Mavericks Meander into the Season

With minimal upgrades and a fragile psyche, this season could stroll off in any ol' direction

Using what Johnson hopes are 20-percent improvements from young players and 10-percent increases from veterans, Dirk's supporting cast should be the same yet different. Devin Harris has a new contract. Josh Howard will be stronger. DeSagana Diop is no longer an offensive liability. The new faces are free-agent acquisition Eddie Jones, top draft pick (re: slow, plodding) Nick Fazekas and defensive stopper Trenton Hassell, acquired in a trade for discarded defensive stopper Greg Buckner.

"We think we've improved our reserve group," says Johnson.

In other words, the Mavs have 99 problems but the bench ain't one.

Mostly, this season will be about moods and motivation and less about X's and O's. To that end, Johnson is spreading the flimsy, lame premise that, because of last year's epic meltdown, the Mavs will suddenly be overlooked underdogs. Seems to me a team coming off back-to-back freakouts will be one of the NBA's most analyzed and scrutinized teams. Don't usually hear teams that have gone 127-37 the last two seasons relying on "Us against the world!" rhetoric, but whatever works.

"We can go 82-0 and people will say, 'They're going to lose. They don't have what it takes,'" Nowitzki says. "Last year we were one of the favorites and maybe the pressure was too high. This year we're going to be underdogs."

Says Johnson, "We have a chance to be pretty special."

Forged by failure? Saddled with psychological carry-ons? We're not sure where the Dallas Mavericks will finish. We only know where they'll begin...in the shadow of the samba.

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