Prediction time. And, wow, how do you predict how this revamped Dallas Mavericks team will finish a 66-game regular-season schedule over 123 days when the full squad didn't even play one preseason game together?
In fact, the Mavs didn't even finish off the roster until Sean Williams signed Wednesday. Training camp opened Dec. 9, yet Lamar Odom and Vince Carter didn't arrive until a few days later, and Delonte West after that, so coach Rick Carlisle has had his full unit for all of about a week. Add to it that illness kept Brian Cardinal from practicing one day, Brandan Wright from playing in the first exhibition game and Jason Terry and West from playing in the second.
Then there's still the shock factor involved in the deflating losses of Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and also Caron Butler. Odom has his own shock factor to overcome in no longer playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, where he won two titles and played the last seven seasons and probably figured he'd play seven more.
And what about Vince Carter? Can this guy still get it done?
With that, Dallas Mavericks, get out there and defend your title.
Could things be any zanier with the season opener quickly approaching on Christmas Day against the -- by comparison -- remarkably stable Miami Heat?
The Mavs might be in flux, but as defending champions they know there will be no sympathy. Hey, it's a jungle out there.
"The constant this year is going to be that the teams we play are going to have the increased edge because they're playing the champions," Carlisle said. "I went through this in 1986-87 -- the year after we won the title in Boston. We saw how it was. Every night it's a championship game. I can talk about it all day long and try to get the guys ready for it. But until the games start coming, we won't really know what it's about. And it's going to add to the challenge. But that's part of it."
The Mavs' two preseason losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who like the Heat did not undergo major changes -- in fact no changes at all -- did lend credence to the notion that Dallas won't get off to a roaring start. The first 15 games will be played in 23 days and includes matchups against Miami, Denver, two against Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Boston, the Lakers and the new-and-improved Clippers.
And, oh yeah, 12 of those games are back-to-back sets.
"Of course, we’ve got to get a feel for where the new guys are going to be at and situations and stuff like that, but for the most part we just walk in and play ball," forward Shawn Marion said. "There’s always going to be some waves. At the same time, you’ve got to be able to take the good with the bad and learn from it."
So, let's get on with the predictions.
Jeff Caplan, ESPN Dallas beat writer
Like everyone else, I expect the Mavs to have their issues early on as assimilation proves challenging. After the lockout, the roster reshaping was fast and furious and inconveniently intertwined with training camp. Carlisle has proven to be quite proficient in finding workable combinations and mixing and matching to suit different situations. He has a deep team at his disposal and he will find lineups that work. The big question is whether he can implore this team to discover a defensive backbone with Chandler now supplying one for Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. My guess is probably not as strong as they will need, and that's going to produce a lot of shootouts, but in the end it won't be a team capable of repeating.
Predicted record: 40-26
Tim MacMahon, ESPN Dallas beat writer
A slow start should probably be expected from a team fitting in new pieces, especially after seeing the Mavs struggle in the preseason. There will be bumps down the road, too, as the Mavs make resting old legs a priority. The goal is to peak for the playoffs again.
Predicted record: 40-26
Marc Stein, ESPN.com senior NBA writer
The Mavs won't slip as far without Tyson Chandler as you think. Especially not in the regular season because they've still got a lot of depth and versatility after the arrival of Lamar Odom -- one of the best players in league history with zero All-Star invites on his resume -- as a one-year bridge between Chandler and whoever Mark Cuban lands with all that cap space he's amassing. The streak of 11 consecutive 50-win seasons is going to perish thanks to the 66-game condensed schedule. The dropoff in rim protection minus Tyson, furthermore, will eventually punish Dallas in the playoffs. But this group can still get to the West finals. Bank on 41 wins for Dirk and his Mavs at worst.
Predicted record: 41-25
Chuck Cooperstein, Mavs play-by-play voice
After a bumpy start which will see them naturally struggle to assimilate their new pieces, the Mavericks will finish strong and will be a very entertaining team to watch. They will be like the Nellie teams of '02-'05, with a better defensive presence. But, like the Nellie teams (and every other Mavericks team besides 2011), they don't have the necessary presence in the middle to take them all the way.
Predicted record: 43-23
Jeff "Skin" Wade, co-host of "Ben & Skin Show" 103.3 FM ESPN and Mavs TV sideline reporter
The Mavs will once again have a strong playoff run riding the shoulders of the Big German, but their age and demanding schedule prove too tough to overcome and they eventually run out of gas against a younger, hungrier team. But, it'll be a solid year for a franchise transitioning into their next phase with over $20 million in cap space in the summer of 2012 to build a squad for the few remaining years of Dirk's peak. The real trick is for Dallas to know for certain by the end of the season what they have in Roddy B, DoJo and possibly even Brandan Wright.
Predicted record: 40-26