Richie Whitt, CBSDFW.COM

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Dwyane Wade dribbling the ball off his foot in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Dirk Nowitzki overcoming the flu and LeBron James. The survival against the Portland Trailblazers. The Mother’s Day Massacre and accompanying sweep of Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. The epic Game 4 rally from 15 points down against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Time Is Now! T-shirts. “We Are the Champions!”

The first parade in franchise history.

Keep those images close and the memories fresh, Dallas Mavericks fans. Because before the tardy 2011-12 season even gets started we’re staring at a stark reality: The defending champs – how good does that sound? – are an old team potentially handcuffed by a new salary cap.

The wise guys who establish odds on the NBA season don’t believe in your Mavs. In fact, they give Dallas only the fifth-best chance of winning this season’s title, behind the Miami Heat, Lakers, Chicago Bulls and Thunder. The Mavs have 11 consecutive seasons with 50+ wins. In the last five years they have played in two NBA Finals with one title. They will never again be labeled soft. They are preparing for a victory lap, as champions.

They are not, however, favorites.

Especially without Tyson Chandler.

As a hoops junkie wholly unfulfilled by another Texas Rangers’ World Series failure and only partially teased by the Dallas Cowboys’ mid-season success, I can’t wait for Christmas and the return of the NBA from its 149-day lockout and “Nuclear Winter” near-miss.

I wanna watch Blake Griffin dunk, and Tim Duncan decline. I wanna see rookie Kyrie Irving, veteran Greg Oden and the debut of dazzling point guard Ricky Rubio. I wanna see if Ron Artest will be actually be referred to as Metta World Peace. I wanna see if Kobe still has it, or if the Heat will ever get it. I wanna see if Jimmer Fredette is the NBA’s Tim Tebow. I can’t wait to hear Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, together on the studio set of TNT. I wanna see how a 66-game season works – after the last lockout in ’99 scoring dipped a full four points per game – including back-to-back-to-back games and launching with a post-Santa triple-header on a day in which there are no college football bowl games and only one NFL night contest.

But mostly I’m anxious to see the Mavericks defend their title. Sadly, it might not happen. With the official opening of free agency and training camps still a week away, Chandler is already preparing Mavs fans for life without him as the defensive hub.

“I really think I’m going to be on a new team come training camp,” Chandler told ESPN Wednesday night. “I’m really taking a hard look at all of my options, trying to see what best suits me.”

The key to the season might be whether that statement is an authentic departing salvo, or merely a shrewd negotiating ploy.

The Mavs will bring back the bulk of their nucleus. Dirk. Jason Kidd. Jason Terry. Shawn Marion. Brendan Haywood. And, remember, they’ll have a new starting shooting guard after a draft-night trade netted them former Blazer Rudy Fernandez. But Dallas will enter 2012 void of a couple familiar faces. Assistant coach Dwane Casey is now the head coach of the Toronto Raptors. Peja Stojakovic won’t be back, nor DeShawn Stevenson or likely Caron Butler, who was the team’s second-best player when he injured his knee in a game last Jan. 1.

NBA teams looking for a tenacious, shot-blocking center will sift through names like Nene of the Denver Nuggets and veteran Samuel Dalembert, but let’s face it, Chandler is the best big man on the market. And he was one of the main reasons the Mavericks own a trophy. He averaged 10 points and nine rebounds, but it was more his attitude. Soft spanning two centuries, the Mavs with Chandler in the middle stood up to the bullies for the first time. While Dirk has forever been the team’s best player and face of the franchise, Chandler provided the missing ingredient – a stiff backbone and a relentless defensive identity recognized by his third-place finish in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year.

It’s easy to demand that the Mavs give the 29-year-old, 7-foot Chandler a long-term lucrative contract as the market’s best unrestricted free agent, but it comes with a thorny dilemma. Over-spend – anything more than, say, five years and $50 million – and the Mavs will squeeze their cap so tight there will be no room for the summer of 2012 and a crop of free agents that includes point guards Deron Williams and Chris Paul and center Dwight Howard. Let Chandler walk, sign Nene as a Plan B and you might be left with money to spend, but hardly a situation attractive to the ’12 free agents.

Solution: The Mavs need to approach free agency the way they did the 2011 season. One possession at a time. Sign Chandler. Sign Butler. And worry about the big picture or wiggling out of salary-cap restraints when – and not until – Nowitzki’s contract is up in 2014. While Chandler’s comments are alarming, they shouldn’t be damning. It would be a mistake not to re-sign him, and an emotional kick to the crotch of a fan base ready for seconds.

I’ve missed the JET on the runway. Kidd’s eyes in the back of his head. Dirk’s Flamingo Fadeaway. Barea slithering to another pick-and-roll layup. And Cuban’s passion.

Christmas Day at American Airlines Center will be special, unprecedented. The Mavericks will be presented their championship rings (or as Cuban joked recently, perhaps solid gold mouse pads) and we’ll raise the ultimate banner to the rafters as an eternal reminder of the most successful sports summer in the history of Dallas. Spicing the occasion like just the right peench of Cayenne pepper: Wade and LeBron will have to stand and digest every last drop.

But then the lights will come on. The referee will blow the whistle. And the basketball will start. If Chandler isn’t jumping center for the opening tip-off, a repeat isn’t impossible but…

Embrace your recent past, Mavs fans. It may prove better than your imminent future.

Get more of Richie Whitt’s Sportatorium blog on Catch Richie with RAGE, weekdays 2:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. on 105.3 The Fan. Follow Richie on Twitter @RichieWhitt