DALLAS -- For almost a month, every morning in Mavsland has started the same way. Sidney Moncrief steps up to the greaseboard near the Mavericks' practice court and writes out a Defensive Tip of the Day in big letters. With footnotes. These are classroom-style tutorials about getting back in transition, reminders to step up and take charges, simple instructions to be alert for that long, lost commodity in Dallas known as a steal.
It's a job Moncrief got mainly because, near as we can tell, he has the best handwriting on the coaching staff. It's a fitting assignment, too, seeing as though Moncrief might still be the best defender in the organization, 11 years since his last NBA game.
Which means Sidney's a guy who should have the Mavericks' attention, since no message that reinforces D in Big D is too obvious. After the most successful regular season in franchise history, and a second-round spanking from Sacramento, the Mavericks made only minor tweaks to their roster, shuffling a few bench players in and out. Internal improvement from the team leaders, then, is going to be the primary means for Dallas to proceed on the upward arc that has made it one of the league's top five teams.
More than they did in any of their Milwaukee training camps, where Moncrief reigned as an all-league stopper for Nelson and Harris, the Mavericks placed a total emphasis on defense for the first two weeks of practices. It actually started around draft day when owner Mark Cuban hung a banner in the practice facility highlighting the numbers that even casual fans here can now cite: 115 layups or dunks allowed among Sacramento's 207 field goals in the Kings' 4-1 series victory in Round 2. The movement continued when Nelson decreed that the Mavericks wouldn't run a single offensive play in workouts for those first two weeks, while imploring their high-octane stars to make defense the priority.
The coaches chided Steve Nash and Nick Van Exel for their shared standing as the league's most invisible point guards in terms of steals per minute; Nash averaged one every 53.5 minutes last season, Van Exel one every 56.7. Putting rebounding under the same heading as defense, they've railed at the long and athletic Michael Finley for averaging just one board every 7.6 minutes. Most of all, they told Dirk Nowitzki that it's not enough any more to be the offensive face of the team of free-scoring foreigners with the madcap owner named Cuban.
"How do you get better?" Harris asked. "There are only two areas of the game -- offense or defense -- and we're already No. 1 on offense.
"If Dirk wants to be considered one of the top five guys in this league, he can't just play the same game he did last year. He has to play both ends of the court, like any great player."
Said Nelson: "I think when you're building a team that's not very good, you tend to focus more on offense to make your team competitive. Training camps change once you get good (and) win 50 games. That's when you have to go back to the basics and reinforce defense.
"The biggest improvement has really been Dirk, moving his feet more and making defense a priority. But if you want to be a good defensive team, you need good individual defenders who can really stop a guy, and we don't have many of those. (Raja) Bell would be the only real stopper I have."
That's why zones will again be a key element of the Mavericks' look, in the hope they have a squad of passable team defenders by the time the playoffs start. Nowitzki insists that the difference will be noticeable from the whole group, pointing out that "everyone has really been taking charges lately," not just the gritty Eduardo Najera.
The wild card, as ever, is center Shawn Bradley, who fell afoul of the most tolerant fan base of his career by reporting to camp in woeful shape last October after signing a seven-year, $30.5 million contract. Worse yet, Bradley lost the confidence of his teammates and coaches to the point that even the perpetually positive Nash and Finley could be seen barking at Bradley during the rare occasions he did play. Bradley, though, worked harder than he ever has in the offseason, meeting up daily with new strength coach Robert Hackett (who helped bulk up Pau Gasol in Memphis). They're praying Bradley can reinvent himself as a deterrant at the rim.
Having been teased by Bradley before, the Mavericks remain internally skeptical. Thing is, they know they need him blocking shots or at least changing them -- as well as a contribution from a slimmed-down Evan Eschmeyer -- to be able to get away with playing Nash and Van Exel together in their preferred, but small, backcourt. Nelson has simplified Dallas' defensive looks, in part because Bradley also struggled last season adapting to the new rules that required fast movement in and out of the paint. Skeptical as they are, Nelson makes it clear that Bradley "will be on the floor," with the hope that he can at least be the guy who stood up to Karl Malone for the final three games of Dallas' first-round victory over Utah two springs ago.
"I'm proud of Shawn for his effort, but realize it takes time to build a base," said Cuban, a cautious tone coming even from Bradley's biggest backer.
"We are focusing on team defense and we are starting to see results. A single preseason can't change a team. Instead we look at this as a season-long process. It's not how we start the season, it's how we end."
That belief stems from how it ended a year ago, with the Mavericks going 57-25 to finish just shy of the Midwest Division summit but virtually deleting defense from its practice routine after the February arrival of Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz. The only newcomers are Bell, Popeye Jones and Walt Williams, with Jones -- expected to be the most significant contributor after a full season of good board work in Washington -- struggling with myriad injuries since camp started.
Dallas made ambitious free-agent reaches for Rashard Lewis and Michael Redd in spite of salary-cap limitations, but Van Exel notes that surliness from this team still comes from its little guards -- since he and Nash (besides Najera) are the most likely Mavericks to rumble. Van Exel feels toughness, more than another scoring small forward, should have been the Mavericks' target.
"We need to be a little mean," Van Exel said. "You can't be buddy-buddy all the time. You have to be nasty. I'm going to try to be nasty. Shawn Bradley is trying to be nasty, but I don't think people really respect Shawn Bradley like that. We've got to get a mean streak somewhere, somehow. You need a bully or a bruiser, and we don't have one of those."
Cuban counters by expressing a need for patience, and it's tough to argue given where this franchise was just a short time ago: 9-21 when he assumed operating control of the Mavericks in January 2000, 141-75 since. Indeed, the talk of camp a year ago was not messages on a greaseboard but Charles Barkley's contention that the Mavericks were ripe for a slip. Instead they went from 53 wins to 57, and Cuban's goals for this season are more modest.
"I don't care how many games we win in the regular season, just that we make the playoffs and that we're rested when we do," Cuban said. "I look at history as our guide. It took Jordan and Shaq eight years each to win a championship. I think we're making the right steps as a team."
No need, in other words, to activate Mr. Moncrief.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.