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

"No, we're a playoff team," Nelson insists. "I think the talent's good enough. That's the kind of guys we try to get here."

When pushed, Cleamons will insist he came to the Dallas Mavericks because, on paper, they looked like a playoff team, maybe better. He thought--as did all of Dallas, thanks to a marketing campaign that heralded them as hired gunslingers who were going to bring a championship banner to Reunion Arena--that the trio of Jackson, Kidd, and Mashburn were All-Stars in the making. If most teams have one franchise player, the Mavericks had three.

"The thought was, you had three quality players, and you had two guards and a small forward who seemingly had the potential to carry a team," Cleamons says now, explaining why he took the coaching job. "That's what you're looking for--quality players at key spots. I mean, you look at the teams that have had good, positive histories in recent years--even throughout the history of the game--and you have to have players who complement each other. The thought was, these players could eventually complement each other if they just stayed together.

"But when you got here, you found out that these were good players, but they certainly weren't players that collectively could carry a franchise to a championship."

Kidd was traded because team management, specifically minority owner and interim general manager Frank Zaccanelli, felt the 24-year-old was a troublemaker--and not only because he'd demanded that either he or Jackson be traded before the beginning of last season. Management had learned from outside sources that Kidd, who had been complaining of a sore neck, had actually been involved in a traffic accident in L.A.--something he forgot to tell the team. When Zaccanelli found out, he wanted Kidd gone--and traded away the franchise.

Then Nelson came in and, within days, decided he didn't like Jackson and Mashburn--didn't like their efforts on the floor or their behavior off the floor. They were millionaire crybabies, and The Man Called Nellie wanted them gone.

"I just didn't like what they were doing on and off the court," Nelson says of Jackson and Mashburn. "I just decided to change it if I could. I didn't go out to do the major trades we did; I didn't set out to do that. It just kinda happened. I thought it was important we trade Jamal Mashburn, because he obviously wasn't happy and didn't want to be here, and we had a big salary for a long time. He was having problems with Jim Cleamons as a head coach, he had problems with Quinn Buckner as a coach, and I guess he liked playing with Dick Motta, but I don't really know. So that had to be done. It was obvious.

"And Jim Jackson didn't want to be here. He was only going to play this year and was not going to re-sign with us. So that's pretty simple."

Nelson says he consulted with Cleamons before the Mashburn and Jackson trades were made--but only after he knew where they were going and whom the Mavericks were getting in return. But, he says with a shrug, even if Cleamons had wanted to keep the two players, it's likely Nelson would have made the trades anyway. It's the coach's job to win with the talent chosen by the general manager, plain and simple.

"I thought it had to be done," Nelson says.
And besides, Nelson adds, Cleamons "didn't say no."

Jim Cleamons seems almost relieved to talk about last season. It's a distant memory by now, permanently written in record books no one will ever read. He survived his first year, escaped it, and, he hopes, learned from it. He looks back on it now as someone might reflect on a near-death experience--with a smile and a sigh.

There were those in the local media who were surprised when owner Ross Perot Jr. kept Cleamons on at the end of the season--or, for that matter, when Nelson didn't sweep Cleamons out with the rest of the team. Surely the Mavericks have fired greater men than Cleamons--just ask the once-respected, once-heralded Quinn Buckner, who came to Dallas from the NBC broadcasting booth in 1993 and led the team to a grisly 13 victories before being exiled to doing play-by-play in Cleveland and, now, Indiana. But Cleamons escaped the death sentence, and deservedly so.

After Perot Jr., Frank Zaccanelli, and David McDavid--or Groucho, Harpo, and Zeppo--bought the team from founder Don Carter on May 1, 1996, the Mavericks were a team so thoroughly bewildered it's amazing they even managed to field a team at the beginning of last season.

Former vice president of basketball operations Keith Grant, respected in NBA circles as a guy with a good eye for talent, suddenly resigned on October 17, 1996. Though he cited burnout, it was obvious to even the casual fan he didn't fit in with the new regime--especially with Zaccanelli, who had no basketball experience but nonetheless considered himself the man to lead the Mavericks. Zaccanelli will be forever haunted by the Kidd trade and the signing of Eric Montross--who came to Dallas after the team traded away a number-one draft pick to Boston and then turned into one of the team's all-time busts, lasting barely half a season before Nelson traded him to New Jersey with Jim Jackson, George McCloud, Sam Cassell, and Chris Gatling.

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