NBA training camps start next week, and if you live in Dallas, you can feel the excitement about the Mavericks. And by excitement, I mean general indifference.
The Rangers are going for their third consecutive World Series appearance and the Cowboys continue to exist, which doesn't leave much room in the consciousness of the Metroplex sports fan for an NBA team coming off a four-game sweep in the first round of the playoffs and getting 40:1 odds to win a title.
There's no use in re-litigating the decisions the Mavericks front office made in the aftermath of the 2011 championship, but to paraphrase Rick Pitino, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard aren't walking through that door. Nevertheless, Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban were able to pull off some interesting (if under the radar) moves in the off-season. Dirk Nowitzki may not have a second star to lean on, but the team around him should be significantly improved in 2012.
While Jason Kidd and Jason Terry should have their jerseys hanging from the rafters at the AAC one day, it was time for a change in the backcourt. Without Tyson Chandler protecting the paint, Rick Carlisle couldn't hide the slow feet of the 38-year old Kidd and the 34-year old Terry. That came to a head in the playoffs, when Kidd and Terry couldn't stay in front of the Oklahoma City Thunder guards, resulting in a conga line at the front of the rim.
Now, for the first time in recent memory, Dallas will be fast and athletic on the perimeter. Darren Collison (25) and OJ Mayo (24) are both in their prime and they've been in the NBA long enough to pick up some of the tricks of the trade on defense. More importantly, they're both playing for a new contract, so you can expect them to be dialed in all season long on both sides of the ball.
And if you look at the Mavericks rotation, there are very few weak links defensively. Collison, at 6'0 160, is undersized, but he's one of the fastest PG's in the NBA while Mayo, at 6'4 210, is physical and crafty enough to make up for lacking ideal size and speed at the shooting guard position. Dallas is also bringing back Delonte West, whose pretty much an ideal third guard in terms of being able to match up with both backcourt positions. Shawn Marion is getting a little old in the tooth, but he still has a preposterous 7'0+ wingspan, so he should be OK too.
Upfront, Chris Kaman and Elton Brand are huge upgrades over the brick hands, slow feet and general indifference of Brendan Haywood, but they aren't the type of big men who can fly across the lane to cut off penetration. In 2011, the Mavericks leveraged great interior defense to get away with playing offensive specialists on the perimeter. In 2013, they'll be able to leverage their perimeter speed to get away with playing offensive specialists on the interior.
The Mavericks offense, meanwhile, should be far more versatile in 2013. Kaman and Brand are better low-post threats than any center Dirk has ever played with, while Collison and Mayo can both create their own shot off the dribble. As much as I enjoy Marion's bizarre assortment of floaters and surprisingly effective post-up game, he's much better suited to be a fifth option in the half-court rather than the second option he often was in 2012.
The real concern with Terry and Kidd's departures isn't on the court but off of it. They were both natural leaders with strong personalities who set the tone in the Mavericks locker room, and I'm not sure either Dirk or Marion is suited to fill that void. With so many new faces playing for long-term contracts, selfishness could be a problem, especially when the team hits a rough patch.
They've got a three big man rotation of Kaman, Dirk and Brand, a three-guard rotation of Mayo, Collison and West and Marion and Vince Carter on the wings. It's not a great team, but it should be a very good one. The wild cards are the young guys. Jared Cunningham and Bernard James might be able to contribute as rookies, but the players I'm really excited to watch are Brandan Wright, who is finally playing like a lottery pick, and Rodrigue Beaubois, who I still believe in (which I admit isn't entirely rational).
The Western Conference will be tough as usual, but the Mavericks should make the playoffs for the 13th consecutive season. I don't think they'll be able to beat the Thunder or the Lakers in the seven-game series, but none of the other teams out West really scare me. What do you think? Am I drinking too much Kool-Aid or is a second round trip a real possibility this season?
Check back tomorrow for a look at how much of a "fluke" the Mavericks 2011 title was.