The forever-changing, still-winning Mavericks

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In one of their first healthy practices, the Dallas Mavericks were running through a set when Zaza Pachulia noticed the few holdover players from last year's Mavs seemed confused.

"I started making fun of them," Pachulia told ESPN.com. "I was like, 'You ran this last year, right?' And they said, 'No, this is the first time we are seeing this play.'"

Only then did Pachulia grasp the challenge of playing for the Mavericks. The NBA's quirky chameleon franchise is in its fifth season of turning over damn near the entire roster as a way of staying lean for its rabid -- and mostly failed -- pursuit of star free agents. Every season, it feels like a house of cards. And every season, the Mavericks win games -- enough to stay in the thick of the playoff race.

"Ever since we won the 'chip [championship], we've been looking at a new core basically every year," Dirk Nowitzki told ESPN.com. "It's been rough. Hopefully some of these guys will be around here for a while."

These Mavs felt more rickety than ever. The DeAndre Jordan fiasco left a mushy defense without a rim protector, and the two max-level free agents Dallas has snagged since that glorious 2011 title run, Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews, were coming off injuries that ruin careers.

If they started poorly, the Mavs would have had some incentive to tank. They owe Boston a top-seven protected pick from the Rajon Rondo disaster, and skeptics around the league -- including this one -- predicted they might engage Tank Mode if they sputtered early. Mark Cuban, the team's owner, even declared publicly during the window in which Jordan appeared to be a Mav that Dallas had been prepared to tank, had he rejected them.

But here the Mavericks are: 14-11, fifth in the confused West, nudging against the top-10 in both points scored and points allowed per possession. The Mavs have no choice now but to go all-out for a playoff spot -- a best-case scenario in which they cough up, say, the No. 18 pick to Boston, get that pain out of the way and move forward. It's unlikely they'll fashion a contender again during Nowitzki's twilight, but the annual reinvention is remarkable. How the hell are they doing this?

The simple answer, at least on offense, is that Nowitzki's ageless shooting and head coach Rick Carlisle's warlock genius can apparently carry any veteran supporting cast to 45 wins. It was unclear how the Mavs would remold their offense after letting Tyson Chandler walk -- again. Chandler rolling for lob dunks, four shooters spotting up around him, was the fulcrum of a fun-and-gun pre-Rondo system that blitzed the league.

It turns out, Dallas needed a slight recalibration, rather than a total overhaul. The team traded a few pick-and-rolls for more intricate pieces of five-man basketball chess: classic Carlisle and Terry Stotts "flow" sets, with Pachulia and Nowitzki helming the elbows and a whir of on-ball and off-ball screens unfolding around them. Only three teams have set more on-ball screens, and only five have nailed opponents with more off-ball picks, per SportVU data and numbers crunched to ESPN.com by Vantage Sports.

The offense has been a perfect fit for Pachulia, a cinder block screen-setter and expert passer who has saved the Mavs' season after Dallas stole him from the Bucks for nothing.

It helps that most of the Mavericks' core lineups sport four capable 3-point shooters. Opposing defenses have to honor everyone; one good shooter screening for another creates a special kind of panic. The Mavs have collected smart players who read the game in snapshots, guys who can improvise an off-ball screening ballet and understand how to cut against the defense's expectations. They keep you guessing all over the floor until someone breaks. Mike Muscala doesn't help at the rim here because he's preoccupied with a second screening action happening nearby.

Dallas is always adding new wrinkles, because nobody outworks Carlisle. When Pachulia arrived, Carlisle introduced himself by saying he had just watched Pachulia's last 100 shots in Milwaukee, Pachulia said. When Pachulia was settling into bed in Portland around 2 a.m. Dec. 1, hours after a loss to the Kings and a short flight north, he got a text from Carlisle asking him to come to Carlisle's room for film study.

