The Dallas Mavericks overhauled their lineup after being ousted from the first round of last season’s playoffs by Sacramento.
The Kings, who lost in the conference semifinals, return mostly the same team.
The Mavericks, kicking off their 25th season, will test their newfound chemistry when they host the Kings on opening night of the new season.
After an offseason shakeup, Dallas hopes three-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki finally has the right supporting cast to take command in a Wester Conference that is more wide open with the dismantling of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Last season, Nowitzki played alongside scorers Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison, whom the quiet, laidback forward often deferred to on the floor. The Mavericks struggled with consistency and were bounced from the playoffs in five games in the first round by Sacramento.
Walker and Jamison are now gone, replaced with Erick Dampier—a legitimate low-post threat signed in the offseason—and Jerry Stackhouse, who can play shooting guard or small forward but is questionable for the opener with a thigh contusion.
With Steve Nash lost to Phoenix, the Mavericks have turned to the 26th-year-old Nowitzki, who begins his seventh season, for leadership after restructuring the team to maximize his talents.
“You can’t make leadership happen,” Dallas coach Don Nelson said. “Dirk is now at the age that he has it, if that’s the way he wants to go. It would be good if he would step up now without Steve and be more vocal and do a lot of things that leaders need to do.”
Dallas acquired Jason Terry in a trade with the Atlanta Hawks and picked Devin Harris fifth overall in the draft to help replace Nash. Harris earned the starting spot after averaging 14.6 points, 4.8 assists and 37.6 minutes in his last five preseason games.
As the unquestioned power forward, Nowitzki is free to do what he does best — use his range to draw opposing power forwards to the perimeter, then his quickness to drive past them, and on defense he won’t be trying to guard centers or small forwards.
“This is Dirk’s chance and his time to take his game to another level,” veteran guard Michael Finley said. “He’s at the point physically and mentally where he can do that. As he goes, this team goes. It’s a little bit of pressure on him, but he can handle that now.”
The Mavericks will be seeking their 100th regular season victory at the American Airlines Center in the opener. They finished a franchise-best 36-5 there last year to bring their record to 99-24 at home since moving into the building in 2001.
Dallas, which looks to win its sixth straight home opener, averaged 109.5 points on 48 percent shooting at home last season to boost a league-best 105.2 points scored per game overall.
Sacramento, looking for its seventh straight winning season, returns seven of their top eight players from last season, including star forwards Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic, the NBA’s second-leading scorer last season. The Kings’ lone loss in that group was veteran center Vlade Divac, who signed with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“When you lose Vlade, It’s going to change a lot of things that go on in the locker room,” Sacramento coach Rick Adelman said. “I think the five or six core guys that are still here, they all have to step up and take part of that on them.”
Though Sacramento finished with the NBA’s fourth-best record, they lost momentum down the stretch—blowing the Pacific Division title on the final night—and then lost a tough seven-game playoff series to Minnesota in the second round. Despite their success in the last six years, Sacramento has just one trip to the Western Conference finals in that span.
“I think last season was very disappointing, but I think we can still win a championship,” point guard Mike Bibby said. “That’s what we’re all thinking this season. We’re all thinking about how we can get further than last season, and how we can improve.”
After an exhaustive trip to China, the Kings suffered their worst exhibition record in a decade at 2-6, and play five of their first six games on the road.
“I’d like to know who did this schedule,” Adelman said. “I don’t know if we needed to start with five of six on the road, especially after going to China for a week.”
Though Sacramento remains in the Pacific, Dallas is in the new Southwest Division, joined by Houston, Memphis, San Antonio and New Orleans.
2003-04 STANDINGS: Kings - 2nd place, Pacific Division. Mavericks - 3rd place, Midwest Division.
2003-04 TEAM LEADERS: Kings - Stojakovic, 24.3 ppg; Miller 10.3 rpg; Bibby, 5.4 apg. Mavericks - Nowitzki, 21.8 ppg and 8.7 rpg; Terry, 5.4 apg (with Atlanta), 8.8 apg.
2003-04 SEASON SERIES: Mavericks, 3-1.
LAST MEETING: April 1; Mavericks, 127-117. At Dallas, Finley had 29 points and Nash had a career-high 19 assists to help the Mavericks score at least 118 points for the fourth straight game. Bibby led six players in double figures with 23 points for Sacramento as the two teams averaged a combined 222 points in the season series.
2003-04 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Kings - 21-20 on the road; Mavericks - 36-5 at home.