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Postups: Mavs in balancing act of 'defend now, upgrade later'

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Lamar Odom is as yet an unfinished product for Dallas as the Mavs try to fit him in. (Getty Images)  
Lamar Odom is as yet an unfinished product for Dallas as the Mavs try to fit him in. (Getty Images)  

DALLAS -- When Rick Carlisle got the phone call, there was a hint of surprise but no hesitation in his voice.

"It was just opportunistic -- right place, right time," the Mavericks coach said. "I got the phone call, and it was, 'Do you like Lamar Odom?' Yeah, sure. OK."

And so it continued, the makeover of the defending champion Mavericks. Gone were Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson. Vetoed was the trade that would've sent Odom from the Lakers to the Hornets in a three-team trade that was supposed to put Chris Paul in a Lakers jersey. With the trade exception acquired from the Knicks for Chandler, the Mavericks were getting one of the most skilled and versatile big men in the NBA for a first-round pick in 2012.

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"He can play a lot of different positions," Carlisle said. "He'll be handling the ball at times. Sometimes he'll be our center. He's a unique player that way. His role will probably be most elusive in terms of trying to define it because he can kind of do a little of everything. The challenge we have is to put him in positions to be effective doing a lot of different things, and that's something we're getting a feel for and we'll get more of a feel for as the games come."

As expected, it was an unfinished product that the Mavs put on the floor Sunday in their season opener against the Miami Heat. Odom was ineffective off the bench in his Dallas debut, going 1 for 6 from the field with four points, two turnovers and two technical fouls in the third quarter, leading to an automatic ejection. The faint fuzz in the shape of Texas stars on the back of his bald head suggested Odom had found a new home. The results on the floor suggested otherwise.

"His situation on our team is so important because he can help us in a lot of different areas," Carlisle said.

It is always a difficult balance for a defending champion trying to maintain its chemistry and roster stability. In this 66-game, lockout-shortened season, that challenge will be magnified for the Mavs. They face the usual difficulties and also a self-imposed one -- a conscious effort to get by in the short term while clearing cap space for a run at free agents Deron Williams and Dwight Howard on July 1.

It's a calculated risk, but Mavs owner Mark Cuban has never been shy about such things. Dallas already has about $20 million of room cleared for next summer, and by using the amnesty provision on either Brendan Haywood or Shawn Marion and buying out Odom -- who has only $2.4 million guaranteed next season -- Cuban would have enough room to pay both Williams and Howard, thus setting the table to chase more championships.

The gamble is predicated on a few moving parts that are out of Cuban's control. First, the Magic have to decide not to trade Howard to the Nets. If Howard goes elsewhere -- to the Lakers, for example -- then Williams could be there for the taking if he's displeased enough with the direction of the Nets to opt out of his contract and take about $25 million less than the soon-to-be Brooklyn franchise could offer him.

If Orlando doesn't trade Howard at all, thus daring him to take a similar pay cut to leave, then the Mavs would be in play for both superstars. Some rival executives believe if anyone could sell Howard and Williams to forgo short-term dollars for the opportunity to chase championships together, it's Cuban.

But if Orlando follows the conventional path and trades Howard to the Nets before the March 15 trade deadline, Cuban's gamble could blow up in his face. Even knowing that, I would argue that it's worth it. But you could look at it this way too: If Howard and Chandler were both free agents next summer, and the Mavs didn't get Howard, they'd probably pay Chandler. By letting him walk now, they've already made that decision.

This is where Odom becomes so important to the Mavs' short- and long-term viability as they navigate their championship defense. If Odom is engaged and motivated, he can be one of the most valuable 6-foot-10 players in basketball. If not -- if he remains frustrated by having his Lakers lifestyle pulled out from under him -- it could be a long year and a failed experiment.

One thing Cuban is banking on is Carlisle's track record of bringing out the best in players in his first year coaching them. The Mavs coach couldn't be more different than Phil Jackson in the Zen department, but he's good at getting more out of players than their previous coaches have. Odom perhaps represents the ultimate challenge for Carlisle -- a player who, at 32, is pretty set in his ways and whose production hasn't always measured up to his ability.

As Jackson can attest, Odom requires a special brand of psychological/spiritual coaching. Carlisle is more about X's and O's and execution. If those two fail to intersect, it could be a long, frustrating year for both. Worth the risk, though, considering the upside -- both in the short term if Odom gets it and in the long term if Cuban's Howard-Williams gamble pays off. And even if only half of it does.

With a full slate of Christmas Day openers to digest, the rest of this week's Postups is dedicated to observations from the five-game, season-opening slate that almost never happened:

 Among the biggest fears coming out of a lengthy lockout and shortened training camp was that players would be out of shape, the quality of play would be shoddy and injuries would be prevalent. If first impressions mean anything, opening day provided little cause for alarm. Game conditioning and stamina aren't there yet, but color me impressed with how the vast majority of players on display Sunday held up their end of the bargain and showed up fit. In fact, the Thunder's Kendrick Perkins and Bulls' Carlos Boozer were noticeably in the best shape of their careers. Maybe there should be a lockout every summer. (No, ignore that. I did not say that. Really, I didn't.)

