- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 21, 2011

DALLAS (AP) - 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.

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