DALLAS – The grand experiment begins today with the first day of training camp.
Call Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson and Rick Carlisle crazy, but they believe they have found an alternative recipe for championship success.
1. Take a superstar who may be starting to decline but still is near the top of his game.
2. Add a one-time prolific offensive player who has discovered the joy of defense.
3. Toss in a point guard from Indiana, a shooting guard from Memphis, a center from New Orleans, bench players from Philadelphia and Indiana and three rookies.
4. Sprinkle in a couple of returning veteran role players.
Combine ingredients, stir together for 31 days of training camp and exhibitions and when the season starts with a road game at the Lakers on Oct. 30, you will have a concoction that management – despite changing 12 of 15 players from the 2011 championship team – believes it is potent enough to win a title.
“My feeling is people know what we’re about as an organization and what our city is about,” said Carlisle, the head coach. “You show up, you’re playing for a title regardless of what people may or may not think about your roster, or how many new guys you have. We don’t care about that.”
There are thousands of children living all over the world who completely understand that attitude. Perhaps you don’t believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They don’t care. They embrace the magic.
Considering the additions made by the defending champion Miami Heat and the Lakers – Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, to name a few – it would seem that acquiring the likes of Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Chris Kaman and Elton Brand would simply make the Mavericks good, not great.
But the Mavericks, lest we forget, have a championship pedigree. That culminated in a title in 2011, but it was a management style that had been in the making for a decade. With Nelson, the general manager, doing the footwork and Cuban, the owner, providing the impetus behind major decisions, the Mavericks had constantly added and subtracted players around Dirk Nowitzki.
They had many disappointments. The 2-0 lead in the 2006 NBA Finals that they blew, losing four consecutive games to Miami. And the 67-15 regular season in 2006-07 that ended with a stupefying first-round loss to the Golden State Warriors.
But Cuban and Nelson persevered, continued making adjustments each year, and the Mavericks won a title that no one expected they could win. In 2011, they were a popular pick to be the highest-seeded team to lose in the first round, but they didn’t.
In the second round, the swept the two-time defending champion Lakers, then went on to defeat the Thunder and Heat to win the title.
So they have experience at overachieving while being underrated.
“We won the championship in what in football or baseball is termed a wild-card type team,” Carlisle said. “We were on the radar but we weren’t prominently on the radar. You look at the last two Super Bowl winners – both wild card teams. Last year the Cardinals won the World Series as a wild-card team.
“There’s more parity in sports and that’s something that’s going to continue to work its way into the NBA with the new collective bargaining agreement. So, hey, coming into this we feel like we’re in that handful of teams with a shot and we’re going to approach it that way.”
A big chunk of their optimism centers on Nowitzki, who they believe will improve from last season. Nowitzki admitted that he had not worked hard last off-season and he let up even more during the lockout. When that was resolved in December, he had only two weeks of training camp and he could not get in game shape.
He was also bothered by a minor knee injury and at one point in the season, the Mavericks shut him down for a week to work on his conditioning.
“For me, actually, it was a great lesson to learn,” Nowitzki said. “I can’t just shut it down all the way to zero anymore and expect to be in shape in four weeks. You can do that when you’re in your 20s, but not after 14 years in the league.
“So even though it was a tough year for me last year, I think it was a good learning experience for me. And this year, in the summer, even though I didn’t touch a ball for 3 ½ months, I was basically in the gym in June and July keeping my legs strong, running. Even on all my trips, I always tried to lift and run and keep my conditioning up so that when I started basketball four weeks ago, the start was a lot easier than last year.
“Last year, I couldn’t even touch the bottom of the backboard,” he said, smiling. “This year, I could touch it a little bit.”
Nowitzki averaged 21.6 points a game last season – his fewest since his second year in the league.
The Mavericks point out that all their new players aren’t necessarily new to each other. Kaman and Nowitzki played two summers – including the 2008 Olympics – on the German national team.
Brand and Kaman played five years together on the Clippers. And new point guard Collison and Dahntay Jones were teammates last season on the Pacers.
In Collison, 25, and O.J. Mayo, 24, the Mavericks believe they have the makings of a dynamic backcourt. With Jason Terry gone, the Mavericks will need a second scorer and that could be either Kaman – who will become the best offensive center in Mavericks’ history if he is healthy and plays his normal game – or Mayo.
Shawn Marion has become perhaps the Mavericks best defensive player and still has moments on offense. Vince Carter and Delonte West return from last year’s team, so there is a little continuity. The Mavericks are still hopeful that third-year guard Roddy Beaubois can stay healthy and evolve into a steady player. And Dominique Jones, a second-year guard from South Florida, had the best summer of any Maverick.
The approach the Mavericks are taking is one of necessity – they have enough expiring contracts to be a big player on the free agent market next summer.
But the approach is also fascinating. When teams bring in eight new players, it usually signals rebuilding. In this case, the Mavericks are talking championship.
Some might accuse them of being delusional, but Carlisle has become one of best coaches in the league and seems to be the perfect mixmaster.
Criticize the Mavericks if you will for an intoxicating sort of optimism.
But their aspirations deserve respect. The organization knows what it takes to win a championship. And management and the players aren’t reluctant to remind us of that.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.