x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Stars back, but it's a new-look Mavericks side that defends NBA title

Dirk Nowitzki remains but team owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson have tweaked the Mavericks' roster as they attempt to defend their NBA title.

Dirk Nowitzki says the players he won a title with on the Dallas Mavericks will always be like family to him, no matter what team they may end up playing on.
Dirk Nowitzki says the players he won a title with on the Dallas Mavericks will always be like family to him, no matter what team they may end up playing on.

Dirk Nowitzki had an idea of what it is like to be an NBA champion, even before winning the title last season. He learnt one of the lessons over the seasons he spent being teammates with Devean George.

Nowitzki noticed that before games, George often found a player warming up on the other side of the court and greeted them with a smile and a warm hug.

Nowitzki eventually asked George why.

The answer: they were his former teammates, guys he had won an NBA title with during one of those three magical seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers.

"Once you win a championship," George told Nowitzki, "it's like a bond. It's like family forever."

Nowitzki told that story the first day he met with reporters after the lockout. Although the last time he had been at team headquarters was for the championship parade, a day when everyone vowed to stick together and try winning it all again, Nowitzki returned knowing the Mavericks would lose several valuable contributors.

So while Nowitzki was going to miss Tyson Chandler bailing him out on defence, JJ Barea zipping through the lane or nailing a long three-pointer and Caron Butler taking some of the scoring load, he also knew those guys would always have a special place in his life.

And, he trusted team owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson to find competent replacements.

Sure enough, the front office plugged holes with some big names, signing Vince Carter and practically swiping Lamar Odom from the Lakers. Adding that pair of 30-somethings, plus 28-year-old back-up guard Delonte West, does not completely fill the void, but it is a good start and an indication that Cuban remains serious about trying to defend the first title in franchise history.

"We weren't the favourites to win it last year, so nobody really knows what's going to happen," Nowitzki said. "Last year, it just worked out. The chemistry was great, guys wanted to win and play with each other.

"To me, the team is set up kind of the same again with a bunch of older guys that want to win, who've seen basically everything in this league and have individual [accolades], but they just want to win together and off each other."

In a 66-game season, Dallas will be hard pressed to keep up its streak of 50-win seasons. There is no telling how their ageing legs will handle a schedule packed with more games and fewer off-days.

The post-season, however, remains the same. So this veteran group understands the ups and downs of the next four months are all about getting ready for the chase of those 16 wins that matter most.

Odom certainly understands. He spent each of the last two seasons trying to defend a championship. His Lakers did it two years ago, then were swept by the Mavs in the second round last season.

"If they thought winning a championship was hard, defending it is going to be ... it's tough," Odom said. "It changes the mindset of teams, and of your team. It's tough. But if a team can do it, this one can."

Coach Rick Carlisle considers the reinvention of this team part of the challenge of repeating.

"We've got to reformulate this thing, but the guys coming in are veteran guys and they've played in a lot of big games ... They know what it's about," Carlisle said.

"If you're a new guy coming to this team, you've got to be excited. And you've got to be trying to figure out how you're going to fit in and how you're going to help this team get in position to repeat. Hey, I like the fact our team has a different look. That's a great challenge for our coaching staff. And I think our players are energised as well."

Jason Kidd is going into the final year of his contract but is already talking about playing a few more years. Jason Terry is going into the final year of his deal, but hopes to remain with the Mavericks for the rest of his career. There is no telling what will happen in the new, post-lockout landscape, especially with Cuban letting Chandler, Barea and Butler go for the sake of gaining salary-cap flexibility.

"The way things fell was unique, and you know we certainly did our homework," said Nelson. "We got a little lucky, which is certainly part of things, and we really feel good about this thing."

Brendan Haywood becomes the starting centre, the job he was expected to have last season before Chandler arrived and proved to be a perfect fit. Third-year guard Rodrigue Beaubois could become the exciting, change-of-pace player off the bench that Barea used to be, providing he has overcome his foot injuries and learnt to play enough defence to satisfy Carlisle.

All those things will fall into place over time. For now, there is one mystery remaining.

The bling.

Never one for tradition, Cuban threatened to do something other than rings. He relented, but because he decided to give players input in the design, the rings will not be ready for opening night. So there will be at least two celebrations of the title: at the opener today - against the Heat in an NBA finals rematch - and again when the ring ceremony is held.

"We would've loved to have raised the banner and got our rings November 1, but we've had this little delay," Nowitzki said. "That [opener] can't even come fast enough. We're looking forward to it so much, just to see that banner go up.

"We're going to see it there for the rest of our careers - for the rest of our lives, really. That always means it was a special season with a bunch of guys that I loved playing with. They are always going to be like family to me, no matter where they play."

FIVE TO WATCH THIS SEASON

Lebron James, Miami Heat

James is the most dominant and scrutinised player in the NBA. A two-time MVP and seven-time All-Star, he has achieved virtually every individual honour – but not an NBA championship. He made the finals with Cleveland in 2007 and with Miami last season.

Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

Since leaving Germany, Nowitzki has led the Mavericks to the play-offs in each of the past 11 seasons. In 2007, he was league MVP, becoming the first European to win the award. Last season he was MVP in the finals after leading the Mavericks to their first championship.

Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls

Rose averaged 25 points a game last season and was named league MVP, the youngest player to win the award. He averaged 27 points per game in the play-offs but the Bulls lost to the Heat in the conference finals.

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

Bryant has won five championships with the Lakers and an Olympic gold medal for the US, as well as a string of individual awards, including the MVP in 2008 and the NBA Finals MVP in 2009 and 2010. At 33, he is showing no signs of slowing down.

Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

Griffin was selected as the first pick in the 2009 draft but missed the entire 2009-10 season because of injury. He made up for it last season, averaging 22.5 points and 12.1 rebounds a game to unanimously win the Rookie of the Year award.