The new plays and video work can be tough to internalize, so Carlisle has stepped up his game-day tests, players say. He has ditched pen-and-paper for iPad-based exams. Players watch clips of the Mavs or their next opponent, and the clips freeze at key moments. Then a multiple-choice question pops up asking what the Dallas player pictured should do: switch on defense, pass to a cutter, go under a screen, etc. The team grades players on speed and accuracy, though some of the veterans, including Nowitzki, blow off the tests.

Not Pachulia. "I was like, 'Come on, a test?'" he said. "I did this in school, but not in basketball. But it works. You take the tests, and you start to remember things better."

When they want to keep things simple, the Mavs can still score directly out of the pick-and-roll. Pachulia can't dunk like Chandler, but Chandler can't pass and dribble in open space like Pachulia.

Both Raymond Felton and Deron Williams have revitalized their drive-and-kick games in contract years, and J.J. Barea should fork over at least half his career earnings to Nowitzki and Carlisle. Predictably, Matthews struggled early, but he's starting to find his footing. He ripped 10 3s against the Wizards last week, and he is rediscovering his mean-spirited post-up game.

The Mavs don't drive or dunk as much as they did with Chandler vacuuming up space, but some of the big-picture results are the same: the most catch-and-shoot jumpers in the league, lots of 3s and killer ball movement. There is something Hawksian about the post-Chandler Mavericks. They won't beat themselves, either; they have the second-lowest turnover rate in the league, the happy result of loading up on savvy veterans and building around a jump-shooter.

There is still room for improvement. Dallas has canned just 34 percent of wide-open 3s, the third-worst mark in the league, per SportVU data. If that changes, the offense could really start humming. Devin Harris has underperformed, the Matthews-Parsons pairing hasn't worked yet, and Parsons' minutes limit has prevented Carlisle from deploying him much as a small-ball power forward while Nowitzki sits.

Then there is Nowitzki, still the keystone for everything this team is on and off the floor. Historically great shooting from a 7-footer who sets more screens than almost anyone has been an uncrackable code for two decades. Drop off of Dirk to corral a ball-handler, and it's high-arching death from deep.

Stick close to Nowitzki in fear of that pick-and-pop jumper, and some Dallas ball-handler is bolting into the lane -- with passing options galore:

Chandler's central role allowed Nowitzki to cut his post-ups, but with Chandler in Phoenix, Nowitzki is backing down there like old times. That is Nowitzki's old-school response to the new-school, small-ball power forwards trying to check him.

"We're making an effort to post me early against those guys," Nowitzki said. "We don't want teams getting comfortable playing 48 minutes of small ball."

Nowitzki has long set a self-deprecating tone that shows every newcomer no one is bigger than the team. He is merciless in mocking everyone and happy when people toss insults back. "You should learn Chinese because you'll be in China soon," is one of his favorite ways of needling someone after a bad game.

The Mavs even ridicule the wounded. After wins in which, say, Parsons sits out, the team will chant, "Parsons out, Mavs roll!" They do it for everyone as a gentle reminder: "We can survive without you."

But they can't survive without Dirk, and beneath all the fun is an intense, 24-hour regimen that gets Nowitzki game-ready. He sleeps as much as he can, eats well and experiments with every gadget Cuban buys. The Mavs are one of a few teams with high-tech, wobbly balance boards from an Italian company called Delos. The boards challenge players to stay balanced while doing various leg-strengthening exercises. Both board and player are hooked up to a computer, which measures how steady players keep themselves and alerts them when they drift to one side. Casey Smith, the Mavs' head trainer, asked his fellow trainers and found Nowitzki has the best balance of any player measured, he said.

That isn't an accident. Nowitzki spends part of every pregame warm-up shooting left-handed, and though it looks like he's goofing around, he's training his body to stay perfectly symmetrical, regardless of how he moves. His jumper remains pristine.

That jumper should be the fulcrum of a strong offense all season. The Mavs just need to pray their defense holds up.

