DALLAS — Dirk Nowitzki has an idea of what it's like to be an NBA champion. He learned one of the lessons over the years he spent being teammates with Devean George.
Nowitzki noticed that before practically every game, George found someone warming up on the other side of the court and greeted them with a smile and a hug that seemed warmer than most pregame how-do-you-do's. Nowitzki eventually asked George why. The answer: they were his teammates, guys he had one an NBA title with during one of those three magical seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers.
"Once you win a championship," George told Nowitzki, "it's like a bond. It's like family forever."
Nowitzki told that story the first day he met with reporters after the lockout. Although the last time he'd been at team headquarters was for the championship parade, a day when everyone vowed to stick together and try winning it all again, Nowitzki returned knowing the Mavericks would lose several valuable contributors.
So while Nowitzki was going to miss Tyson Chandler bailing him out on defense, J.J. Barea zipping through the lane or nailing a long 3 and Caron Butler taking some the scoring load he also knew those guys would always have a special place in his life.
And, he trusted Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson to find competent replacements.
Sure enough, the front office plugged holes with some big names, practically swiping Lamar Odom from the Lakers and signing Vince Carter. Adding that pair of 30-somethings, plus 28-year-old backup guard Delonte West, doesn't completely fill the void, but it's a good start and an indication that Cuban remains serious about trying to defend the first title in franchise history.
"We weren't the favorites to win it last year, so nobody really knows what's going to happen," Nowitzki said. "Last year, it just worked out. The chemistry was great, guys wanted to win and play with each other. To me, the team is set up kind of the same again with a bunch of older guys that want to win, who've seen basically everything in this league and have individual (accolades) but they just want to win together and off each other."
In a 66-game season, Dallas will be hard pressed to keep up its streak of 50-win seasons. There's no telling how their aging legs will handle a schedule packed with more games and fewer off-days.
The thing is, the postseason remains the same. So this veteran group understands the ups and downs of the next four months are all about getting ready for the chase of those 16 wins that matter most.
Odom certainly understands. He spent each of the last two seasons trying to defend a championship. His Lakers did it two years ago, then were swept by the Mavs in the second round last season.
"If they thought winning a championship was hard, defending it is going to be ... it's tough," Odom said. "It changes the mindset of teams, and of your team. It's tough. But if a team can do it, this one can."
Coach Rick Carlisle considers the reinvention of this team part of the challenge of repeating.
"We've got to reformulate this thing, but the guys coming in are veteran guys and they've played in a lot of big games. ... They know what it's about," Carlisle said. "If you're a new guy coming to this team, you've got to be excited. And you've got to be trying to figure out how you're going to fit in and how you're going to help this team get in position to repeat. Hey, I like the fact our team has a different look. That's a great challenge for our coaching staff. And I think our players are energized as well."
Jason Kidd is going into the final year of his contract but is already talking about playing a few more years. Jason Terry is going into the final year of his deal, but hopes to remain with the Mavericks for the rest of his career. There's no telling what will happen in the new, post-lockout landscape, especially with Cuban letting Chandler, Barea and Butler go for the sake of gaining salary-cap flexibility.
"The way things fell was unique and you know we certainly did our homework," said Nelson, the Mavs' general manager. "We got a little lucky, which is certainly part of things, and we really feel good about this thing."
Brendan Haywood becomes the starting center, the job he was expected to have last season before Chandler arrived and proved to be a perfect fit. Third-year guard Rodrigue Beaubois could become the exciting, change-of-pace player off the bench that Barea used to be, providing he's overcome his foot injuries and learned to play enough defense to satisfy Carlisle.
All those things will fall into place over time.
For now, there's one mystery remaining. The bling.
Never one for tradition, Cuban threatened to do something other than rings. He relented, but because he decided to give players input in the design, the rings won't be ready for opening night. So there will be at least two celebrations of the title: at the opener on Christmas Day — which just so happens to be against the Heat in an NBA finals rematch — and again whenever the ring ceremony is held.
"We would've loved to have raised the banner and got our rings Nov. 1, but we've had this little delay," Nowitzki said. "That (opener) can't even come fast enough. We're looking forward to it so much, just to see that banner go up.
"We're going to see it there for the rest of our careers — for the rest of our lives, really. That always means it was a special season with a bunch of guys that I loved playing with. They are always going to be like family to me, no matter where they play."