Contract-year chemistry experiment could blow up

DALLAS – Forget for a moment about the West favorite Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder.

Human nature might be the Mavericks’ toughest foe this season.

After missing on a big fish, the financially flexible Mavs put together the best possible roster without committing a penny to next season’s payroll. (OK, O.J. Mayo got a player option, but he’ll only exercise it if everything goes wrong for him this season.)

It’s a potentially volatile mix. The Mavs’ roster mainly consists of a bunch of veterans in contract years who have little if any history with each other. It’s a dangerous experiment for a franchise that prides itself so much on chemistry and culture.

“You’ve got to work harder, there’s no question about it,” owner Mark Cuban said when asked about establishing and maintaining that culture with this contract-year crew. “But it’s also been made clear that there’s more opportunity in this kind of circumstance.

“It’s not like musical chairs at the end of the roster and guys know they’re just rentals and can get cut at any minute. These are guys that have an opportunity to really contribute, really establish their careers and take themselves to the next level.”

Cuban points to the Mavs’ championship season as proof that players can thrive under these kind of circumstances. Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson, Peja Stojakovic and Caron Butler all made significant impacts for the Mavs that season as newcomers in the final seasons of their contracts.

Then again, the Mavs’ chemistry was a mess last year. Jason Terry made it clear on many occasions that he wasn’t happy with the lack of commitment to him from the front office, which opted to let Chandler, Stevenson, Butler and J.J. Barea go in free agency. The contract uncertainly couldn’t have helped the situation with Lamar Odom, although that was probably a lost cause no matter what.

“We had bigger issues – number one, me being too forgiving when everybody else was telling me not to be,” Cuban said. “I’ll take that one. I won’t be as forgiving this year. I’ve learned my lesson.”

These Mavs have already had some messes to clean up.

Delonte West’s one-year, veteran-minimum deal is at the root of his issues. He was happy to have the opportunity last season but believed he’d earned a long-term commitment from the Mavs. The market didn’t bear that, so West’s beef might not be logical, but it still resulted in a disgruntled player.

And that’s why West had to go.

The Mavs fired a warning shot with a one-day suspension when West blew up about playing time after a preseason rout of the Rockets. The main reason the Mavs are in the process of parting ways with West is because they’re worried about his influence on younger players, such as Mayo.

There was a blow-up between a couple of players after Wednesday’s preseason loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. We know that because West told ESPNDallas.com that he wasn’t involved in it but is being blamed for it. That’s further proof that the Mavs’ brass recognizes that this chemistry experiment can blow up if they’re not careful.

“I learned one thing: Don’t leave your best leaders at home,” said coach Rick Carlisle, who had Shawn Marion and Vince Carter stay home to rest along with rehabbing Dirk Nowitzki. “But we’re fine. We’re fine. We’ll be OK.”

That might be wishful thinking from Carlisle, who had assistant coach Jim O’Brien meet with each player to discuss their role in detail in an attempt to avoid me-first drama.

Just ask one of those leaders. Carter’s primary responsibilities this season will be provided scoring off the bench and guidance to keep his teammates more focused on playing their roles than their financial situation.

“If you’re not focused, if you’re not committed, hey, just sit on the side somewhere,” Carter said, acknowledging that it’s his job to keep stressing unselfishness. “I think everybody is getting that message.”

Cuban’s message to the contract-year Mavs is simple: Play your role on a winning team and you’ll get paid.

Elton Brand, who is in the last year of his amnestied contract, noted before training camp that the Mavs are one of few teams that will have significant salary cap space next summer. Therefore, it’d be smart to stay in Cuban’s good graces.

As far as point guard Darren Collison is concerned, there’s one foolproof way to maintain good chemistry.

“Win games. Focus on winning games,” said Collison, who will be a restricted free agent next summer. “If you focus on winning games, everything will take care of itself. If you focus on yourself, if you focus on your contract situation, you’re going to mess yourself up.”

That’s the way the Mavs want all their players thinking. Those who don’t might follow West out the door.