Mark Cuban still believes Mavs can be better than last year

DALLAS – Mark Cuban raised some eyebrows when he claimed that these Mavericks could be better than last season’s championship team, a suggestion he first made after the revamped Mavs stumbled to an 0-3 start.

Cuban is sticking to his guns as the Mavs, whose decision to let Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson walk in free agency seems like distant memories, prepare for the playoffs.

“I think if you look at matchups, player by player, yeah,” Cuban said when asked whether he still believed these Mavs could be better than last year’s title team. “I mean, obviously we wanted one more piece that I thought we would have, but I still think we do (have a better team).”

That one more piece, of course, would be Lamar Odom. In December, Cuban believed that Odom would be a versatile weapon that would add dimensions to the Dallas offense that the Mavs have never had. In April, after Cuban finally gave up the fight to get Odom to commit to the Mavs, president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson compared counting on Odom to “going to war with wet gunpowder.”

Cuban acknowledges that the Mavs have taken a step back at center with Brendan Haywood replacing Chandler in the starting lineup. It’d be insane to argue otherwise, but Cuban insists it hasn’t been a drastic dropoff.

“He’s not Tyson in a lot of ways, but there’s some things that Tyson can’t do that Wood can do,” Cuban said. “I think not quite a push there, but I think Wood’s done a good job. And I think adding Vince [Carter], adding Delonte [West] gave us dimensions that we didn’t have last year. We’ve still got our big go-to guys.”

The Mavs’ offense has slipped drastically despite those new dimensions. The Mavs rank 21st in the NBA in offensive efficiency, down from eighth last season. They’ve managed to maintain their defensive efficiency from last season, ranking eighth both years.

When the Mavs allowed Chandler to sign with the Knicks, the conventional wisdom was that losing the team’s emotional leader and defensive anchor would be a crushing blow to the Dallas defense that improved so significantly last season. Chandler’s offensive impact as a tremendous screen-setter, finisher and offensive rebounder was overlooked but has been missed more.

The Mavs have by far the worst winning percentage (.554) of any full season during Cuban’s 12-year ownership tenure. At 36-29, they’ve lost more games in this lockout-condensed campaign than they did during the 82-game 2010-11 regular season. If the Mavs lose the regular-season finale in Atlanta, they’ll match the title team’s loss total from the regular season and playoffs combined.

Cuban is well aware of those facts. He just doesn’t consider the results of this irregular season – “dirty data,” he labeled it months ago – to be a true test of a team’s quality or a sign of things to come in the playoffs.

“Well, this isn’t quite a normal season,” Cuban said. “I’ll continue to say what I said, and you guys can reference that every team in the league has had a rough patch. When you have Wood miss [12 games], [Jason] Kidd miss [17] games out of 66, Dirk [Nowitzki] miss games, the L.O. drama, this isn’t a normal season. I’ve been pretty darn consistent.”

The Mavs have been pretty darn inconsistent. Cuban is counting on that to change when the schedule slows down to a normal pace and the games really count.