Mavs put chemistry on back burner

DALLAS -- Ever since teams put on uniforms and schedules were made to compete for championships, the same conundrum has been debated: Does winning beget chemistry, or the other way around?

"That's interesting," Dallas Mavericks forward Shawn Marion said. "Winning increases it that much more and that much faster, but at the same time with the guys we have, the unselfishness we have on this team, that's just going to happen.

"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."

Fourteen months ago, the Mavs walked into SMU's basketball facility to begin training camp with a resolve stirred by the disappointing first-round loss to the San Antonio Spurs. A veteran team that could easily have splintered along ego fault lines returned unified and strengthened by one goal: Each dearly wanted to win a first championship.

Players such as Marion and Caron Butler epitomized the selflessness from the start that would envelope the team to the end in Miami. Tyson Chandler was added to the roster and instantly provided the type of demonstrative leadership the team lacked in years past.

And, voila, winning came fast, and the chemistry clicked. Or did the chemistry click and winning -- a 24-5 start followed by perseverance through difficult injuries and finally a championship won with contributions from the entire roster -- followed?

That group of players hoped they'd all be back to go for it again. Instead, Chandler, offensive spark plug J.J. Barea, tenacious defender DeShawn Stevenson and Butler are no longer on the team.

Vince Carter, Lamar Odom, Delonte West and Brandan Wright are.

Those names still look strange written next to the words Dallas Mavericks. And on Sunday night when the quickly retooled Mavs took the floor for the first time against the unchanged and still youthful Oklahoma City Thunder, it looked strange, too.

"Admittedly, this team is going to have a significantly different makeup," coach Rick Carlisle said. "But, that's one of the exciting things about it as well."

And, clearly, that makeup will develop over the course of the upcoming 66-game schedule that will unfold over a rapid-fire 123 days. The roster was being constructed as training camp started on Dec. 9, and Carlisle had his full complement of players for just four days of practice before Sunday's 106-92 preseason loss to the Thunder, the first of just two preseason games before the Christmas Day season opener.

Carlisle is a process guy, so when it seemed mandatory to get a good look at combinations in a game setting, he went the other way.

Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd suited up but did not play. Jason Terry logged 5:27 in the first half and nine minutes for the game. West, Odom and Carter, who all started, played more than 20 minutes each. So did backcourt youngsters Rodrigue Beaubois and Dominique Jones, who impressed with 17 points apiece.

"The basketball part is easy and you'll figure it out," Odom said. "If you're playing in the park with a guy enough games, you'll figure out his game sooner or later. That part will come with just time on the court."

But can chemistry, on the court and off it, be recreated with a shuffled roster and so little time to prepare? Can Chandler's demonstrative leadership be replaced? Can Stevenson's tenaciousness or Barea's pick-n-roll perfection?

Or the camaraderie shared in the locker room?

"The guys that departed, there's going to have to be a collective effort to replace the things that they brought us and our guys understand that, and it goes for everything from a skill set that was brought out to the court to the personality-type things," Carlisle said. "We need our new guys to step into those kinds of opportunities -- I'd rather call them opportunities than voids -- and go from there."

Assuming Nowitzki and Kidd are in the starting lineup for Tuesday's preseason wrap-up at OKC, the defending champs will play one game together before the banner is raised and this lockout-shortened season finally begins against the Miami Heat.

Last season's Mavs might be inclined to believe that chemistry bubbled and winning ways surfaced. This time around, the formula might have to call for talent to win early and the bonding to follow.

"Our ambition when training camp starts is to win a championship every year regardless of what the situation is," Marion said. "You've got to set your goals high and we do that. With this team, the team players that we have here, the veterans that we are, we know what it takes to get it done and what we have to do and how we have to do it."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.