ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein and MavsOutsider.com editor in chief Bryan Gutierrez will join me each week to weigh in on three questions that are on the minds of Mavericks followers.
1. Other than Dirk Nowitzki, which Maverick is most important to the team's success this season?
Gutierrez: Monta Ellis is the easy answer, but I'm going to take Samuel Dalembert. The Mavs have the potential to be scary on offense, but they need help on defense. If Dalembert can provide them with 25-to-28 minutes/game, that bodes well for them. If not, Dallas is playing a style that isn't optimal for success
Stein: I think Mark Cuban already answered this for us. Wasn't it just last week that he was referring to Samuel Dalembert as "the key" to the season? Given the limited depth behind Dalembert and all the questions about the Mavs' team D, it's hard to argue with the premise that they've got to keep him on the floor and get a tangible contribution from him ... unsettling as it must be to have so much riding on a player who, to put it charitably, has always been up-and-down.
MacMahon: If Dalembert is more important than Ellis, why is the big man making less than half as much money? You boys are so easily brainwashed. Dallas is not going to be a good defensive team. They're going to have to be potent offensively to be a playoff threat, and that means Ellis must be a high-scoring sidekick for Dirk -- and much more efficient than he was in Milwaukee.
2. What are reasonable expectations for Nowitzki at age 35?
Gutierrez: If he's healthy, Nowitzki's post All-Star break numbers of last season -- 18.9 points, 7.7 boards on .505 shooting from the field, .433 from 3-point range -- are reasonable. Those percentages might be high, but Nowitzki has the potential to get some great looks at the basket. Doubters will likely fuel his fire to a massive bounce-back season.
Stein: Don't get so hung up on the age thing. Nowitzki starts the season in much better shape at 35 than he did at 34. I honestly can't remember too many preseasons in the past where he looked this sharp this early. It's only natural that his rebounding numbers will dip a bit in Year 16, but as I've said countless times in the past, he's the last Mav that any Mav Lover should be worrying about.
MacMahon: It'll be a major disappointment if Dirk isn't seriously considered for his 12th All-Star appearance after taking a midseason trip to a Mexican beach last season instead. He proved after the break that he can still put up impressive numbers in economical fashion. No reason he can't boost that scoring average back into the 20s with the help of competent point-guard play.
3. How will the Mavs finish the season?
Gutierrez: The Western Conference is still tough as nails, but downgrades by the Nuggets and Lakers open the door for the Mavs to climb back into the playoffs. After a one-year absence, Dallas returns to the playoffs. Put me down for them finishing the year as the seventh seed with a record of 46-36.
Stein: They will be back among the West's playoff teams. I feel pretty confident about that after watching last season's motley crew squeeze out a 41-41 record with Dirk missing nearly 30 games. The ceiling is realistically 45 to 47 wins in a conference with at least 12 teams with legit playoff aspirations -- and it's all a far cry from what the organization and their fans are used to around here -- but Dallas' outlook isn't nearly as dire as many are projecting.
MacMahon: I see a team that wins 45-48 games, which should be good enough to claim one of the West's last couple of playoff spots. The Mavs will have to pull off a major upset to escape the first round. That would fall far short of the standards established by the franchise during the Dirk era, but it'd definitely be a step in the right direction of last year's miserable mediocrity.