Back to the Future

For Dirk, Don and the Mavs to compete with the Lakers, they'll have to look to an unlikely source for inspiration: the late-'80s teams of Mark Aguirre and Dick Motta

At power forward, Nowitzki forces opposing power forwards away from the basket and punishes them with three-point rainbows. Then he drives past them for layups and induces them to foul him. He's also in better position to rebound at power forward, and this team certainly needs his rebounding.

The solution: Develop a killer post-up game. Because Howard is so deft at posting up, he's always going to draw the power forward at the defensive end, and that leaves a size mismatch for Dirk every night. As good as Nowitzki already is, until he conquers the post-up game, all Larry Bird comparisons--and hopes for conquering the Lakers or the San Antonio Spurs--should cease.

For context, it is worth remembering just how good the Mavericks of 1986-'87 and 1987-'88 were before they fell so hard they became the Humpty Dumpty of all professional sports franchises throughout the 1990s.

Owner Mark Cuban has re-energized the team and its fans by being as passionate about winning as he is about making money.
Mark Graham
Owner Mark Cuban has re-energized the team and its fans by being as passionate about winning as he is about making money.

The late-'80s Mavericks were much deeper and more skilled than most observers of the time realized. But they kept running up against Pat Riley's "Showtime" Lakers in the playoffs. Led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, those Lakers were very likely the greatest team in the history of the Western Conference, beep-beeping their way like roadrunners to four world championships in a seven-year stretch.

Dick Motta was architect/coach/dictator of the Mavericks in 1986-'87, the team that won the only basketball banner (Midwest Division champs) today hanging from the new American Airlines Center rafters. That club established the 55-win franchise record before being swept in the playoffs' first round, not by the Lakers, but by an inferior Seattle outfit.

Those Mavericks were led by Aguirre; a crunch-time shooting guard in Rolando Blackman; a double-headed monster at point guard in Derek Harper and Brad Davis; a wonderful defensive forward in Sam Perkins; a lumbering center named James Donaldson; a brilliantly gifted 7-footer named Roy Tarpley, who played above the rim like no Maverick before or after; and a graceful bench player, early among the European breed, named Detlef Schrempf. Schrempf was good enough to win the league's Sixth Man Award and to play effectively until retiring this year. Even the 10th man on that team, Bill Wennington, went on to win several rings with the Chicago Bulls.

"Nothing against the league today, but the talent was better then," says Motta, who at 70 splits his time these days between a cabin in Fish Haven, Idaho, and a home in Scottsdale, Arizona. "Unfortunately, we were not quite good enough to beat the Lakers. I figure that team today would still win 55 games and would still lose to the Lakers."

Motta resigned following the playoff loss to Seattle, and John MacLeod led virtually the same team to 53 victories in 1987-'88. Four months into the season, Riley called the Mavericks "the best team in the league today."

Of course, nobody believed him. The Lakers won 62 that year. In the playoffs' early rounds, the Mavericks whipped very decent Houston and Denver teams before encountering the Lakers in the conference finals. The Reunion Rowdies were never louder, and Dallas society never dressed any sharper. For the only time in this city's history, a basketball game was the place to be and be seen.

Those Mavericks took the Lakers the full distance, to a deciding Game 7 in L.A., and they were still within six points as the fourth-quarter clock slid under the six-minute mark. That's when Magic took over and, in what General Manager Jerry West called "the greatest game I've ever seen Magic play, considering the circumstances," pulled out victory.

When they returned that night to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the downcast Mavericks found 4,500 cheering fans waiting for them. The throng formed a narrow path for players and coaches to walk through, and the path of people snaked through the terminal for a quarter-mile, maybe more, from the landing gate to the team bus, in a way that could not be duplicated in today's world even if desired.

Even if Dirk Nowitzki becomes an all-around superstar, how good will these Mavericks be if they get out-rebounded and manhandled almost every night? And how frustrating will it become if Shawn Bradley, forced to play too many minutes, keeps getting into early foul trouble?

Certainly, with the notable additions of Hardaway and Manning, the Mavericks should be mentally tougher than a year ago. They began last season with four rookies on the roster, and Nash had not yet proven himself over an entire season. There are no rookies in this year's rotation, and Nash did prove himself. Nelson says not even his very best Milwaukee Bucks teams, which in the 1980s won seven consecutive division titles and 50 or more games in seven consecutive seasons, were as deep as these Mavericks. This team can shoot with the best in the league, and the roster is filled with unselfish battlers.

So what's missing? Muscle.

Mark Cuban may be the first owner in NBA history to spend more hours in the weight room than any big man on his team. Don Nelson bemoans his team's lack of bulk. But if muscle were a Nelson priority, Dirk would be pumping weights instead of threes, and the roster would include a thug or two. Nelson prefers a team of interchangeable parts, built more on flexibility than brawn. But he knows at least a big body or two is vital, and he had the one he wanted to cultivate in recently departed Calvin Booth.

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