The Mavericks laughed as they headed into the locker room in L.A. early last month, ready to celebrate after blowing out the Lakers in their third game of the season.

But Pachulia wasn't having it. Before Carlisle walked in, Pachulia chastised his teammates for letting Kobe Bryant pop open on a set play -- a play they'd see over and over, he told them -- late in the fourth quarter, when the game was already decided. Teammates and staff stood silent, unsure whether to laugh or nod.

"Man, we can't even enjoy a win?" Nowitzki reacted.

But his teammates understood Pachulia's message: We don't have the talent to cut corners on defense. The Mavs are slow, shallow and ground-bound. When they let Monte Mathis, their longtime defensive coordinator, leave for the Magic, it was part of a larger decision to stop revamping the defense for every opponent and instead settle into a general scheme everyone could understand, team sources said.

The scheme is vanilla: Dallas drops back against the pick-and-roll to wall off the paint and force midrange jumpers. The Mavs will let you drive and kick to a 3-point shooter, so long as that shooter is all the way across the court -- far enough that Dallas can scamper over to him while the ball is in the air.

It's a sound scheme, but it feels at times like it's held together by Scotch tape. Teams aren't taking the midrange bait; they're grinding away for better stuff. Only the Nets and Kings have allowed more 3s than the Mavs, and there is some luck at work in opponents' canning just 33 percent so far. Opponents have hit almost that exact mark on triples on which no Dallas defender is within 6 feet of the shooter -- the fourth-lowest such mark in the league, per NBA Savant tracking. Team officials wince at every open 3, fearing it will trigger the reversal of fortune they know is coming. Otto Porter might have been patient zero; he drained 4-of-8 from deep over the weekend as the Wizards lit up Dallas.

Even when they coax skip passes, the Mavs don't have the collective speed to outrun the ball.

A lot of their perimeter players are old or easing back from injury, and they haven't been able to keep drivers in front of them on help-and-recover assignments.

If you can get near the basket against the Mavs, you'll probably score. They have no rim protection; enemies are shooting almost 62 percent in the restricted area, one of the highest marks in the league.

Porter's eruption was instructive in another way: It came at Dirk's expense, even though the two weren't lined up in terms of position. The Mavs had Matthews guard Jared Dudley, Washington's nominal power forward, while Nowitzki hid on Porter. They had used the same trick two nights earlier against Atlanta, with Nowitzki camped out on Thabo Sefolosha and Matthews -- coming off a freaking Achilles tear -- left to hang with Paul Millsap.

The Mavericks are straining more than ever to preserve Nowitzki, and smart teams will punish them for it. Washington involved Porter in a ton of screening action, shuttling Nowitzki around until Porter popped open. The Dirk gimmickry creates issues as the Mavs transition from offense to defense, since players have to scramble to find their assignments. Dallas cannot win that kind of foot race, and everyone knows it. The Mavericks have a cardinal rule: Only the center is allowed to crash the offensive glass. Everyone else has to run back on defense.

As a result, Dallas is dead last in offensive rebounding, but opponents are still sprinting to nearly 15 fast-break points per game -- one of the highest marks in the league. Dallas' low turnover rate might help the defense as much as the offense. If the game descends into the fast-paced chaos of live-ball turnovers, Dallas will lose. Explosive athleticism trumps smarts when the game gets too fast.

The Mavs seem prone to regression on defense, especially as the schedule -- easy so far, though heavy on road games -- brings on better competition. But they have banked enough wins in an unsteady conference that they should make the playoffs, provided they stay healthy.

That's nice, but it doesn't answer the larger question: Can the Mavs build something that lasts?

The answer depends almost entirely on Matthews and Parsons. If they get back to peak form, the Mavs have an in-their-prime wing duo around Nowitzki that might (finally) attract a stud free agent. Dallas has several paths to max cap space around Nowitzki, Parsons and Matthews, and depending on some variables, the team might be able to use that space and then re-sign at least one of Williams and Pachulia via its Bird rights. (Williams' situation is tricky. Assuming he declines his player option, the Mavs will have only limited form of Bird rights on him. Long story short: If Williams wants a fat raise, Dallas will need to use cap space. Dwight Powell is also a restricted free agent, though subject to special salary constraints.)

