CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Only time will tell if Mavs have what it takes to win out West

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A week ago, the Mavericks had lost seven of eight games and couldn't even get out of their own way after Dirk Nowitzki returned from a nine-game absence due to a knee injury. They squeezed out a one-point victory in New Jersey on Nowitzki's last-second rim rattler to end the skid, yet there still seemed to be something missing.

Dallas hasn't lost since, reeling off six in a row heading into Friday night's matchup with the East-leading Celtics.

"We want to see where we stand against one of the elite teams in this league," Jason Kidd said.

Dirk Nowitzki is starting to show signs of getting his legs back after suffering a knee injury. (Getty Images)  
Dirk Nowitzki is starting to show signs of getting his legs back after suffering a knee injury. (Getty Images)  
In truth, the Mavs are at least a couple of weeks away from a real litmus test. Kidd said he's hoping to get Roddy Beaubois back from a recurring foot injury before the All-Star break. Peja Stojakovic, signed last week after he was bought out by the Raptors, is expected to be on a similar timetable. Only then will the Mavs know if what they have is enough.

"When we get Roddy and Peja back, that'll be our team and we'll see what we can do," Kidd said.

Such a timetable will leave precious little time before the post-All-Star trade deadline (Feb. 24) for owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson to take a swing at a trade if one is required to get past the Spurs and Lakers in the West. As usual, Cuban will look at everything -- "Some teams are afraid to make a deal. That's not us," he said -- including a rental deal for a dynamic scorer who happens to be available in the Rocky Mountains.

Cuban didn't mention Carmelo Anthony by name, but he said, "Absolutely, in a heartbeat" when asked if he'd be willing to trade for a prospective free agent without a contract extension. Funny, when I wrote that a few weeks ago, Cuban called me a fabricator in print. We've since moved on, but the lesson here is simple: When it comes to Cuban, you can never rule anything out.

For now, the Mavs have gotten back on track with defense, which got lost in the team's efforts to make up for the offense that departed when Nowitzki and Caron Butler got hurt. They allowed fewer than 100 points in four of their six wins heading into the Boston game, and coach Rick Carlisle said the team is "building momentum" and "making strides."

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"At the beginning of the season, we were on a roll and communicating out there," center Tyson Chandler said. "In training camp, there was such an emphasis on defense. We were out there, we were executing and this team has always had firepower on the offensive end. With the injuries, we got away from that. We started focusing too much on offense and how we could make up for Caron and Dirk being out. Not only could we not make up for the offense, but we stopped on the defensive end. Now that we've got guys back healthy, we're starting to come back to our roots and focus on defense."

Cuban also said during a visit to Madison Square Garden this week that the Mavs will "do what we can" to keep Chandler, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season. Both Cuban and Chandler's agent, Jeff Schwartz, are said to be on the same page in wanting to see how the season goes before committing to anything.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Cuban said.

With Nowitzki finally getting his legs and wind back, and with the emphasis back on defense for everybody else, can this be the same Mavs team that was 24-5 when Nowitzki got hurt on Dec. 27? Or are they the team that's 9-7 since Butler went down for the season on Jan. 1? The Mavs can't afford to wait until May or June to find that out. They need to know by Feb. 24.

"It's been a great ride for me the past 13, 14 years," Nowitzki said. "We all know what's missing, what we're all chasing, and that's the championship. I'm signed up for the next four years, so hopefully one of these years I'll reach that goal."

