Your ’08-09 Dallas Mavericks: Still Good. Still Not Good Enough.

Make-or-break year for him. And his team.

Don’t believe it. The Mavericks, overnight, did not grow old and tired and shitty.

Everywhere you surf entering tonight’s opener against the Houston Rockets – especially here – you hear how Dallas will be lucky to win 45ish games and lucky to make the playoffs.

Don’t believe it. Their freshness date hasn’t quite expired.

This team won 51 games last season. The nucleus – sorry, Sarah Palin, the nuke-u-luss – returns from the group that went to the NBA Finals in ’06 and in ’07 went 67-15. Two major changes: Jason Kidd for Devin Harris; Rick Carlisle for Avery Johnson.

Bottom line: The Mavericks finish 53-29, good for 5th in the Western Conference.

Here’s how:

The psychology will be improved. Redemption as a motivation? Sure. A season-long referendum on Avery’s “little dictatorship”? Absolutley. Playing for contracts (Kidd) and reputation (Josh Howard) and closure (Dirk Nowitzki)? Check.

But the main difference – the biggest improvement – will be not between the ears, but rather the lines.

Not to get too X’s and O’s on you, but Avery vs. Carlisle is basically Isolation vs. Movement. Carlisle, who orchestrated drastic improvements in his first seasons at both Detroit and Indiana, will implement a “2-3 High” half-court set predicated on bringing his center and forward to the elbows instead of the low blocks. In theory, this allows room for cutters and creativity. Johnson’s offense, to the contrary, nine times out of 10 positioned Nowitzki by himself with little or no Plan Bs or Cs.

The end result? Kidd, who I say is the key to the whole damn thing, will be passing and cutting in the half court and running and creating in the open court. Last year, it was painful -- and illogical -- to watch him merely standing, a last-ditch, set-shooting option 25 feet from the basket.

Much of what we see, however – and what Avery critiques from his new ESPN platform – will be remarkably familiar.

The starting five: Kidd, Antoine Wright, Howard, Dirk and Erick Dampier. Wright is supposed to bring early energy and athleticism. We’ll see. Off the bench come Jason Terry, Jerry Stackhouse, Brandon Bass and DeSagana Diop. At the end of the bench, we’re no longer subjected to aging, limited vets like Adrian Griffin, Trenton Hassel and Eddie Jones. Now we’ve got young, limited vets like Gerald Green and Shawne Williams. Hey, if you’re gonna suck, younger is better, right?

When push comes to shove and the games get meaningful, it’s highly doubtful that J.J. Barea and Wright and Green see the floor. Kidd’s backup point will be – should be – Terry. None of this, of course, is remotely counting on any consistent production from Devean George. Finger? Foot? Spleen? You know it’s gonna be something.

To me, it comes down to Kidd. Freed from Avery’s constraints and given a blank canvas, does he have a bushel of triple-doubles left in him or is he merely a Terrell Owens in sneakers – sadly, starkly in decline?

“Our goal is not to make the playoffs,” says Dirk. “Our goal has to be a championship team. We can't be satisfied just making the playoffs. We're not that far off. If we can run this offense and stay solid defensively, we can play with anybody in this league.”

Well, almost anybody. The Lakers, with the addition of healthy center Andrew Bynum, are clearly the best in the West. The Rockets, Suns and Jazz are the only other teams undoubtedly superior to Dallas. San Antonio will fall off due to Manu Ginobli’s injury. The Hornets? I dunno, just smells like a one-hit wonder. Portland’s Greg Oden played all of 13 minutes before getting hurt again and derailing the Blazers’ big breakout year.

So, the Mavs will be better.

Still good. But still not quite good enough.

Right? Your predictions are welcomed, if not demanded. – Richie Whitt


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