Carlisle targets growth within season

DALLAS -- Mark Cuban's mentality is championship or bust. That's one reason Rick Carlisle wanted to work for him.

Never mind that the Dallas Mavericks have never won a title, and that the 2006 NBA Finals are still a sore subject with a lot of folks around these parts. That's the expectation every season. Cuban couldn't stomach eight-figure luxury-tax bills if that weren't the case.

It's a long way from 50 wins and a second-round playoff exit to a parade in downtown Dallas. The Mavericks are widely considered a middle-of-the-pack playoff team, a level below legitimate contenders like the Los Angeles Lakers. The Mavericks believe that's a leap they can make.

"We want to grow into a championship-caliber team," Carlisle said. "I won't say we're there at this moment. We're going through a process that I believe will get us where we want to go."

That process began with a busy summer. The Mavericks entered the offseason with a long checklist: Keep the core together, become more athletic and versatile, improve defensively, make the bench better. The decision-makers in Dallas believe they accomplished all those goals with a series of moves.

The first was re-signing Jason Kidd to a three-year contract. That helped make possible the sign-and-trade that added Shawn Marion, the ex-Phoenix Suns star who wanted to play with Kidd again. Forward/center Kris Humphries was a throw-in from Toronto in that trade, but the Mavericks believe he can be a productive banger off the bench. Center/forward Drew Gooden, swingman Quinton Ross and forward/center Tim Thomas were under-the-radar signings that improved the Mavs' depth and versatility.

"We've got this really cool, versatile, talented, athletic, veteran mix," president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said. "How will it all mesh together?"

The preseason hasn't offered a lot of clues. Josh Howard, who will shift from small forward to shooting guard to make room for Marion in the starting lineup, is still recovering from May ankle surgery and has yet to complete a full practice. Marion has been sidelined for most of the past few weeks with a strained right calf.

"We're sort of waiting on Matrix [Marion] and Josh to get healthy and really show how good we can be," Dirk Nowitzki said. "I really don't know how good we can be until those guys can actually play out there together and show they can play as 2 and 3. It's going to be interesting."

Athletic teams gave the Mavericks fits last season. (See the five-game elimination at the hands of the Denver Nuggets for evidence.)

The Mavericks should match up much better against such teams this season. Gooden will play heavy minutes at center against teams that essentially play a pair of power forwards instead of relying on a traditional big man. Ross is expected to fill a reserve role as a defensive specialist who can compete against elite scoring wings. And Marion, who remains one of the NBA's most versatile frontcourt players, is a key to the Mavericks' goals of morphing from mediocre to good defensively while running much more.

"You bring in a guy like Shawn Marion and instantly you become a much better defensive team," high-scoring sixth man Jason Terry said. "That's something that's going to propel us to the next level."

Carlisle acknowledges that health will be a key issue for the Mavs. That can be said about every team, but it's especially true for the Mavericks, who prefer to consider themselves experienced rather than old.

Howard, who turns 30 in April, is the youngest player among the five likely to finish games for the Mavericks. The others: Kidd, 36; Terry, 32; Marion, 31; and Nowitzki, 31.

"If you had to do it all over, would you go with a little more youth?" Nelson asked. "The answer is no. We're interested in winning playoff basketball games.

"Not only are older guys better at doing that, but around 28 or so, guys start seeing the big picture. It's less about personal accolades or stats and it becomes more and more about looking at however long their window is and wanting to win a championship."

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at tim.macmahon@espn3.com.