The Dallas Mavericks won the 2011 NBA title, then abdicated the throne. Virtually declared that there would be no repeat in 2012.
Having finally captured the carrot he long had chased, Maverick owner Mark Cuban decided to play for long-term glory.
Cuban let defensive demon DeShawn Stevenson go to New Jersey as a free agent (fine).
Let waterbug point guard J.J. Barea go to Minnesota as a free agent (uh, OK).
Let splendid center Tyson Chandler go to New York as a free agent (what was he thinking?).
The Mavs went into rebuilding mode immediately upon grasping the O'Brien Trophy, all in the name of securing payroll cap room for 2012 free agents Dwight Howard and Deron Williams.
Williams, a Dallas guy, is a sensible recruit, since current Mav point guard Jason Kidd debuted in the peach-basket days and will retire any decade now.
But Howard? One thing we've learned this season is that Chandler is the equal of Howard as an NBA center.
Not that the Thunder is complaining. The Baby Boomers were Dallas' Western Conference Finals victims last May, but now it's the Thunder with title hopes, while the Mavs have scraped into the playoffs as the seventh seed.
Which was the plan all along, Cuban said Thursday, the final day of the NBA regular season. Just get to the playoffs and take your chances.
But the Dallas team that needed only five games to beat the Thunder in a seven-game series last season has changed dramatically.
“So many key members of their championship team last year are on other teams,” said Thunder point guard Derek Fisher, whose Lakers were swept by Dallas in the 2011 West semifinals. “Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson, J.J. Barea. (Peja) Stojakovic retires. So there are a number of guys that did great things for them last year that just aren't there.”
The Mavs still have their old pros. Superstar Dirk Nowitzki. Supersub Jason Terry. Kidd. Shawn Marion. Just so no one would think Cuban was interested in a youth movement, he signed 35-year-old Vince Carter. That's five prime players at least 33 years old.
Meanwhile, the Thunder's four best players are all under 24.
But give the Mavericks credit. They still play the same way. The foot soldiers have changed; the strategy has not.
Dallas plays tough team defense, then on offense spreads the floor and passes the ball and produces its fair share of open shots.
“They're still trying to put Dirk and Terry into situations where they get an advantage, forcing you to help,” said the Thunder's Nick Collison. “Then they're really good passers.
“They're still tough. Maybe they didn't have the regular season they wanted. But now that they're in the playoffs, I think this is where they kind of wanted to get all year.”
Still, the Thunder is thrilled that Barea and Chandler are elsewhere.
Chandler dominated the paint defensively a year ago. The Chandler/Brendan Haywood center combo was much tougher than the Haywood/Ian Mahinmi duo that Dallas now deploys.
And Barea long has been a Thunder foil. He's about five-foot-nothing but magically finds his way to the basket possession after possession, no matter if he's in Maverick blue or Timberwolf green.
Delonte West and Roddy Beaubois are good and interesting players in Barea's stead, but the Thunder will take its chances with them, thank you very much.
Still, this won't be an easy series for the Thunder, because of that Dallas defense.
“They're still a veteran team, a smart team,” Fisher said. “Any team that's won a championship in recent years … they're still very capable.
“They had some injuries and some ups and downs of the season. But what they've continued to do, similar to last year, was on the defensive end. I think they've figured out a way, even without Chandler's protection at the basket, to still be a really solid defensive team.”
The Thunder-Mav series a year ago was fiercely contested. All five games decided by single digits.
The Mavericks were the better team a year ago. This year, the Thunder is the better team. But neither has played well down the stretch, which is why it will take the Thunder awhile to advance.
Thunder wins in seven, then Cuban can hit the free agent market and resume trying to win an NBA championship.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.