Players like Dallas, and many will take one-year discounts to revive their careers there. But when they do well, as Al-Farouq Aminu did on a preposterous, one-year minimum deal, the Mavs can't afford to keep them without cannibalizing cap space.

A healthy core of Nowitzki, Matthews and Parsons, plus an unnamed free-agent star, makes for at least an interesting team, if not a legit rival for Golden State and San Antonio. But if Matthews and Parsons stagnate or decline into the new-age Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, as Cuban described the potential worst-case scenario on my podcast, then Dallas really has nothing after years of neglecting the draft. Most contenders whiff on picks in the 20s, but Dallas doubled-down by trading out of the lottery and flipping future picks in deals for Lamar Odom and Rondo that didn't work out.

The Mavs know they have to restock. So far, they have rebuffed any informal interest in Justin Anderson, sources say, and they need to hoard their future first-round picks. They probably will. Cuban told me in August he (correctly) thinks rookie contracts, set in stone at specific dollar amounts, will look "like gold" as the cap skyrockets.

Still, the downside is severe. The Dirk era will end at some point, and the Mavs haven't prepared for it as thoroughly as one would like. But this season is another reminder that as long as Dirk and Carlisle are here, we should never underestimate Dallas. They just win.

10 Things I Like and Don't Like

1. The Hornets' buzzing around on defense

Under Steve Clifford, Charlotte had almost no history of playing top-shelf defense without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but here they are 14-9 and ranked sixth in points allowed per possession -- a hair behind the juggernaut Warriors. The Hornets don't sport many obvious above-average individual defenders, especially among the bench crew of Spencer Hawes, Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lamb and Jeremy Lin.

This goes beyond the team's absorbing the rules of Clifford's ultra-conservative drop-back defense. The Hornets bounce on their toes, hyper-alert, a five-man force field bending and stretching as needed. They sense who needs coverage, where the next rotation should go and, in the event of a painful choice, which enemy shooter requires more attention. That is the product of preparation, coaching and the sort of constant engagement too mentally draining for weaker teams. One confused pause can snap the chain. Watch the Jeremys snuff out two potential Miami triples and strangle a promising Miami possession.

Clifford has these guys busting it on both ends.

2. The Lakers' aimless flex sets

The Lakers' half-court offense can sink into such a morass, you almost long for the days -- just a couple weeks ago! -- when Kobe was jacking as soon as he crossed half-court. On too many possessions, the Lakers look like robots jogging to their spots, with a big at either elbow, wings filling the corners and a ball-handler up top. It sometimes takes so long to set up that you'll catch Roy Hibbert -- not exactly a speedster -- clapping at his teammates to get moving.

Most L.A. lineups just don't have the collective cutting, passing and speed to play this way. Things get zippier when Jordan Clarkson and D'Angelo Russell share the floor, and boy, would it be fun to see more of Russell running a spread pick-and-roll attack. Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. don't quite have the shooting chops to spot up as stretch power forwards in that sort of system, but they can compensate with other skills.

3. Ian Mahinmi catching you off-guard

Blue-collar big men usually get the ball at the elbow just to move it along with a dribble handoff to a more famous person. They are connectors, meant to be invisible. Ninety-five times out of 100, they execute their usual thing and drift away.

But those other five times? The cogs break free and seek out glory. Fall asleep assuming another handoff is coming, and they'll fake that sucker like Peyton Manning, lurch to the rim on an awkward dribble-drive and lay the ball in as the defense stands slack-jawed. Nick Collison and Zaza Pachulia are experts at this, so much so that Pachulia sent Nowitzki a YouTube montage of his highlights during the preseason just to prove it.

