COACH: Don Nelson (fifth season, 979-782 overall)
LAST SEASON: 53-29, fourth in Midwest Division, lost to San Antonio in conference semifinals
ARRIVALS: G Tim Hardaway (trade with Miami), F Danny Manning (free agent), G-F Adrian Griffin (free agent), C Evan Eschmeyer (free agent), G Khalid El-Amin (free agent)
DEPARTURES: G Howard Eisley, F Calvin Booth, F Gary Trent
SLAM DUNKS: The expectations for the Mavericks are the highest they have been in over a decade. After several bad seasons of mismanagement, a new building and owner Mark Cuban's deep pockets have generated a great deal of excitement. After averaging 21.8 ppg last season, German F Dirk Nowitzki has surpassed G Michael Finley (21.5) as the top scoring threat. He is a future All-Star and can play all three frontcourt positions. Last season's bold move to obtain F Juwan Howard from Washington should pay even greater dividends now that he is here for a full season. Howard averaged 18.0 ppg to spark a 19-8 late-season run. The offseason acquisitions of clutch players Hardaway and Manning give Dallas some talent that has been through the grueling postseason wars.
AIRBALLS: The Mavericks are a good offensive team but they don't defend very well. C Shawn Bradley (7.1, 7.4) can block shots but isn't about to intimidate the superstar centers in West with his thin frame. G Steve Nash (15.6, 7.3) stayed healthy for the first time in his career last season. When healthy, he makes opponents pay for double-teaming Finley or Nowitzki, but he is fragile. Hardaway has always been a bit of a clubhouse lawyer and he has to accept his role as a backup here.
IN THE ZONE: The Mavericks gave up 96.2 ppg, down from 102 the previous season. Nelson has always tried to outsmart people in the past, but last season he returned to basics and Dallas became slightly better on defense. Look for more of the same. But if Nelson opts to play zone, the new rules help players like Bradley because he can defend the basket with the best of them.
OUTLOOK: After going through two playoff series last season, Dallas has learned the difference between an offensive shootout in November and a physical war in May. The Mavs were the youngest team in the postseason and more improvement will be expected. The top spot in the Midwest Division is not an unrealistic goal.