With Mavericks Coach Jim Cleamons and GM Don Nelson, life's a constant battle for position

"Everybody has written about me wanting to take the team over," he says, cranky exasperation creeping into his voice. He sits in his high-tech office in the bowels of Reunion Arena, his feet propped up on his desk and his hands folded on his stomach. "I don't want to get headed in that direction, if that's where you're going."

Just like that, a man known for his uptempo, run-and-gun style of offense goes on the defensive. He wants to block the shot before it's taken.

He's sensitive to murmurings that he's this close to firing head coach Jim Cleamons--something a lot of fans felt he should have done at the end of the 1996-'97 season, when the Mav-wrecks finished with 24 wins, two fewer than the team accrued the season before under Dick Motta. He's touchy when it comes to talking about Cleamons, a former assistant coach with the Chicago Bulls, especially when asked how his style of play differs from Nelson's. He's testy when asked what Cleamons' strengths are as a head coach.

"You're gettin' into areas I really don't want to get into," Nelson says, literally waving off the question. "I'd really rather just..." He pauses for a second. "You know, you talk to Jim about the coaching aspects and me about my business. I'll talk to you about general recruiting and putting everything together."

Fact is, Nelson and Cleamons couldn't be more dissimilar than, well, the Chicago Bulls and the Dallas Mavericks. They have different coaching philosophies: Nelson likes the game to be played fast, while Cleamons prefers his basketball thoughtful and deliberate. Nelson is a cut-to-the-chase kind of guy who speaks in short, to-the-point sentences that end before they're out of his mouth. Cleamons will expound at length about the game, his role as coach, his desire to build for tomorrow, maybe even at the expense of winning today. It's almost as though by saying such things aloud, Cleamons can convince himself that he's doing the right thing.

But Nelson doesn't want to chat about philosophies. He wants to talk players, acquisitions, trades. Anything deeper than that, well, isn't important. He can't be concerned with what isn't on the floor, anything that's not part of the game.

"The philosophy [of the general manager and the coach] should be the same," Nelson says, almost yawning his words. "[They should] see the game the same and the direction of the team as the same."

He is asked if it's indeed the same here.
"It's all right," he shrugs dismissively. "One out of two's not bad. We both agree on the direction the team should go. The philosophies are a little bit different. I think Jim has given some [by] trying to run [the floor] more this year. I've given some on some of his strengths as a coach. It's not bad."

And it's not great.
The regular season is still weeks away from beginning, and already there are rumblings that Cleamons will not last until the All-Star break. ESPN and Sports Illustrated both insist that Cleamons will be out by December--regardless of how his team does. ESPN last week speculated that Cleamons will be replaced by Golden State Warriors general manager Garry St. Jean, whom, SI claims in its NBA preview issue, Nelson wanted to bring in at the end of last season, before owner Ross Perot Jr. blocked the move.

Though sources in the Mavericks' front office deny St. Jean was ever offered the job or is currently in contention for one with the Mavericks, few will refute the fact that the words Jim Cleamons and job security don't often collide in the same sentence. A conspiracy theorist might speculate that Nelson proclaimed his lowly Mavericks a playoff team a few weeks ago to set up Cleamons, so he could cut the young coach loose when he fails to live up to Nelson's inflated expectations.

Look, the theorist might argue, just because Nelson insists he doesn't want to be coach doesn't mean he doesn't want someone else to fill the job. Nelson supposedly tried to get rid of Cleamons when Nelson was hired in February--and Nelson doesn't like to lose.

As this season gets under way, the Mavericks promise "Never a Dull Moment," and as ad slogans go, it's probably less prophetic and more understatement. It couldn't get any worse than last year--or the last five years, for that matter. During the 1992-'93 season, the Mavericks came within a few late-season victories of setting the losingest record in the NBA history. But the question remains: How in the world will it get any better?

"Right now, Nellie's sitting back and letting things happen," says center Shawn Bradley, who's with his third NBA team in five years--and his fifth coach. "As much as he's coached in his career, he's stepping back from coaching and letting Clem do the coaching. They may have different styles, but he's being as supportive as he can. Clem, being a new coach and doing the things he thinks is right, is trying to make a name for himself, trying to teach a system he believes in. You got one guy trying to establish himself and one guy who's been established for a long time, and we're trying to see how it goes from there."

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