DALLAS -- The 2011-12 Dallas Mavericks storyline changed almost as quickly as the Texas weather last weekend. Out-of-nowhere acquisitions of Vince Carter and particularly Lamar Odom quickly recharged what appeared to be a weakened world champion after the departure of heart-and-soul center Tyson Chandler and other key title pieces.
Fans were in a tizzy. Owner Mark Cuban offered a plan.
Now it's coach Rick Carlisle's job to figure out how all the pieces fit together on what is again a deep, veteran roster. That depth will be crucial during the compacted, 66-game schedule.
However, Carlisle's biggest challenges will be getting this group of mostly offensive-minded talents to discover the defensive backbone of last season's club as well as demanding vocal leadership, two areas spearheaded by the fiery, 7-foot Chandler. The Mavs' defense finished in the top 10 in the league in both scoring average and shooting percentage last season.
"We’re a world champion because we became a defense-first team and our system is what carried us," Carlisle said. "And the guys that play in this system are going to have to be just as persistent and tough-minded as the guys that did it last year. That’s really the beginning and end of it."
Along with missing Chandler, bulldog defender DeShawn Stevenson, who played such gritty defense on Russell Westbrook and LeBron James in the postseason, is also gone. He is replaced by Rudy Fernandez and Carter, neither of whom is known for bringing that brand of defensive tenacity.
At center, Brendan Haywood holds his own, but he doesn't bring Chandler's passion or demand accountability from teammates. Ian Mahinmi is a developing player who brings energy, but is not yet a reliable, consistent performer. Brandan Wright is a young, unaccomplished power forward that Carlisle will try at center.
Still, for the first time in the Dirk Nowitzki era, the Mavs have size all around. Fernandez and Carter are both 6-6 at shooting guard. Jason Kidd is a rugged 6-4, Odom is 6-10 at small forward and Nowitzki and Haywood are both 7-footers.
"Shawn has probably been our best perimeter defender with Kidd, and Lamar can guard 3s, can guard 4s and 5s also," Nowitzki said. "So, defensively we’re long and we can be active."
But, can they be good? In 21 postseason games en route to the title, the Mavs held their opponent under 100 points in their first 10 games and in 17 of 21. So big in that run was Chandler's intensity, his in-your-face approach and ability to get teammates to follow his lead.
That's why Chandler was so often referred to as the defensive anchor and the one player who changed the defensive culture of the team.
We'll find out over the course of 66 games in 123 days if Chandler took all of that with him to the Big Apple.
"Playing against Lamar over the years, I think he’s more of a quiet guy, too. He’s more of a quiet leader, plays hard, comes to play every night, but he’s not a guy that pumps his chest out there like Tyson used to do," Nowitzki said. "We just have to wait and see. We’ll do it by committee and push each other every night. I think that’s what it comes down to. If you’re an older team, sometimes you might be tired or whatever, you don’t really feel like playing since there’s like 66 games in 67 nights it feels like, so some nights we’re going to have to push each other."