DALLAS – Ask Rick Carlisle about another new set of scoring partners for Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas coach will bring up defense.
Ask him about the offensive potential of the Mavericks and Carlisle will talk about defense.
Ask the coach about getting back to the playoffs after a 12-year postseason streak in Dallas ended and he'll go on about, yes, defense.
To say Carlisle is emphasizing defense is like saying Nowitzki didn't enjoy a second straight year without a playoff win after leading the franchise to its first championship in 2011.
"This is going to come down to defense," Carlisle said. "It's going to come down to our ability to stop, to rebound and to keep people off the free-throw line."
Carlisle is preaching defense to a mostly new audience for the second year in a row. There are nine newcomers on the Dallas roster a year after Carlisle had to incorporate eight new faces.
But there's a big difference this time. The Mavericks responded to Dwight Howard's rejection in free agency by signing guards Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon to multi-year deals. Last year was all about one-year contracts, and some might say that played a role in a 41-41 record that kept Dallas home for the first time since Nowitzki's second season in 1999-2000.
Others might say it was because Nowitzki missed the first 27 games after knee surgery. The idea behind a bunch of one-year contracts was maybe the 7-foot German could bring the group along and make the playoffs. They didn't stand much of a chance without the 2007 MVP.
In Calderon and Ellis, the Mavericks might have a point guard and a scorer for when Nowitzki isn't around anymore, as hard as that is to imagine.
"I really like what we've done," Nowitzki said. "I think Calderon should help us in crunch time with his playmaking and his shot-making. I think I've never played with an explosive guy like Monta who can get in the lane whenever he wants. I think that we should play off each other really well."
Five things to consider as the Mavericks head into the season opener Oct. 30 at home against Atlanta:
ABOUT THAT DEFENSE: The Mavericks were among the worst in the league in points allowed, but part of that was their pace. The stat that bothered Carlisle more was being second-to-last in free throws made by opponents. In Carlisle's eyes, that means Dallas wasn't sound enough defensively to keep teams off the foul line. Chris Kaman never established himself as the starting center because he didn't play enough defense. Now Dallas signed a defense-first center in Samuel Dalembert. "This doesn't fall on one guy's shoulders," Carlisle said. "And we have to establish a covenant that it's going to be important and I've got to have the stomach to make sure that the guys are doing the things to sacrifice to put us in a position to be a lot better than we were last year."
ELLIS' EFFICIENCY: Ellis was the worst 3-point shooter in the league last year. His shooting percentages have been in sharp decline the past two seasons — since he had the second of back-to-back standout scoring seasons for Golden State. If he can get back to his career shooting percentage of 45 percent, he has a better chance at the scoring averages of 25.5 and 24.1 he posted with the Warriors. Carlisle believes Ellis' efficiency will improve simply by being around Nowitzki and Calderon. Ellis scoffs at questions about his efficiency. "I'm going to play Monta basketball," Ellis said. "Getting out, running, taking the shots that's appropriate and attack the basket more. I think over the past few years I got to a point where I was settling for jump shots."
THE OTHER HOLDOVERS: Vince Carter and Shawn Marion are back to form the core of veteran leadership along with Nowitzki. Those three have 44 seasons of NBA experience between them. Sixth-year center Brandan Wright returns, as do second-year players Jae Crowder and Bernard James. Wright is sidelined indefinitely with a shoulder injury, but assuming he returns, Carlisle is looking for contributions from all six holdovers. "There's a lot of guys that are going to be really important to us," Carlisle said.
THE ROOKIES: Draft picks Shane Larkin and Ricky Ledo got an unexpected third member of their rookie class in Gal Mekel, who has been playing professionally in his native Israel. He's the second Israeli player in the league after Houston's Omri Casspi. Mekel could see significant minutes early in the season while Larkin wraps up his recovery from a broken ankle.
HARRIS REPRISE: Mekel's playing time also will be tied to the return of Devin Harris, a free agent pickup who's still out after offseason toe surgery. Harris started his career with the Mavericks when he was part of a draft-night trade as the No. 5 overall pick in 2004. He left in a trade that brought Jason Kidd back to Dallas.