The formula for a successful lockout season is in many ways different than the formula for a successful NBA season under normal circumstances. The compact schedule and the short free agency/training camp period combine to create a situation in which the teams most suited for playoff success are not necessarily the ones best suited for success with the grind of the regular season. For these reasons, it makes sense for a certain type of team (read: veteran team) to leave something in reserve during the regular season, round into form at the right time, and take care of business when things matter.
Both of the teams playing tonight are attempting to put this strategy into action this season. So far, Dallas has looked the more successful team in doing so. In fact, in many ways, Dallas is the team the Lakers want to be. Dallas was ill prepared for the regular season to start; Dirk Nowitzki was out of shape and they didn't have a clear plan to deal with the free agencies of Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea, so they ended up losing both players. They were written off as weak despite being reigning NBA champions and started the season off very slowly. The Lakers were also ill prepared for the regular season to start. A new head coach and complete shift in dynamics of the team were too much to implement over a short training camp, and though one major attempt was made to overhaul the roster and bring in a player that could have kept the Lakers in the championship conversation, after that attempt failed, the personnel moves made left huge gaps in the roster, none more so than the trade of Lamar Odom to the very team they Lakers are playing tonight, a move that both teams might be regretting at this point in time.
The difference between the two teams isn't how they started. It's where they are now.
Dallas seems to be rounding into form quite nicely, as Los Angeles struggles through the meat of their schedule. Dirk Nowitzki has had a season to forget so far this year, with averages down across the board, but he's scoring just under 29 a contest in his last three games, and he's averaging over 10 boards a game in those contests as well. In short, he's beginning to resemble the soul-crushing force that drove Dallas to the title last season. There is no second banana that really stands out, with Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and the rest only putting up middling numbers), but by far the most impressive aspect of the Mavericks' success this season has been a defensive dominance that was simply not supposed to be possible with the departure of the aforementioned Chandler. Tyson, an excellent defensive center, was supposed to be the Mavericks backbone, and the book on them was that they would regress defensively (from a team that wasn't even great in the first place) back to a middle of the pack or worse defensive unit.
Instead, they boast the 3rd ranked defensive squad in the league, miles ahead of anything they were ever able to do with Tyson Chandler on board. Meanwhile, the Lakers have brought in a specifically defensive minded coach to formulate a defensive strategy around the same group of guys that (at times) played pretty decent defense the year before. Well, numbers wise, the Lakers defense has improved (Defensive efficiency was 104.3 last season, 100.6 this year), but with the league wide downturn in offensive performance that you'd expect in a lockout season, the Lakers defense relative to the league has actually gotten worse.
The bottom line is that both the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers entered the season in similar situations. Both are high on experience and low on athleticism. Both are comprised mostly of a championship winning core. Both were being written off in equal measure at the start of the season. Nearly to the halfway mark, the teams are very close to having identical records. The Mavericks do things a little differently (one superstar, a bunch of good role players vs. 1 superstar, 2 stars, and bag of s#$t), but based on the preseason hype and the on paper performance, you might be forgiven for thinking the Mavericks and Lakers are both exactly where they want to be. Instead, Dallas is managing to fly under the radar even as defending champs, while the Lakers continue to take center stage as a team with dysfunction up and down the roster, the coaching staff, and the front office.
There may be a lot of similarities between the two teams, but there can be no doubt as to which one is in a better position to capitalize on the unique formula of a successful lockout season.