Happy Basketball! Do You Believe in These Dallas Mavericks?

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Last time we saw our Dallas Mavericks it wasn't pretty was ugly.

Jason Terry was flopping (only 15 points per game), the defense was floundering (surrendering 115 per game) and owner Mark Cuban was flapping (his gums at Kenyon Martin's mom) in a 5-game playoff loss to the athletically superior Denver Nuggets back in mid-May.

Tonight we can officially bury last year beneath this year as the Mavs open the 2010 season against the Washington Wizards at American Airlines Center. Being that hoops is my first love, I'll be there to see what's what.

With the arrival of Shawn Marion and Drew Gooden offsetting the departure of Brandon Bass, the Mavericks have high, perhaps unrealistic expectations.

"The feeling and the buzz in our locker room is off the charts, literally the best it's been in a good five years," Cuban told me recently. "Every guy here that was a part of that Finals run thinks we have a much better team. It's not even close. If you compare rosters we're a far better team than that Finals team. We're deeper. More athletic. Defensively and offensively we have more flexibility. This year it's like 'Oh my goodness.' Guys are fired up. It's a whole different feeling. I'm excited."

Says Terry, "We have the best chemistry we've had since I've been here."

And second-year head coach Rick Carlisle? "This is a team that we feel is a better team than last year's."

In its inaugural NBA Power Rankings, ESPN pegs the Mavs at No. 6.

The Mavs in 2009 won 50 games and won a playoff round as the West's No. 6 seed. Why the optimism this year? ...

*When healthy, a starting lineup of Jason Kidd, Josh Howard, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki and Erick Dampier is athletic and alluring. Main reserves will be Terry, Gooden, J.J. Barea, Quinton Ross and Kris Humphries.

*Though the Mavs failed in their attempt to land free-agent center Marcin Gortat from the Orlando Magic, look at their off-season thusly: A trade of Brandon Bass, Devean George, Gerald Green, Antoine Wright and Ryan Hollins in exchange for Marion, Gooden, Ross, Humphries and Thomas. Bottom line: Upgrade.

*Also gone from last year are Cristal Taylor and the SEC's failed witch hunt of Cuban.

*Howard, slow to recover from off-season ankle surgery, won't be ready to play for another couple weeks. Veteran shooter Tim Thomas (knee) is also expected to miss tonight's opener.

*Depth be damned, when Gilbert Arenas comes to town and your best chance of shutting him down is 100-year-old Kidd that signals trouble. Rookie top draft pick Roddy Beaubois will be a limited, specialized change-of-pace player used against Tony Parker, Chris Paul and the like.

*Online gambling joints like Bodog.com have established the Mavs as a 49-33 team and a 30-1 longshot to win a title. That's behind the Lakers (2-1), Spurs (7.5-1), Nuggets (15-1), Blazers (20-1) and Jazz (25-1). Somewhere between "long-shot afterthought" and "better than the 2006 team that went to The Finals" is where these Mavs belong.

*I see no reason the Mavs can't win another 50+ games and make another playoff appearance. This team is more athletic, more versatile and deeper than in the last two years. It will still have trouble guarding athletic big men and jitterbug point guards but, then again, what team doesn't? Put me down for 55 wins, second place in the Southwest Division behind the Spurs and another eventful spring.

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