"I was dying," Nowitzki said.

Joining them this season: Ian Mahinmi.

The Pacers' rude exiling of Roy Hibbert had a flip side: They telegraphed as early as April that Mahinmi would be the starter in a small-ball lineup, and he spent all summer working to become a more well-rounded offensive player. It has paid off.

4. The delightful awkwardness of Thaddeus Young

Young is shooting 53 percent overall and 55.5 percent on post-ups, and there are times when you just don't understand how he is doing this. He embarks on these twitchy journeys of spins, fakes and dribbles against some guy 2 inches taller, and midway to the rim, you say to yourself, "This isn't going to end well." Then the ball goes through the hoop.

Young's whole game is just a half-second off the usual NBA cadences, and that disrupts defenders used to timing their jumps a certain way. That lefty half-hook is out of his hand a hair earlier than almost anyone would release it and perhaps a little lower in his jump -- with his body not yet turned 75 percent toward the rim. By the time the big fella defending Young realizes he has to jump, the ball is 12 feet off the ground.

And sometimes, he does this.

I mean ... sure. Young is a flickering light in a dungeon of poop.

5. The emergence of Allen Crabbe

Over the past month, Crabbe has shot 54 percent overall, including 49 percent from deep, and has emerged as an all-around crunch-time weapon for the Trail Blazers. He is more comfortable attacking off the bounce once Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum kicks to him, and his footwork on defense has improved massively since the first few weeks of the season. He isn't close to a stopper, and he is undersized as a small forward when Terry Stotts slides him there, but Crabbe is bouncing on his toes and is capable of helping inside, closing out on a shooter and keeping that guy in front of him.

The lineup of Lillard, McCollum, Crabbe, Aminu and Mason Plumlee is becoming a fourth-quarter staple.

6. Aaron Gordon closing out from nowhere

There are only a few defenders who can teleport from someplace outside your field of vision when an enemy jump-shooter rises to right smack in the middle of the camera shot by the time the unsuspecting gunner releases the ball. Aaron Gordon is one such player. This is positively Brow-like.

7. Melodramatic ref-on-ref pointing

You'll see this once every few games: A ball rolls out of bounds near a bunch of limbs, and the nearest referee won't have a clear view of which player touched it last. That ref will shrug and VERY DRAMATICALLY point across the court at one of his partners: "I didn't see that, did you? YOU BETTER HAVE BECAUSE I AM POINTING AT YOU."

That's a lot of pressure!

8. Toronto's new jerseys

I love these babies. The font and wider-than-usual space between the letters combine to give off an old-school print vibe. The soft gray-silver shadowing around the letters has a calm, muted tone, to the point that the jerseys almost look softer than normal. It's a nice contrast to the garish red-on-black shadowing of the old unis. The black road alternate is especially sharp, and the white lettering really dazzles against the black background.

Jersey wonks will notice the big "T" stitched into the side of the shorts right above a basketball in an artful representation of the city's "T-Dot" nickname. That's good because none of the team's jerseys include the word "Toronto" across the chest. I miss that, but it's a bold move to market the Raptors as Canada's team.

Side note: the special black-and-gold Drake Night jerseys are the worst of the bunch.

9. The Heat without Dwyane Wade or Goran Dragic

Lineups without either crafty ball-handler are actually faring well, mostly behind killer defense, but they have felt like a bit of a waste of Dragic, especially when he was struggling to find his place in Miami's slow-poke offense. If Wade is sitting, let Dragic try to find some of his manic magic. It's hard to manage that while still getting enough run for Gerald Green and Tyler Johnson, but it's worth some juggling.

10. "Niiiiice" by Hubie Brown

I could have a Hubie-ism here every week. This might be my favorite: those times when Hubie stops all analysis midstream to stamp a gorgeous pass with an excited, drawn out, "Niiiiiiccceee." If Hubie says it's nice, it's really nice.