This season has been odd for the Dallas Mavericks. Certainly it hasn't been typical of a defending champion. The NBA has more repeat champions than other sports largely because once a team's talent core matures and reaches championship level, it becomes difficult to break it up, and you're talking about only four or five key pieces at most.
Only through age and attrition do these teams truly yield their place among the elite. You might not have the same teams winning the Finals every year, but the cast of contenders is usually pretty consistent from season to season once a strong core is assembled.
There were concerns that the Mavericks' core of Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry had already grown too old to win a title before last season. Then they added Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion re-emerged as a relevant player, and the next thing you knew, Mark Cuban & Co. were raising a banner.
But Cuban and his management staff knew that change was in the air. If he attempted to lock up last year's aged roster, Dallas could have been stuck with another expensive roster offering nothing but downside. Changes to the collective bargaining agreement after the contentious negotiations left Cuban feeling that flexibility was essential in the new order of things. So he let Chandler go, acquired some stopgap veterans like Lamar Odom and Vince Carter and hoped to straddle the line between a legit defense of his title and keeping enough future cap space clear to make a run at some high-impact free agents.
We don't know how this approach is going to work out long term, but the first part -- making another title run -- is unlikely. The Mavericks have clinched a playoff spot, but at 35-28, they haven't inspired many to believe that a repeat is possible. Anything can happen -- just look at what the Mavericks accomplished last season. But right now, there just seems to be too big a gap between the Mavericks and the top teams in the West.
There's an important reality: The struggles of this season do not invalidate Cuban's strategy. If he's able to secure younger, championship-level talent to pair with Nowitzki for his declining years, it will all have been worth it. As for the short term, that might have worked, too, if not for some disappointing performances from some of Cuban's longest-tenured players. It hasn't all been bad news, though, which is why we're focusing on Dallas as we see how some of the Mavericks have performed against our projections.