus on getting better. One of the primary areas of emphasis will be becoming more efficient with their transition offense.
That should be one of this team's biggest strengths with Jason Kidd running the show. That was the case last season, and the Mavs became much more athletic this summer with the additions of Shawn Marion and Drew Gooden.
Of course, it has not helped matters that Marion, Gooden, Josh Howard, Erick Dampier, Quinton Ross and Tim Thomas have missed games due to various ailments. Howard (ankle rehab) has not played a minute during the five-game winning streak. Dampier (unspecified illness) has missed the past four games. No timetable has been set for either starter's return.
But teams that sit atop the standings don't need excuses, especially when the roster is loaded with veterans. The Mavs believe they can be legitimate title contenders, but they know they have to play much better to make that a reality.
"We haven't played well," Kidd said. "There's a lot of work that's ahead of us if we want to be one of the best in the West."
Correction: There's a lot of work ahead if the Mavs want to remain the West's best.
Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.