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Monday, November 28, 2011
Updated: November 29, 10:27 AM ET
Mavericks' approach is same as always

By Jeff Caplan
ESPNDallas.com

On one hand, when the Dallas Mavericks finally collect their rings and raise the 2010-11 championship banner on Christmas Day, starting another grueling -- albeit shortened -- regular season, a new era for the franchise will have begun.

No longer can the previously title-less Mavs and Dirk Nowitzki, arguably the greatest European ever to play in the NBA and the only one to captain his team to a championship, be pushed around as a nice team and a nice guy that together will never get over the hump.

They've got their title, and Dirk has the busted middle finger, the buzzer-beaters and the self-styled "We Are the Champions" soundtrack to prove it.

Jason Terry
Guard Jason Terry said in September that the Mavericks' key to success is putting the team first.
Finally free of an extended stay at the Heartache Hotel, the Mavs can no longer be described as a franchise that fizzles under extreme heat. It now stands in elite company, boasting two NBA Finals appearances and a championship in the last five years.

On the other hand, has anything -- other than phased-in harsher tax rules that will force owner Mark Cuban to check his wallet -- really changed?

"If you look at the teams that have won [championships], they've had just tremendously dominant teams, like the Lakers and then you start doing the numbers, and the old Celtics, Philadelphia; those teams were so dominant that you knew they were going to be around," former Mavs coach Don Nelson said. "And then every once in a while somebody jumps up and is able to win a title without a dominant team and just a really good team.

"That's kind of what I think happened to the Mavericks. They've been around, they've been good; they're just not dominant. They don't overwhelm you, but you've got to be good to beat them. I don't really know that it starts another era."

And maybe the old coach is right.

Consider just how consistently good Dallas has been since its breakout 2003 campaign under Nelson, a stretch that's spanned three head coaches, a litany of player transactions and now a third collective bargaining agreement. The one constant through it all has been the Mavericks' 7-foot superstar Nowitzki.

In that time, Dallas -- despite a revolving roster that has differed drastically from the '03 Western Conference finals team to the '06 Finals team to the '11 championship team -- won at least 50 games each season, a string that has reached 11 seasons in a row.

That mark of consistency has been matched only by the Magic Johnson-era Lakers, a roster most basketball fans can still largely name to this day, and the current Spurs, whose championship continuity included current stars Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, plus the retired Bruce Bowen and Robert Horry on two of the last three title teams.

"Normally, the teams that win [championships] have three superstar players on them and again, once in a while somebody comes along like Dallas and wins a title without three superstars," Nelson said. "They had one superstar, really, and they were able to do it."

In that sense, maybe nothing really does change, no new era begins. The Heat will have its three superstars. The Spurs and Celtics will ramp up their Big Threes to make another run against Father Time. Kobe Bryant will return to chase Michael Jordan with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. The new kids in Oklahoma City -- Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden  will attempt an official changing of the guard.

Even in Memphis, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and the return of Rudy Gay will try to solidify that woebegone franchise as a rising contender.

The Mavs? They'll have Dirk and once again surround him with a deep roster that will be endlessly described as old.

They will again be a good team, and perhaps a very good team, particularly if center Tyson Chandler re-signs. But no one would dare call them dominant, and they are in no way a favorite to repeat.

They're scheduled for a heavy number of nationally televised games, an honor bestowed upon champions, but beyond the season opener against the Miami Heat on Christmas Day, the Mavs will be but a blip on the national basketball consciousness.

"All the focus again will be, 'How does Miami respond? Is this their year?' and all those underlying storylines," is how Mavs guard Jason Terry pegged it back in September. "But, for us, it's old hat. We still have the same nucleus and our key to success to winning is team, team first."

Yep, old hat.

Call it a new era if you must. The Mavs do have their title, but the approach will be the same as always.

"Our team [in 2002-03] was in that same kind of deal -- we weren't dominant, but we were good," Nelson said. "If you have a little luck along the way, you're liable to win it. That's how I felt about that team. A lot of the teams here, that's how I felt."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.