Mavs willing to clean up their mess

After an intriguing, maximum-effort stint of garbage time, fresh-off-the-scrap heap center Sean Williams unintentionally provided perfect symbolism for the start of the Dallas Mavericks' season.

Actually, the stench from the Mavs' miserable start might be even more powerful than the bench-clearing smell of Williams' regurgitated chocolate-covered almonds. It was a sloppy, disgusting scene, much like the defending NBA champions' performances during home blowout losses to the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets.

At least there is no shortage of accountability for the Mavs right now.

Much respect to coach Rick Carlisle for publicly pinning the blame on himself. The last time he did that came after a playoff meltdown in Portland, a potential catastrophe that ended up being a galvanizing speed bump in the championship parade route.

The response in the locker room to Carlisle's latest buck-stops-here routine also struck the right tone. The Mavs' veteran core is worried about working its way to solutions for its many problems, not pointing fingers.

But if we must assess blame for the Mavs' sudden, startling resemblance to their 1993 predecessors, let's begin with the billionaire who was the driving force in transforming the franchise from an NBA laughingstock to one of the most consistent winners in league history.

After all, Mark Cuban is the man who made the conscious, calculated decision to let Tyson Chandler and other key pieces of the franchise depart Dallas without much of a fight. After digesting the new collective bargaining agreement, Cuban valued maintaining financial flexibility more than keeping a one-time title team together.

It's way too early to make an informed decision about the wisdom of Cuban's plan, which will seem like a genius approach if Deron Williams or Dwight Howard come to Dallas next summer, or if the Mavs make a major upgrade in the trade market during Dirk Nowitzki's prime.

It's also probably premature to count out the Mavs as contenders this season, especially considering the fact that so many media whizzes predicted a one-and-done playoff experience a season ago. (In our defense, we only missed by three rounds and one loss.)

The early results are about as unpromising as possible, but a slow start comes as no great surprise. Cuban certainly figured that a team working in significant new pieces on the fly would stumble out of the blocks after a shortened training camp.

"I'm a firm believer that it's not how you start, it's how you finish," Cuban said, about an hour before the banner-raising ceremony and season opener.

Well, the good news is that it's gotta get better from here. The bad news is it can't get any worse -- although perhaps we should wait until the final buzzer of the Mavs' Thursday visit to Oklahoma City to face their West final foe to be sure of that.

The Mavs' basic basketball issues are obvious. They've been totally out of sync offensively, with December trade acquisition Lamar Odom looking especially lost. They've been an even bigger disaster defensively, allowing a ridiculous number of blow-by layups and transition buckets, while letting both of their opponents crack triple digits early in the fourth quarter.

From afar, Chandler suggested that management's wait-'til-next-summer approach sucked the motivation out of the Mavs, a theory Jason Terry shrugged off after a defense-intensive practice Wednesday.

"Don't care what Tyson's saying or what he's doing right now," Terry said. "He's not a Maverick, so it is what it is."

It is not logical to claim that Cuban is willing to essentially forfeit this season. If that were the case, there's no way he would have been willing to foot the $8.9 million bill this season for Odom, who has more impressive career credentials than Chandler but isn't as perfect a fit for the Mavs.

It is a matter of time before the Mavs figure things out offensively. They might miss J.J. Barea's penetration, but a healthy Nowitzki is essentially a guarantee of an above-average offensive team, especially when he's surrounded with weapons like Terry and Odom.

It is fair to wonder whether the Mavs, no matter how much they work, are capable of playing the kind of defense necessary to contend. They're trying to replace three of the most important pieces of the defensive puzzle in heart-and-soul center Chandler, tough, tone-setting 2-guard DeShawn Stevenson and brainy defensive coordinator Dwane Casey. Those voids -- especially the vocal 7-foot one in the paint -- might be impossible to mask this season.

"Old and slow and out of shape," is Dirk's description of the Mavs after two lopsided losses. The Finals MVP added that he still liked the team's potential, but only one of those three flaws can change.

Of course, the Mavs were definitely old and relatively slow while they marched to a title last season. They just got older and slower by letting Chandler and Barea go.

You can blame Cuban for creating the mess, but he probably can't clean it up until next summer. Good thing Carlisle and the Mavs' veterans are willing to grab mops and buckets.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.