Kevin Jairaj-US PRESSWIRE
The Mavericks may lose tonight, as they did last opener, but are things really the same?
Once again, just like last year, the Mavericks face the prospect of an opening night demolition. It may not happen. The Lakers have not had a good preseason, and have as many chemistry issues to work out as the Mavericks do. On the other hand, the starting lineups for tonight project to be:
Nash / Collison
Kobe / Mayo
Artest / Marion
Gasol / Brand/Crowder
Howard / Curry
As I mentioned to Kirk last night, Eleanor Jesus Roosevelt is that a mismatch. So much so, I coined an exclamation. It looks like Scipio vs. Carthage. It's three likely Hall of Famers, option on a fourth, vs. two past all-stars. I feel good about the SF matchup. That's it. And, though it's easy to forget, the Lakers have Antawn Jamison on the bench.
But keep the faith, Mavs fans. There are more than enough reasons for optimism, here.
First of all, unlike last season's opener against the Heat, which was a massive destruction against a team that could not figure out the Mavs just a few months before, because of what the Mavs willingly gave up, perpetrated against the actual, primetime Mavericks lineup for that season, the team you will see tonight is not the Mavericks team.
Obviously, the Mavericks are missing their biggest piece, but Chris Kaman is not an inconsequential absence either. The Lakers kill you with length--if Curry turns out to be serviceable, if James comes along, the Mavericks will go from a point last year where they couldn't even PLAY a center against the OKC Thunder in the playoffs to having Kaman, Brand, Curry, Wright and James to throw out there.
Second of all, with the Harden trade, the Lakers now are clearly the best team in the West (as good as the trade still was for OKC, this is about this year), and frankly, I don't feel too too bad about
Nash / Collison
Kobe / Mayo
Artest / Marion
Pau / Dirk
Howard -- Kaman
Am I mental? Possibly. The Lakers clearly have more talent still, but they always did, did they not? The Mavericks have never been about head to head talent, never. They've been about a cohesive team that keeps it close and uses the one weapon they have that nobody else does (Dirk) to give them a shot. Kobe can't do what Dirk does any more. Nobody else can either. Am I worried about him not getting a training camp again, about him having to play himself into shape and get acquainted with his new teammates at the same time? Of course.
But even for a team as talented as the Lakers, as they learned with Kobe, Shaq, Payton and Malone, there are only so many shots out there. Gasol and Howard will mercilessly batter teams down low, but while they're doing that, Kobe won't be shooting and whichever one has it will keep another shot from the other one.
Meanwhile, only Howard is still an all-world defender. Kobe remains very good, but has lost a lot of mobility, Gasol was never great (and Dirk seems to take a kind of pleasure in barbequing the player many once thought was his rival), Artest has great games and horrible games and Nash is essentially a New York City subway turnstile. It's an all-world team, but it's not a certain team. Meanwhile, the Mavericks will be able to mount a credible defense with an array of big men and Shawn Marion, who gives the elite scorers in this league more fits than anybody. I'm not at all diminishing the quality of the Howard pickup for their defense, if it doesn't do at least as much as what getting Tyson Chandler did for the Mavs, it'll be an upset--but they did already have Bynum. They're not AMAZINGLY better, in that spot.
And, in the end, really, this season is not about the Lakers. It's a dream, for it to be about the Lakers, and dreams can happen in sports, but let's stick to getting this thing off the ground. The Mavericks may get destroyed tonight (they may not! Who knows!) but unlike last year, it won't be the best possible Mavericks team getting destroyed, we won't have to depend wholly on late-blooming chemistry to fix everything (as it never really did, but they did rebound from that to give a tough series to the Thunder). They can depend on getting the Big German back, hopefully with a completely healthy knee.
This is a long season. It's a real season, 82 games, paced at normal season paces, and it's starting at the right time. Let's give thanks for that. And if you end up having to avert your eyes from tonight's goings-on, console yourself with this. This is now a young team, with a lot to learn, not an old team with a lot to remember. And this will be a learning experience. And since the Mavericks are missing their only all-world player, remember, this time, this year, things are guaranteed to get better.