Mark Cuban all but foreclosed on a Dallas repeat when he let Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and Caron Butler walk in free agency. If Deron Williams agrees to gobble up the resulting cap space this summer, the unreserved owner will know he made the right gamble, regardless of how the current roster fares in the postseason.
While a swift playoff exit for an aging, flawed group would shock no one, there are reasons to believe the Mavs can deliver an earnest defense of their first ever title.
* Dirk Nowitzki dropped 40 points—twice—on the Jazz in Salt Lake City. While Oklahoma City plays far better defense than Utah, Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison will have their hands full trying to check the reigning Finals MVP. Chandler and other key pieces defected elsewhere, but the best player from the NBA’s last champion remains as driven and dangerous as ever.
* The presence and impact of a first-ballot Hall of Famer/top 50 all-time player cannot be overstated.
* Never discount or laugh off the cliché. The Mavs remain the defending champs until another team hoists the trophy in June. Dispatching a squad loaded with experience and know-how will not be easy, especially for the Thunder, a franchise with two—count them, two—playoff series wins in its brief history.
* If Kevin Durant thinks neutralizing or overpowering Shawn Marion’s defense will prove any easier this time around, he’s in for a bummer of a wake-up call. "The Matrix" deserves legitimate Defensive Player of the Year consideration for the way his adhesive coverage kept the Mavs in games when they still couldn’t score with money at a brothel.
* Jason Kidd’s age shows more than ever, and keeping him healthy was a chief concern for Rick Carlisle. Yet, he still directs the Dallas offense with the same aplomb, if not the same explosiveness, that he exhibited in his prime. Carlisle can also count on Kidd to bag a clutch three-pointer or two in any series.
* Forward Brandan Wright’s breakout season has been a bright spot. He will provide some meaningful minutes behind Nowitzki and Brendan Haywood.
* Since Perkins does not shoot or score much, Haywood can roam a bit more and focus much of his attention on snuffing out drives with blocks or physical contests.
* Delonte West’s bout with bipolar disorder can affect his on-court demeanor and poise, but other than the moronic wet willy he delivered to Gordon Hayward a week ago, he has been mostly a good soldier and one of the Mavs’ best two-way contributors. He can shoot, pass, drive and defend. He will keep someone on the Thunder occupied for the length of the series.
* Carlisle made all the right moves in his first successful march to a title as a sideline chief last spring. This Chuck Daly disciple has been underappreciated since his days at the helm of the mercurial Pacers. He knows his Xs and Os and has proven he belongs in the same tier as the other top tacticians, Popovich included.
* Superb coaching makes a mammoth difference in the playoffs.
* Jason Terry will take most of the fourth-quarter looks not given to Nowitzki. He can still nail anything from anywhere. His stepbacks, pull-ups and dribble drives will prove paramount if the Mavs have any prayer of staying in contact with the meteoric Thunder.
* The Mavs ousted the Thunder in the 2011 Western Conference finals, stealing both contests at Chesapeake Energy Arena, where they’ll open this rematch. Dallas finished the campaign 1-3 against Oklahoma City, but a Durant game-winner in overtime decided one of the defeats and the other two were close in the final period.
* The Dallas offense becomes anemic and a liability when Terry’s accuracy suffers from the law of averages. If he misfires on several trips down the floor and Durant and Russell Westbrook get on a roll, the fragile Mavs may fall apart.
* Going from Chandler as the starting center to a full-time dose of Haywood is a steep downgrade.
* Oklahoma City will want to attack a 38-year-old Kidd with switches and isolations as much as possible. He can hang on occasion with a bigger 2-guard, but Westbrook will torch him in most of their confrontations.
* Carlisle can never predict what he will get from Rodrigue Beaubois. The young Frenchman has the talent to convert six layups in a row and the penchant for carelessness to commit six straight turnovers.
* Vince Carter has done more in a Dallas uniform than most thought possible, but the next time he becomes a winning postseason performer will be the first.
* After a strong first month, Ian Mahinmi reverted back to being a foul-prone backup big with a primitive offensive repertoire.
* The Mavs became road warriors en route to closing out the championship series in Miami. The gutted-then-retooled roster tasked with defending the crown finished with a disconcerting 13-20 away mark. They must win for the second straight year in the loudest building this side of Energy Solutions Arena.
* The Thunder will lug around the added motivation of avenging last year's loss. Plus, OKC has improved since that series, while the champs have deteriorated.
* If Nowitzki becomes a one-man show, Dallas’ repeat bid might end in a sweep.
* Carlisle managed to mask Terry’s occult defense by relying on heaping helpings of Chandler and an effective zone. With no Chandler in the middle, there is no hiding now. Plenty of Thunder players will be driving through and down the Jet’s runway.
* Lamar Odom quit in Dallas. Carlisle will miss what the versatile forward should have added to the Mav mix.
* After a stifling start, the squad’s defense has regressed to the point the Thunder, if focused, might rip it to embarrassing shreds.
* Too many things must break right for Dallas to emerge on the plus side of 16 playoff affairs.
The consensus from pundits is the Mavs will not remain defending champions for long. This roster, for sure, totes too many warts and faults to win as many as four rounds without home-court advantage. While the Thunder deserve to be favored, perhaps heavily, this 2 vs. 7 pairing could become favorable for Dallas if OKC cannot minimize the impact and appearances of its numerous defects by this weekend.
Of all the first-round possibilities versus higher seeds, a clash with the brassy Thunder represents the Mavs' best chance to advance. If Durant and co. get cocky (a doubtful but plausible proposition), Nowitzki’s team is equipped to take advantage.