Mavericks Meander into the Season

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

A. June 19, 2008—Inspired by a whiff of the trophy in '06 and fueled by a colossal collapse after a record-setting regular season in '07, the Dallas Mavericks tonight ultimately persevered and won their first NBA Championship. Said jubilant, vindicated star Dirk Nowitzki: "See, I told you we were right to keep our core together."

B. April 16, 2008—Physically drained and emotionally bankrupt after two almost magical seasons that ultimately ended in heartbreak, the Dallas Mavericks tonight capped a shocking season in which they totally unraveled and missed the NBA Playoffs. Said dejected star Dirk Nowitzki: "In retrospect I guess we should've broken up our core and gone another direction."

C. Oct. 10, 2007—With media-muggin' owner Mark Cuban demanding the spotlight during his improbable Dancing With the Stars run, the Dallas Mavericks prepare almost anonymously for the most important season in team history. Said franchise co-star Dirk Nowitzki: "Core? What core? Is that like the foxtrot or the Watusi?"

If you choose A, you trust in Mavs forward Jerry Stackhouse. "The NBA has a history of teams that stumbled at the door before winning a title," Stackhouse said at last week's training camp commencement. "We've stumbled twice and now it's our time, our rite of passage. We're not panicking. We're staying the course. What we've been through will make us a tougher club."

Choose B and you're skeptical of Nowitzki and his team's tepid training camp battle cry. "We're just going to keep working hard," Nowitzki says at the American Airlines Center, just down the hall from where five months ago he accepted his NBA MVP award. "Hopefully it'll work out for us."

Pick C...c'mon, man, put away your cummerbund and get out your Converse. It's basketball season.

Or, if you choose D—none of the above—join the crowd. The Mavericks remain one of the NBA's most talented and experienced teams. But considering their fragile psyche, lack of impact upgrades and collective shrug toward last spring's first-round upset loss they could blame on neither the refs nor Dwyane Wade nor Laura Miller's premature parade plans, their final destination in '08 is uncomfortably liquid.

"No moves was our best move," says guard Jason Terry of the off-season inaction. "We've got the group that can get this job done."

Says general manager Donnie Nelson, "At least you can't say I screwed anything up over the summer."

Or can you?

I know, if it ain't broke don't monkey with it. But considering the consecutive crunch-time implosions, isn't it just a little squeaky, if not dysfunctional? In case you've been lobotomized from the last two climactic endings, the Mavericks wound up in worse shape than the Six Flags' Cliffhanger. They ralphed a 2-0 series lead and a 13-point bulge with 6:30 remaining in Game 3 that would've given them a stranglehold on the 2006 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat. And last April, armed with the MVP and the NBA's fifth all-time best regular-season record, the Mavs lost to the quicker, faster, better, 8th-seeded Golden State Warriors, who were promptly shellacked by the Utah Jazz in the ensuing round.

There are critics writing off the Mavs as too physically dainty and psychologically mushy to earn a title. And there are those—namely the team's braintrust—determined not to let six games erase six months.

"We had to get past the emotion and not lose sight of the bigger direction, which is very good," Nelson says in the middle of the Mavs' practice court during Media Day. "It would've been short-sighted for us to overreact."

It takes maturity and confidence to not knee-jerk. Or is naïveté and denial?

For better or worse, the Mavs' nucleus will look extremely familiar. And yet again, they'll likely go as far as Nowitzki's finesse fadeaway jumpers can take them.

After an MVP regular season in which he led Dallas to a 67-15 record, Dirk went NO-witzki against Golden State. His scoring average fell from 24 to 19, shooting percentage from 50 to 38, and in the final, fatal Game 6 in Oakland he went an abysmal 2 of 13.

"We lost to a hot team; it happens," Nowitzki says, shrugging, between reading radio liners for country radio station KPLX-99.5 FM The Wolf. Somehow it's difficult to imagine the link between Dirk and Brad Paisley, but at least he hasn't outgrown his britches. "As much as I'd like to forget that loss, it came to mind often over the summer. We're finding out that it's easier to turn a losing team into a winner than it is a winner into a champion. That last step, it's a beast."

While Dirk promises to add to his malnourished low-post game, offensive rebounding and passing out of double-teams, the Mavs also need—OK, they would prefer—him to become a more vocal leader.

"We're asking Dirk to step up in some areas of leadership, and he's open to it," Johnson says. "But, really, the main thing is we need this team to play at a higher level around him."

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 the shadow of the samba.

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt