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

Then there was the matter of Mark Aguirre, who's perhaps the most loved and loathed player in the history of the Mavericks. Traded to the Detroit Pistons in 1989 for the hobbled Adrian Dantley, Aguirre finally got his shot at playing for a champion, only to return to Dallas when his playing days were over. A buddy of Zaccanelli's from way back, Aguirre was brought in as a director of player development and as a scout. Just how much he had to do with the mess that transpired before the beginning of last season is up for debate: He insists he had little to do with basketball decisions, while others told The Dallas Morning News earlier this month that he helped recruit Jim Cleamons...before the Bulls had given the Mavericks permission to talk to him, a violation of league rules.

No coach in the history of the game, especially a rookie head coach, had been expected to win with a team as disorganized and as misguided as the Mavericks were under Zaccanelli, who had made his money in real estate--not basketball. (Zaccanelli's now so far out of the picture, he's not even mentioned in the team's new media guide.) Cleamons never had the chance to define his style, never had a chance to learn his team's strengths and weaknesses--or, for that matter, their names.

In the end, Jim Cleamons wasn't fired because Jim Cleamons didn't deserve to be. Ross Perot Jr. knew that much about basketball.

"I was a bit surprised about the speculation I was going to be fired myself," Cleamons says. "I can't worry about [being fired]. I know I've got a job to do, and I'm going to do my job the very best I can, and hopefully we're going to be very successful. I don't even try to worry about other people's opinions."

Rather than dump Cleamons and break his four-year contract, team management gave him another chance--perhaps a first chance--with a very, very young team that almost looks like an expansion franchise, filled with rookie free agents and other teams' castoffs. But there is some hope. If only--again--on paper.

Former Phoenix Sun Michael Finley and sixth man Erick Strickland are formidable swingmen who can score from anywhere on the court. Former Orlando Magic forward Dennis Scott, a first-round pick in 1990, is a feared outside shooter, a man who puts up three-pointers like most players drive for lay-ups. Of course, he's also infamous for spouting off to a bunch of kids during a summer basketball camp that he was filled with "rage"; and, during the off-season, he threw himself a birthday party during which two people were shot. "They labeled me a troubled player," Scott says now, laughing off the incidents that made him expendable in Orlando.

Ex-New Jersey Net Robert Pack, who's with his fifth team in six years, finished last season eighth among the league's assist leaders. Shawn Bradley, reviled during his tenures in Philadelphia and New Jersey, even seems reborn in a city that doesn't see him as the chosen one. At the end of last season, he led the league in blocked shots--the first Maverick ever to lead the league in anything other than stinking up the joint.

Still, there are moments when Bradley looks awkward and unsure of what to do with the ball, much like another Don Nelson golden oldie--Manute Bol, the 7-foot-7 Sudanese center who once set league records in blocked shots, only to finish his career with the Florida Beachdogs of the CBA.

And though team captain Derek Harper is gone once more, this time traded with Ed O'Bannon to Orlando for Dennis Scott and $500,000, A.C. Green ranks among the league's most reliable players. He has won championships with the Los Angeles Lakers (he was part of the team that eliminated the Mavericks from the Western Conference finals in 1988) and come close with the Phoenix Suns. Perhaps more important for a team known lately for its here-today-traded-or-injured-tomorrow roster, Green finished last season having played in 896 straight pro basketball games, the second-longest streak in league history behind Randy Smith. If he plays the first 11 games of this season, Green will own the record, which might make him the Cal Ripken Jr. of the NBA.

This year's roster is probably lighter on talent than the lineup that began last season. Though the team has jettisoned the troublemakers and headcases, the guys who didn't want to be here and weren't going to re-sign after their contracts were up, the trades made during last season may well come back to haunt the Mavericks.

From all appearances, Kidd is playing with the same sort of ferocity that won him Co-Rookie of the Year honors in 1995. Jamal Mashburn, finally healed up from the knee surgery that made him such a disappointment in Dallas, is considered a three-point-shooting gem on Pat Riley's Miami Heat. And Jim Jackson seems rejuvenated with the Philadelphia 76ers, where he can start over without being tagged the troublesome franchise player. Maybe guys play better when they're not carrying such heavy loads.

But any Mavs fan will tell you we've been there before. They can reel off the names of the players who left here for success in other cities--guys like Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf, Dale Ellis, Bill Wennington, Mark Aguirre. All that, of course, means nothing to Cleamons. He has to win with what he has, with what Don Nelson has given him. Or else.

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