These teams have changed a lot since last year, and while both teams have improved, have the Spurs improved enough to not only make the series more competitive, but to beat the Mavs?
Shiny New Faces
What's interesting about this series is that recent history has almost no bearing on the current teams facing each other in the first round.
This isn't the two teams that met last year, this isn't the Mavs team that played in the beginning of the year, and this isn't the Spurs team that played the Mavs two days ago.
Since these teams met in last year's playoffs, the Spurs have added Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, and DeJuan Blair, and lost Michael Finley and Roger Mason Jr. as a scoring threat.
The Mavs have added Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, Rodrigue Beaubois, and Shawn Marion, while losing Josh Howard.
The Spurs additions are more relevant, because now Tony Parker and Tim Duncan aren't being counted on to provide the bulk of the production for the Spurs.
Blair and McDyess can help supplement Duncan's low post production, and Ginobili will pick up the scoring slack from Parker, rendering Parker a third option, where he is better suited.
So it's safe to say that the Spurs aren't counting on Matt Bonner to make big shots. Richard Jefferson is capable of providing more of an offensive spark, and while he hasn't done so very often this season, he needs to be paid attention to.
But these Mavs have undergone an even deeper transformation.
They've added another center to bang bodies against Tim Duncan, and it's not Ryan Hollins, who got a lot of burn last year. It's Brendan Haywood that is capable of keeping Duncan from doing his usual damage down there, as well as making Duncan work harder on the defensive end.
Tim Duncan didn't have to do much defensively to keep Dampier at bay, but Haywood is capable of finishing alley-oops and bodying up Duncan and scoring better than Dampier.
While Duncan is probably the best big man on the floor, Dampier and Haywood are the second and third best, and McDyess and Bonner go underneath them.
If the Mavs can keep the Spurs' bigs in foul trouble, only good things can happen. Either Tim Duncan gets more minutes, or he's sitting out and leaving McDyess and Bonner (not much for low-post scoring) to handle the slack at the center position.
Rodrigue Beaubois is another factor that the Spurs might not have an answer for. He can pester Parker for periods of time on defense, and he could be ready to really endear himself with the Mavs' faithful with a torching of the Spurs.
Beaubois is such an adept scorer that the Spurs have to pay attention to him everywhere on the floor, and with people like Dirk, Butler, and Haywood already on the floor, it makes it very difficult for the Spurs to double-team anybody.
Shawn Marion takes the place of Jerry Stackhouse, so it's safe to say he's an upgrade. His athleticism is going to make things very tough for the Spurs since he can guard people like DeJuan Blair, but since he's quick and bigger than Manu, he has a real chance to take Manu out of games for extended stretches.
Caron Butler takes the place of Josh Howard, and this is where things get interesting, because as good as Butler is, it's hard to imagine him making the same impact on this series as Howard did last year.
The Ghost of Josh Howard
While it appears both teams cut some dead weight and gained a lot, I believe the Mavs lost more than the Spurs did. Josh Howard, whatever his flaws may be, was the clear MVP of last year's playoff series, providing the scoring when Dirk was swarmed, and providing the defense that was key to making short work of the short-handed Spurs.
A major question is: Can Shawn Marion and Caron Butler make up for the loss of Josh Howard?
You're probably saying, "Can two All-Stars make up for the flaky Josh Howard? What are you smoking?"
To answer your second question first, it's called crystal meth, and I'm told it's quite potent.
To answer your original question: I don't know.
See, Josh Howard was like kryptonite for the Spurs. He was too quick for Finley to handle and too long for George Hill and Roger Mason to block.
He had just enough versatility and skill to keep the Spurs' attention on him, which prevented them from throwing fancy double-teams at Dirk.
Caron Butler, as good as he is, is much more predictable. He is where possessions go to die, for better or worse. You get the ball to Caron, he's probably getting isolated, and he's probably going to shoot a jumper with a foot on the three-point line.
He's good at making them, but it also makes things easier on the Spurs and harder on the Mavs. It makes it harder for the Mavs to have efficient possessions (a must against a cagey team like the Spurs) and easier for the Spurs to grab the rebound on the miss.
Shawn Marion presents a major problem for the Spurs due to his unique skill set, and while he's probably a better defender than Howard, his offensive game is much more limited.
I like the idea of Marion guarding people like Ginobili and Blair, but I don't like the idea of counting on Marion to provide more than 10 points, and he's got to earn those for himself, because Rick Carlisle isn't apt to call his number very often.
This clearly won't be as one-sided as last year's affair, but the Mavericks still seem to be the better team.
While Manu Ginobili gives the Spurs what they didn't have last year, the Mavericks have more answers than ever for an explosive wing scorer. Butler plays a physical style that could rattle Manu out of his element, and Marion possesses the ability to let no shot go uncontested.
Tony Parker is coming off an injury, and already showed that he can't win games against the Mavs by being the No. 1 scorer.
Tim Duncan is capable of winning a game or two, but I'd take Brendan Haywood getting minutes on him rather than Ryan Hollins, wouldn't you?
Richard Jefferson, if he can return to the 20 PPG scorer he once was, could be the real fly in the ointment for Dallas. If he is able to make an impact on games, then the Spurs have a very good chance of upsetting the Mavs.
The problem is, he hasn't done it for six months, so there's no reason to believe he will become and impact player now.
Ginobili will make this series a little more competitive, but the Mavs are too loaded at too many positions, and possess the ability to neutralize a lot of the Spurs' major threats.
Mavs in six.