Lakers guard Kobe Bryant tries to split the defense of fellow future Hall… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Dallas -- First things first. This isn't a return to the Mav-wrecks era, when bad things happened to an ineffective Dallas franchise, most notably zero championships in 30 years of existence until last June.
It's not like Big D now stands for Doubtful. Or Disastrous. Or Defenseless, though a peek at some box scores a few weeks ago might provide evidence of that.
It's more about defending a championship that came out of nowhere seven months ago, arriving almost too quickly to be true, with the snap of fingers by the alleged basketball lords.
The old guys in Dallas took out Portland, swept the Lakers, brushed back young-and-fun Oklahoma City and ended Miami and its Big Three's dreams in the NBA Finals.
Now comes the hangover.
Gone are free agents Tyson Chandler, Jose Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and Caron Butler. In their places are the ever-aging Vince Carter, underperforming Brendan Haywood, still-adjusting Lamar Odom and Delonte West (third team in the last three seasons).
Three weeks ago, the Mavericks unfurled their championship banner on opening night against Miami and then got rolled, 105-94. They lost by 22 points the next night, also at home, against Denver. Don't forget another 22-point loss at San Antonio.
The Mavericks (8-5) have straightened out recently, winning five consecutive games, including a record-setting 99-60 victory Saturday in which they held Sacramento to the lowest shooting percentage (25.6%) and fewest points ever for a Dallas opponent.
Still, there's a lot of talk about last season.
"It starts defensively," said forward Dirk Nowitzki, whose stats are down across the board. "Even last year when we were great offensively, we were solid defensively. When we had to take the ball out all the time [after baskets], that's when we got in trouble.
"That's when we got stagnant sometimes and it's going to be the same this year. When we establish ourselves defensively and get even better, I think the sky is the limit."
Nowitzki, 33, is averaging 17.7 points and 5.2 rebounds, numbers he hasn't posted since 1999-2000, his second NBA season.
Jason Kidd, 38, has been troubled by a bad back, sitting out four games and not doing much when healthy. He is averaging 4.9 points and 4.7 assists, production that would set career lows if it continued.
NBA followers figured the Mavericks staggered out of the gate because of six games in eight days. Others pointed to a starting lineup with an average age of 32 years. The Mavericks' super sub, Jason Terry, is 34.
The schedule has a tightly wound 66 games in 121 days and won't get easier soon. Dallas has sticky games this week at Staples Center against the Lakers and Clippers.
There's no panicking in Texas. None.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called the slow start "irrelevant."
"We haven't come close to playing good basketball yet," Cuban said before Saturday's blowout. "There's going to be rough periods in the future as well just because the schedule's so crazy."
There were enough people Saturday to make it 407 consecutive sellouts at American Airlines Center, and there were surprisingly few symbols of the championship trophy. Other than the new banner, the only whiff of success was a small image of the Larry O'Brien trophy on a beer advertisement 40 rows up.
Deep inside the arena, the likeness of the trophy is pinned inside each player's locker, as has been the case for more than a year. Even the newcomers have the image in their stalls, printed in color on an 81/2-by-11-inch sheet.
Can the Mavericks get there again?
"Obviously, it's not going to be easy," Nowitzki said. "There's really nothing to talk about but just get better. Hopefully, this team is going to peak when the playoffs roll around, and then we'll see how far we can go."