Mavs' Carlisle Era Begins Thursday

Mavs play Houston at the AAC Thursday night

The posters harping on defense are gone from the practice court. So is the high-pitched, Cajun twang.

Otherwise, at first glance, the 2008-09 Dallas Mavericks sure look a lot like the group that got bounced in the first round of last season's playoffs.

There's Dirk Nowitzki, draining 3-pointer after 3-pointer.

There's Jason Kidd, 15 years into his career and still refining his jump shot.

There's Josh Howard, working on his game and, one incident-free day at a time, his reputation.

There are a few new faces, mostly guys fighting for spots at the end of the rotation or the end of the roster.

There also are some old faces, like DeSagana Diop, traded away for Kidd in February, then brought back as a free agent over the summer; and Antoine Wright, acquired with Kidd but hardly used. He could've left as a free agent, but also signed over the summer and now is likely to start.

Whoa. There's a clue that something is different -- and that leads us to the middle of the practice court, the biggest offseason acquisition and the main reason the Mavs expect to rebound to the top tier of the Western Conference: their new coach, Rick Carlisle.

Carlisle brings a strong resume. However, his greatest attribute, to these guys, is simply that he's not Avery Johnson.

"Every coaching change brings fresh air," Nowitzki said. "It's been fun so far. He wants us to still have the same attitude Avery had here -- be a tough, physical team -- we're just trying to run a little more."

Johnson's tenure went from storybook start to a finish that was more like Greek tragedy, with critics pointing to hubris as a big part of his downfall.

Despite getting Dallas to its first finals, against the Heat in 2006, and winning a club-record 65 games the following season, he'll be remembered most for blowing a 2-0 lead over Miami and the colossal first-round knockout by eighth-seeded Golden State in 2007. Add in a first-round ousting by New Orleans in '08 and Johnson lost his final three playoff series, making for an obvious divorce a few days later.

When Mavs owner Mark Cuban and front-office boss Donnie Nelson went hunting for a coach for the first time, they quickly zeroed in on Carlisle, whose Xs and Os are similar to Johnson's. They also left the core of the roster intact.

That sent a clear message: The mix of players was good, the formula decent; the problem was the coach.

"We'll have to wait and see if (a coaching change) is what we needed or if it was the players," Nowitzki said. "It should be a fun, exciting year."

Carlisle comes in with strong credentials from two years in Detroit and four in Indianapolis. He has a Coach of the Year trophy for his bookshelf, two trips to the conference finals and playoff berths in every year but his injury-ruined finale with the Pacers.

After taking over in May, Carlisle spent his summer traveling -- to Germany to spend time with Nowitzki, to New York to see Kidd, to North Carolina for Howard, and so on. He got more out of it than frequent-flier miles.

"It's just spending time with guys, establishing the rapport and the relationship," Carlisle said. "When I went to Indiana, I didn't sign my contract until Sept. 3 of '03, so I didn't have a summer. It's very challenging if you don't have that period of time."

Part of Carlisle's message was for players to get in the best shape of their lives. That's a must to handle his "playoff style" defense and the Kidd-led fast breaks it's meant to produce.

There weren't many of those under Johnson, who called nearly every play. Maybe it made sense for Jason Terry or Devin Harris to look to the bench every trip up the court; but with Jason Kidd?

"I thought we were going to get him and run more, not have him spot up and shoot 3s on the weak side," Nowitzki said. "I think by opening up the game, making it faster, it will help him make everybody around him better. That's what he's been doing his whole career -- run and get guys open looks, get guys open layups."

Johnson's explanation for the tight leash was that Kidd didn't know the system. There was constant chatter about needing a training camp together to get things right. Now Carlisle has used that luxury to install the up-tempo approach and a free-flowing, Princeton-esque system for the time they don't get running. And, Carlisle notes, "We don't have a playbook."

"I'm excited about it because there's so many different options and it puts guys in so many different places," Kidd said. "Reggie (Miller, who played for Carlisle in Indiana) said that Coach is going to put you in a place to be successful and that's all you can ask for."

Kidd is in the final year of a $103.6 million, six-year contract. There may be no better incentive than a guy trying to up the bidding on the last big contract of his career.

Because of his rocky performance during his short time with the Mavericks, and because he'll be 36 by season's end, Kidd had no leverage to push for an extension during the summer. Cuban didn't offer one, either. But make no mistake -- both sides would love for Kidd to prove he deserves to stay.

"I'm not really playing for a contract because I love to play," Kidd said. "More or less, I'm playing for a chance to win a championship."

The linchpin to Dallas' success might be Howard, the athletic small forward who was an All-Star two seasons ago but whose career has been sinking ever since.

Expected to blossom playing with Kidd, he withered instead. During the playoffs, Howard went on local radio to talk about how much he enjoys smoking marijuana then, two days later, went to a party a few hours after losing Game 4. All that turned out to be a prelude to a summer that included an arrest for drag racing (police clocked him going 94 mph in a 55 mph zone) and landing on YouTube saying he doesn't celebrate the national anthem because he's black.

Howard apologized at the start of training camp. The best way to distance himself from it all is by living up to expectations as a great wing man for Kidd on the fast break and by again becoming the team's most versatile defender.

"He's one of our really important guys, without question," Carlisle said. "He's a guy that's going to have a lot of motivation to play well, too."

There are other key players for Dallas, such as the center tandem of Diop and Erick Dampier, a crowded swingman rotation featuring Jerry Stackhouse and Devean George, and Terry. Brandon Bass is coming off a breakout season and the Mavs would love for Wright or former slam dunk champion Gerald Green to be this year's breakout player, although they're part of that crowded swingman rotation, too.

How Dallas does, Carlisle said, comes down to whether they can be patient on defense and frenetic on offense. It's a challenge, but he believes the Mavericks can be "a special team."

To outsiders, it comes down to whether he can take Johnson's leftovers and win right away.

"My style is to help players get better and to coach the things that lead to winning basketball in the playoffs," Carlisle said. "It's a learning process every day."

In the end, maybe we'll all learn how much the old coach was to blame.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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