Within one week, two Western Conference teams made blockbuster trades, with the Los Angeles Lakers acquiring Pau Gasol from Memphis and the Phoenix Suns trading with Miami for Shaquille O'Neal.

Much of the talk centers on Phoenix, the Lakers and defending NBA champion San Antonio in the Western Conference, while the Dallas Mavericks have taken a lower profile.

They're still winning, though.

The Mavericks will visit the 76ers tonight at the Wachovia Center as formidable NBA title contenders. Dallas is 34-16 after a 101-82 loss last night at New Jersey.

Almost unbelievably, the Sixers (21-30) are in the playoff hunt, trailing New Jersey by one game for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot.

Two years ago, the Mavs lost to Miami in the NBA Finals. Last season, they were upset by Golden State in the first round.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is not worried about the trades made by his Western Conference counterparts, remaining as confident as ever.

"It doesn't impact us at all," he said about the trades in an e-mail interview. "If we play to our ability, we can match up with any team in the West."

Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks agrees.

"They have very good chemistry, and [coach] Avery [Johnson] does a great job," Cheek said after yesterday's practice at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "Whether they make a trade or not, they are a very dangerous team."

The last thing that Cuban is worried about is whether the so-called basketball experts consider his team a contender.

"It doesn't matter what other people say," he said.

The Sixers have won three in a row. On Nov. 13, they lost, 99-84, at Dallas.

Cuban is impressed with the Sixers, especially center Samuel Dalembert.

"They have a great young nucleus," Cuban said. "I also rank Dalembert as one of the most underrated players in the league."

Then Cuban went one step further.

"In our evaluations, [Dalembert] outgrades most of the centers in the league."

When told of that statement after practice, Dalembert was equally effusive in his praise of Cuban.

"I always said besides the Sixers, if I had to go to another place it would be Dallas because of him," Dalembert said. "The players tell me how much they love it over there, and that's an honor that he would make that statement about me."

Of course, Dalembert would like nothing better than to beat the Mavericks and keep the Sixers' momentum going.

Dallas should remain a contender, with a cast that includes reigning NBA MVP Dirk Nowitzki and underrated Josh Howard, who was averaging 20.5 points and 7.5 rebounds entering last night's game.

"Every part [of Nowitzki's game] continues to grow," Cuban said. "He just got his first triple-double. His passing, his shooting, he works on everything continuously."

Cuban described Howard as a full-featured player.

"He can shoot, create his own shot, defend and rebound," Cuban said. "As his passing game improves and his assist totals go up, it will be impossible for the league to overlook him."

And it will be impossible to overlook the Mavericks, whether they make a move by the Feb. 21 trade deadline or not.

Brown to the Bulls?

An NBA source said yesterday that Sixers executive vice president Larry Brown has drawn interest as a candidate for the Chicago Bulls' head coaching job.

The Bulls fired Scott Skiles on Dec. 24. Three days later, Jim Boylan was named interim head coach for the rest of the season. Brown, a former Sixers coach for six years, has been out of coaching since the 2005-06 season, when he went 23-59 with the New York Knicks.


Cheeks reported no injuries for the Sixers. . . . Mavericks point guard Devin Harris remains sidelined with a bone bruise on his left ankle. . . . The Mavs have won the last four games against the Sixers by an average of 14.5 points.

Contact staff writer Marc Narducci at 856-779-3225 or mnarducci@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/deepsixer.