Bolstered Mavericks Set Sights on Champion Lakers
Regardless, the message is simple: Dallas is gunning for the Lakers.
"That's our goal," said Mavericks guard Jason Terry. "They're the champs. We're coming for them. Last year, we were No. 2. We made some moves and this year we feel we can push them all the way to No. 1."
The Mavericks thought they could challenge the Lakers last season after a deal during All-Star Weekend in which they acquired forward Caron Butler and center Brendan Haywood from Washington. It appeared the teams might meet in the Western Conference finals after the Mavericks went 23-7 following the trade to finish 55-27 and secure the No. 2 seed behind the Lakers.
But it didn't happen. The Mavericks were upset 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs by San Antonio, and Los Angeles eventually rolled to its second straight title.
"We just kicked the bucket in the playoffs," said point guard Jason Kidd, still ringless entering his 17th season. "But that's a lesson learned ... I think we're hungry. We want to win a championship."
It looks even more realistic after the Mavericks in July re-signed the 7-foot Haywood and acquired 7-1 center Tyson Chandler in trade with Charlotte. With those tag-team centers joining All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki and versatile forward Shawn Marion, Dallas has enough guys in the post to match up with Lakers big men Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom.
"Oh, yeah, definitely," Marion, a factor inside despite being just 6-foot-7, said about unseating the Lakers. "We got all the pieces. We just got to go out there and make it happen. They are the defending champions. It's there's until the crown is taken."
The Mavericks still haven't fully gotten over their 2006 Finals loss to Miami, when they were up 2-0 and had a 13-point fourth-quarter lead in Game 3. They never won another game, and lost the series 4-2.
Since then, Dallas has won exactly one playoff series. So, even though the Mavericks have averaged nearly 56 wins per season since that Finals trip, many will reserve judgment until after the playoffs start before declaring them a serious contender.
"You've got to be playing your best ball not in November and not in December, but in April or May," Terry said. "We haven't done (than in a) while. But it's time."
Offering further reasons for optimism is the Mavericks were one of the few top teams in the West to make a significant offseason move. In adding Chandler, the primary piece the Mavericks sent Charlotte was lumbering center Erick Dampier, who was likely to be waived anyway due to his non-gauranteed $13 million contract for 2010-11. And that's exactly the fate he met courtesy of the Bobcats.
Phoenix, which lost to the Lakers in last spring's West finals, took a step back with the loss of forward Amar'e Stoudemire. Utah lost forward Carlos Boozer. Denver has several injuries on the front line and faces uncertainty about the future of forward Carmelo Anthony, who could be traded.
"The East got much stronger," said Chandler, noting Stoudemire, to New York, and Boozer, to Chicago, both changed conferences. "I'm glad to get out of the East ... It's going to be tough over in the East. In the West, a lot of great teams lost key guys that really made their systems flow.
"I think we're one of the teams in the West that got stronger. So it's perfect timing. When you look across the locker room and you look at the status of a lot of guys as far as free agency (Chandler and Butler are free agents next summer and Terry and Kidd in 2012) and also J. Kidd is in the latter part of his career, you want to win now. You have the pieces. You got to take advantage of it. You got to seize the moment."
The Mavericks, who haven't met the Lakers in the playoffs since losing 4-3 in the 1988 West finals, still don't have an answer for Lakers star guard Kobe Bryant. Then again, who does?
But the Mavericks are hoping Chandler can be a final piece to provide the title Nowitzki and owner Mark Cuban have so coveted for more than a decade. He's finally healthy after battling ankle problems for two years, and last month helped Team USA to a gold medal at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey.
"I really like him (with) what he brings," Nowitzki said of Chandler, whose career averages of 8.1 points and 8.8 rebounds aren't overwhelming but who can be a serious rebounding and defensive threat when healthy. "His activity. His explosiveness around the basket. He's a great offensive rebounder. I think we're a jump-shooting team so any extra possessions he can get us is great. I really like the acquisition. It's been great. He's a great locker-room guy."
The easy-going Chandler says he doesn't care if he starts, and that he's "not coming here to take anybody's spot." Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said Haywood is the team's starting center, which isn't a big deal since both should play plenty.
"I don't see it as a battle," Carlisle said. "I see those guys as being a team ... Right now, (Haywood) is the starter. We signed him under the pretense that it's his job to lose. So he's got the job right now. It's not going to be about who starts or anything else. It's how many games we can win."
Nowitzki calls it the best center situation he's had since arriving in Dallas in 1998. Then again, it's not as if there's much competition for that distinction.
Nowitzki's centers have included stationary objects Shawn Bradley, Raef LaFrentz, DeSagana Diop and Dampier. General manager Donnie Nelson said the Mavericks have had "your traditional aircraft carrieresque centers," but not the agility and versatility they have in the pivot now with Chandler and Haywood.
"We're just going to keep bringing bigs and don't have to worry about foul trouble," said Cuban, who also has in his stable two more centers in 6-11 Ian Mahinmi and 7-foot Alex Ajinca. "We can be aggressive, we can press and run and we can do a lot of things we couldn't do before.
"It helps us match up against anybody, the Lakers in particular. If they've got Bynum, Gasol and Odom on the floor, we can match up. We don't have to worry about one of those guys posting us up. ... We've got depth and we can put a lot of pressure on teams and hopefully wear them down over the course of a game."
Of course, the team the Mavericks really hope they can wear down is the Lakers.
"All roads go through L.A.," Nelson said.
He sure as heck wasn't talking about the Clippers. The Mavericks know who they must topple.
"We feel like we have what it takes in this locker room to win a title," Butler said. "So we're ready."
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson