Updated: Jan. 12, 2006, 5:19 PM ET

'We haven't won anything yet'

Editor's note: ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein supplies each item for this weekly around-the-league notebook edition of the Dime.

This is not Cleveland. These are not the Clippers. It takes more than a couple of headline-grabbing routs to generate some November hoopla in Dallas, where regular-season brilliance is pretty routine.

The Mavericks have indeed registered two of the most impressive victories seen in the opening month. They also have a coach who hauls them in for an extra practice on Thanksgiving morning to remind the group -- again -- that stuffing San Antonio and Detroit is just a start.

"When we have a good victory, they seem to think that they've arrived and that the whole NBA respects them," Mavs coach Avery Johnson said. "We haven't arrived yet. They came out the last game [Tuesday against short-handed Houston] and acted like somebody was supposed to roll over for us because we're the big, bad Mavericks.

"We're not big and we're not bad yet."

Johnson, though, is quick to stress that he expects these Mavericks to get there. The Lil' General must believe it, too, because he isn't exactly pleading for patience.

It's Johnson, more than anyone else in the organization, who speaks openly about winning a championship. This is his first full season in charge, at 40, but he's unafraid to say that it won't be a successful season unless the Mavericks win at all.

"We've done everything else," he says.

The list of recent achievements includes a 14-0 start in November 2002, when Johnson was a Mavericks reserve. The more celebrated members of that team, of course, were Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley, but a trip to the Western Conference finals that season didn't spare Dallas and then-coach Don Nelson from constant heckling. Those Mavericks can claim to be the most dissed 60-win team of all-time.

The depth of the dissing is such that the Mavericks are still dismissed as soft today, even though there's only one holdover from that roster: Nowitzki. So you can persist with the old stereotype if you wish, or you can open up to the idea that the new Mavs can play a little D.

Johnson's team certainly has its own shortcomings. Nowitzki and Jerry Stackhouse are the only current Mavericks seen as consistent contributors by the coaching staff, and Stackhouse has yet to play a game this season because of a knee injury. The biggest positional sources of inconsistency, meanwhile, continue to be point guard and center, with Jason Terry and Devin Harris still struggling to fill Dallas' playmaking void . . . and Erick Dampier replacing Shawn Bradley as the local lightning rod for criticism after receiving the millions withheld when Nash left for Phoenix.

Yet you can't dismiss the progress, either. The Mavericks look deep and versatile and as athletic as they've ever been, withstanding injuries to Stackhouse and Keith Van Horn and Doug Christie's failed comeback. The defense has been more than passable so far, holding teams to 91.7 points per game and 43.4-percent shooting entering Friday's ESPN trip to Miami and thus making team officials quietly confident that this can be a top-five defensive club.

Plus they're young. There are stretches when Nowitzki, at 27, is the oldest Mav on the floor. That should give Johnson -- who's more in step with owner Mark Cuban than Nellie ever was -- a base to build a lasting contender.

"I can look at teams and see their body language," Johnson said. "You can talk about your record and talk about improving your defense and talk about beating San Antonio and Detroit, but [other teams] have to feel it for themselves. We haven't won anything yet. You have to earn people's respect.

"But this team is not soft. We have some guys that may not look like they're Rick Mahorns, but they are competitors."

• Talk back to ... Marc Stein | The Daily Dime gang

• Dimes Past: November 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19-20 | 21 | 22 | 23

Another Dish For Rookie Assist Leader
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Chris Paul has been doing it all for the Hornets, on and off the floor, but his first All-Star campaign will have to be via write-in.

Western Conference

Best center in the West? With Shaquille O'Neal out in Miami, Tim Duncan forever insistent that we call him a power forward and Amare Stoudemire sidelined, Yao Ming figured to be running unopposed here (with apologies to Erick Dampier). Turns out Houston's woes are such that Yao can't claim to be higher than No. 2, because Denver's Marcus Camby suddenly ranks as the obvious choice. It's early days, of course, and any Camby discussion comes with an obligatory reminder that Camby has played more than 70 games just once in his first nine seasons. Yet it appears that Camby, at 31, has found a new level. You can throw in the usual "if he stays healthy" disclaimer, but you simply can't snicker at 16.8 points, 13.9 boards and 3.3 blocks per game. Especially when his frontline partners (Nene and Kenyon Martin) have been largely unavailable. . . .

Just because the Clippers have uncorked the best start in franchise history doesn't mean it's a great time to be Mike Dunleavy. Scan a little further up the coast and you'll find Golden State's Mike Dunleavy doing little to hush the skepticism that greeted his fat new contract extension (nearly $45 million over six years) received on the eve of Opening Night. The Warriors are off to a decent start, especially with catalyst Baron Davis playing hurt, but the son of the Clippers' coach was shooting just 31.3 percent from the field and averaging 7.6 ppg through Thanksgiving.

With Doug Christie's Mavericks career lasting just seven games -- time enough only for a couple hundred hand signals to wife Jackie -- two defensive-minded, Dallas-based swingmen are on the list of possible successors: George Lynch and Darvin Ham. It's no lock, though, that the Mavericks will sign another veteran. They're exploring the possibilities, but they're also hoping that Jerry Stackhouse, unavailable so far because of a knee ailment, can return soon and render a move unnecessary.

Eastern Conference

Keep your eye on the next eight games for Detroit. Six of them are on the road and complete what the Pistons consider to be the toughest quarter of their schedule all season. It's hard to argue looking at the details -- 12 of those games are roadies and include three separate trips against West opposition -- which means it's going to be tough to tone down the post-Larry Brown hype if they finish that stretch with any sort of run resembling the winning streak that started it. . . .

Who will be the first team to make a trade? Ask that one in Vegas and you'll promptly be told that no one is bothering to set a betting line, thanks to Larry's presence in New York and a 3-8 start. For now, though, scratch any of the rookies from your list of trade candidates. Changes are certainly coming with the Knicks, but word is they'd like to keep Channing Frye, David Lee and Nate Robinson no matter what happens. This week, anyway.

All the fretting in Philly about Chris Webber's long-term outlook obscures the fact that Allen Iverson is just completing the first month of a four-year contract extension worth $72 million. How relieved must the Sixers be that AI, who turned 30 on June 7, doesn't exactly look like he's slowing down? (It doesn't hurt that Webber looks rejuvenated, too).

The Leading Brand
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
Elton Brand, right, says the script has flipped, because lately Sam Cassell has been selling the Clippers to him.

One on One ... To Five

Marc Stein talks with Clippers forward Elton Brand.

1. STEIN: Does it take anything away from the team's start when you keep hearing people ask: "Are the Clippers for real?"
BRAND: We feel like this isn't just some 3-0 start. We've played more than a tenth of the season. But we're not trying to hear what people on the outside say. We don't care.

2. STEIN: How hard was it for Sam Cassell to get over leaving Minnesota and Kevin Garnett?
BRAND: Sam wasn't happy when the trade first happened. But he turned around real quick. You hear all the rumors that he's tough to be around or whatever, but you can't believe what you hear or read. After coach Dunleavy talked to him and Cuttino [Mobley] talked to him and I started talking to him, it wasn't long before he was telling me how good we could be.

3. STEIN: What's different about this Clipper team and others you've played for that showed some promise?
BRAND: You have accountability now. In my early years here, we didn't have any veterans. We didn't have any guys who are supposed to know where to be and what to do.

4. STEIN: You've gone six seasons without making the playoffs. In spite of all your individual success, do you worry about how that drought affects your reputation?
BRAND: It's been difficult, but I've tried not to get too discouraged. I know you need a team to be successful. I look at the guys who were drafted around me, and other than Rip Hamilton and Shawn Marion, a lot of guys [at the top of the 1999 draft] haven't had a lot of playoff success. I'm a realist. And I'm 26. I'm still young, and I've always believed it would turn around somewhere, somehow.

5. STEIN: What about team chemistry? Will it hold up for a whole season?
BRAND: I think everybody's on the same page. What I always try to stress is that when you win, everyone gets accolades, you're looked at in a different light. If you're on a good team, that translates into notoriety for everybody.

Slams and Dunks

1. I put it to the people: Is the most worthy name left off the All-Star ballot, in either conference, New Orleans rookie point guard Chris Paul? Sure looks like it to me. . . .

2. My bad, Rockets. You can't weigh the feasibility of signing Latrell Sprewell, as suggested in a recent Weekend Dime, if Spree, as his agent states, is unwilling to play for the veteran minimum of $1.1 million. Houston still strikes me as the ideal destination for Spree, who gets glowing reviews to this day from Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy and with Van Gundy's team needing a boost even if Tracy McGrady heals. Problem is, Houston can't offer more than the minimum even if it wanted to. The Rockets are already carrying more than 15 guaranteed contracts and would have to manufacture a roster spot if mutual interest did develop. . . .

3. Denver has been tossed out as a possible destination for Portland's Ruben Patterson, but you can scratch the idea of the Nuggets parting with Eduardo Najera as part of a package for the disgruntled swingman. Nuggets coach George Karl is a big Najera fan who also needs Najera's energy in his frontcourt rotation more than ever with Nene out for the season and Kenyon Martin still recovering from off-season knee surgery.

What A Scout Says

About Houston's Yao Ming:

"He's playing better than you'd think listening to all the criticism out there. Fatigue is still an issue for him in the second half, and teams will always try to run him, but his conditioning gets a little better every year. He has really low body fat for his size.

The bigger problem with [Tracy] McGrady out is that defenses can really load up on Yao and no one else on that team takes any pressure off. He's used to that kind of attention from all those years playing for China, but in the NBA he's going against better players and [teams with] a better game plan to stop him."

Marc's Quote
"It feels disgusting, but I'd rather make a bucket or a pass than throw it out of bounds."

Suns guard Steve Nash, insisting that the ball would slip out of his hands if he didn't lick them several times a game.

A Fine Line
46 1 1 6 7 34

How do you score 22 points in a single quarter against the mighty Spurs and then score only one point in the next three quarters? To Al Harrington's relief, that's now the only uncomfortable jab he still has to absorb regularly.

The other one -- When are the Hawks finally going to win a game? -- was rendered obsolete Wednesday night when Harrington rumbled for 24 points in the first half and 10 more after intermission to help Atlanta to a 120-117 triumph over Boston, its first victory in 10 tries.



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