And with that, we move on to the rest of this week's Post-Ups:

  • While the Nuggets realize they will have to seriously engage the Knicks in trade talks for Anthony before the Feb. 24 deadline, a third team already has stepped into the on-deck circle as a potential facilitator if talks between Denver and New York ever gain traction. That team, sources say, is the Timberwolves, who are willing to absorb Eddy Curry's $11.3 million expiring contract in a three-team scenario that would send Anthony Randolph to Minnesota and Anthony to New York. In this scenario, which one executive involved deemed "unlikely," the Wolves would simply waive Curry after the trade. Depending on the timing, Curry would likely have only five paychecks remaining for a total of $4.7 million. So taking on Curry would involve little or no cost to Minnesota; if the Wolves could negotiate a $3 million buyout covering the remainder of Curry's salary, that tab would be fully picked up by the Knicks, who could send as much as $3 million cash to Minnesota in the trade. But Curry's $11.3 million cap number would help make the complicated trade math work in a three-team deal. The Nuggets aren't interested in Curry's expiring contract, sources say, and the only other team with enough cap space to take it on without sending back equal salary is Sacramento -- which has yet to be invited into any Knicks-Nuggets discussions. If the Knicks and Nuggets aren't going to do business before the deadline, perhaps leaving Anthony in free-agent limbo heading into a new collective bargaining agreement, then Minnesota would still be interested in Randolph -- and would be willing to give up a low first-round pick and absorb Roger Mason ($1.4 million) into their cap space in a one-on-one deal.

  • Meanwhile, when Nuggets officials tell teams they're comparing several scenarios when it comes to Anthony, sources say several of those scenarios involve keeping Anthony and trying to acquire an impact player whose presence might persuade Melo to stay in Denver. However, while Anthony has privately confided that he hasn't closed the door on re-signing with Denver, his representatives have not wavered from their stance that he'll leave as a free agent if he isn't traded. During a visit this week to New Jersey, the team that was close to acquiring him last month before owner Mikhail Prokhorov pulled the plug on talks, Anthony again sent mixed signals about how concerned he is about losing money as a free agent under new labor rules. A person close to Anthony said the day is coming soon when he will have to clearly state whether his objective is to lock in the three-year, $65 million extension or push for a trade to his preferred destination, the Knicks. "At some point, he has to make a decision," the person said. "He has to face it."

  • The Nuggets also are holding onto what they believe is a trump card in their handling of the Anthony saga: the possibility of a franchise tag in the new collective bargaining agreement that would tie Anthony to a city where he doesn't want to be. If the Nuggets do not trade him by the Feb. 24 deadline, sources say Anthony's fear about being stuck in Denver with a franchise tag would be heightened. Anthony's move, however, would simply be to opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent -- presumably exempting him from the franchise tag. But such a move would come with a risk. "Then he loses the money," a person familiar with the situation said. With discussions quiet on the Anthony front, rival executives believe Denver officials are hunkered down until the deadline, when the best offers will come to light. And there are no indications that Anthony has expanded his list of teams beyond New York, which in New Jersey's absence is the only team that can offer the Nuggets a combination of young players and savings.

  • Chandler got passed over by the coaches for All-Star consideration, but the Mavs' center still thinks he deserves consideration as the injury replacement for Yao Ming. "I feel like I've made myself a candidate," Chandler said. "When you look at it from the center standpoint, I feel like I'm the best center in the West. I feel like, of the centers playing in the West, I'm having the best year and had the most impact."

  • As Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak ponders some pretty grim trade prospects, sources say there's little chance the defending champs will be able to swing a deal for Wizards guard Kirk Hinrich. "There's nothing there," one source said.

  • Cuban, mystified by the city of Dallas' bad luck when it comes to weather and big sporting events, said his Super Bowl party starring Usher and DJ Samantha Ronson is "definitely" still on Saturday night despite the blast of winter weather that has crippled the city. Last February, NBA All-Star weekend was inconvenienced by a record 9.8-inch snowfall. Cuban, a Pittsburgh native and lifelong Steelers fan, said he'll be in his box at Cowboys Stadium with "half the city of Pittsburgh." Maybe a few of the hearty Steel City residents can help with snow removal.

  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has been treated for chronic myeloid leukemia for more than a year, tweeted Friday, "I am 100 percent cancer-free!!" So we end Post-Ups this week on news that is unambiguously great.

Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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