 In my preseason predictions column, I picked Dwyane Wade to win MVP and also projected an awakening of Carmelo Anthony's all-around game. Nobody should read too much into one game, but after having one eye on the TV monitors in the Mavs' media work room Sunday, I'm afraid I should've just put my money where my mouth was and predicted an MVP season for Anthony. With Mike D'Antoni's offense running through Melo, he'll have more opportunity to be an all-around offensive threat than ever before. As the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations with Amar'e Stoudemire as the roll man, Melo will have more open looks and lanes to the rim than he ever imagined. When the looks and lanes are covered, Melo can take advantage of his underrated and underutilized skills as a passer. And for one game, at least, Anthony was locked in and engaged on the defensive end. He's always had the ability to be a solid defender but has never put in the work. If he does, he can be a scary, two-way superstar. The Knicks barely surviving at home against a Celtics team without Paul Pierce certainly exposed some of the same weaknesses they had after the trade with Denver last February. But I believe you can expect a lot more of what you saw Sunday from Anthony -- so much that he'll at least be in the MVP conversation come April.

 Commissioner David Stern's prediction that Christmas Day would be "a wonderful magnet" for the start of the lockout-shortened season proved to be true as the TV ratings figures started rolling in Monday. TNT's broadcast of the Knicks-Celtics game attracted 5.9 million viewers and 3.9 million households, making it the most-watched NBA regular-season Christmas Day game ever on cable. Only three NBA regular-season games have attracted more cable viewers: Heat-Celtics on Oct. 26, 2010; Heat-Cavaliers on Dec. 2, 2010 (LeBron James' return to Cleveland); and Lakers-Bulls on Feb. 2, 1996, according to Turner Sports.

 The Heat pushing the pace and attacking early on offense, thus taking advantage of the unguardable open-floor talents of James and Wade, wasn't the only welcome change from Miami on Sunday. It might seem insignificant, but James and Wade have ditched their previous practice of being available to the media after games only in the interview room -- and only together, shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the microphones. Sunday, there were James and Wade holding court separately in the locker room after the game. It's better for them, better for the media and more important, it deemphasizes the hype surrounding them. The Heat are embracing the fact that the eyeballs and attention have shifted to new, different storylines. By fielding media questions separately and in the more traditional locker-room setting, James and Wade can minimize whatever public awkwardness went along with their decision to become teammates. They're both big boys and can handle the questions, so this is a positive step to say the least.

 The game that I saw the least of Sunday, given that I was writing about the Heat-Mavs in Dallas, was the Bulls-Lakers game. But more than the way the game ended -- with a game-winning, one-hander in the lane from Derrick Rose and with Kobe Bryant getting his shot blocked at the buzzer -- here is what has to stand out: the score. In the first game of the Mike Brown era, the Lakers played a one-point game at home with both teams under 90 points. Those who know how Brown coaches, how he emphasizes defense and rebounding over all else, know that the Lakers should get used to that. The Lakers' execution down the stretch was atrocious, and it's worth noting late-game execution wasn't exactly a hallmark of Brown's tenure in Cleveland. But one way or another, Brown is going to turn the Lakers into a defensive team that will have to figure out how to win close, low-scoring games. "You've got to be able to play rugged," Brown said. Just know that Brown is not going to compromise on this issue, so either the Lakers are going to embrace his philosophy or things are going to get ugly. It's too early to tell which.

 Two things struck me about the Magic-Thunder game: 1) It's rare for body language to look so poor in so flawless a body as it did in Dwight Howard's; and 2) The Thunder have healthy helpings of the two most important traits in this shortened season -- continuity and depth. Watching the Thunder school the Magic did nothing to shake my confidence that Oklahoma City will win the West.

 Watching the in-the-huddle and in-the-locker room footage of new Warriors coach Mark Jackson left me absolutely convinced that the NBA is a better place with Jackson doing what comes so naturally: coaching. But watching him coach the Warriors' flawed roster made me wince at how difficult a rookie year this is going to be for him as a coach. As for his replacement on the broadcast team with Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy, Chris Mullin may just grow into the role. The Brooklyn accent overwhelms the senses, but Mullin was quick with the one-liners and probably will make a good sparring partner for Van Gundy once he's more comfortable with the dynamic. Mullin's best line came after he said that Stephen Curry's scouting report is "all straight A's." When Breen mentioned that Mullin knows something about shooting, Mullin hit the softball out of the park. "A little about shooting, but not so much about straight A's," he said.

 The sudden influx of talent that the Clippers have and how inconsistently it was deployed Sunday night makes you wonder how much of that is rust and newness and how much will fall on Vinny Del Negro's shoulders if the team fails to live up to expectations. My knee-jerk take after watching Chris Paul's Clippers debut is that consistency and effectiveness will lag far behind excitement for a while. The extent of that lag time will determine how hot the seat under Del Negro becomes, and how fast.


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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