(AP) - Dirk Nowitzki is healthy and ready for the opener with a revamped Dallas Mavericks roster.
A year ago, the big German was just days removed from knee surgery and had to watch a roster full of new faces for the first 27 games. That's the biggest reason a 12-year playoff streak ended for the Mavericks.
Nowitzki has two new guards in his starting lineup for the second straight year. Now the Mavericks have to see if Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon will be better than the pairing of Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo.
Dallas will start getting answers Wednesday night at home against Atlanta.
There's also the question of who among seven other newcomers will join holdovers Vince Carter and Shawn Marion as key members of the supporting cast.
"Our mission this year is to get back to winning in the playoffs," said coach Rick Carlisle, who hasn't won a postseason game since guiding the Mavericks to their first championship in 2011. "And we know that there aren't a lot of people that think we're capable of doing that."
Odds are Dallas will be the third-best team in Texas again, behind defending Western Conference champion San Antonio and Houston, a playoff qualifier that got Dwight Howard in free agency to pair with James Harden.
What gives the Mavericks (41-41) hope is that they almost made the playoffs even with the huge hole they dug waiting for Nowitzki to regain something resembling the form of an 11-time All-Star and 2007 MVP.
Calderon looks like an upgrade over Collison because he was the best 3-point shooter in the league last season and has high-level international experience with Spain, if not any NBA playoff series victories.
Ellis has the speed and quickness to be a threat in the lane, and Carlisle says he's an underrated passer. The biggest question, though, is whether he will shoot too much when that's not his strength. He had the worst 3-point percentage among qualifiers last season.
"I think we'll find a mix of youth, experience, some drivers, some shot-makers," said Nowitzki, one of two returning starters along with Marion. "I think we've got a good mix, got a good bench."
Carter is generally the first player off that bench, and rookie point guard Gal Mekel should see significant playing time early in the season while the Mavericks wait for the return of first-round draft pick Shane Larkin (broken ankle) and Devin Harris (toe surgery).
Dallas has a defense-first center in 11-year veteran Samuel Dalembert after Chris Kaman struggled in that area last year. Brandan Wright was the backup before a shoulder injury sidelined him indefinitely, leading to more time for another newcomer in the undersized DeJuan Blair, who spent his first four seasons with the Spurs.
The Mavericks have trips to Oklahoma City and two-time defending champion Miami in the first month, along with two games each against West playoff contenders Houston, Minnesota and Denver.
"We've got to really focus on what's immediately ahead," Carlisle said. "We have to manage the club to have us tuned up for the long haul, too. So that's been a lot of challenges."
The first challenge has arrived in the Hawks, who are in Year 2 of their massive makeover.
The Hawks (44-38) have only two players who were with the team just two seasons ago, center Al Horford and point guard Jeff Teague, opting for a complete transformation of a franchise that has long been a consistent playoff contender but never a championship threat.
General manager Danny Ferry started the process a year ago, letting go of Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams to rid the team of two cumbersome contracts. This year, Ferry didn't make much of an effort to keep longtime stalwart Josh Smith, who moved on to Detroit, and replaced him with Paul Millsap.
While the Hawks have yet to become an attractive destination for big-name free agents - they were rebuffed this past summer by Howard, who passed on a chance to come home to Atlanta - Ferry hopes to change that by turning Philips Arena into San Antonio East.
Ferry once worked for the Spurs, and he brought in Mike Budenholzer, a longtime assistant under Gregg Popovich, to bring that same team-first mentality to the Hawks.
Budenholzer's tenure in Atlanta got off to a rocky start when he was arrested for DUI, and it's going to take some time for the players to adjust to the motion offense he wants to play.
"It's constant movement," Horford said. "We've got to make sure we're all on the same page. If we don't, then we look stupid."
Heading into his seventh season, this is clearly Horford's team now. He's the only holdover among the core group largely responsible for six straight trips to the playoffs.
Budenholzer is counting on his 6-foot-10 center to provide leadership on the court and in the locker room. Horford, meanwhile, is hoping the new system takes some of the burden off him - especially at the defensive end, where he's always been a power forward forced to play a post role.
"He has a high basketball IQ," Budenholzer said. "The first and most important thing is that he's on the same page as far as what we're trying to do. He's been really, really focused on picking up the system."
The Associated Press News Service
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