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 24, the 6-11, 250-pound Booth is still raw and only beginning to develop. He has great hands and a nice touch around the basket. After arriving in the eight-player swap, he played in only 15 regular-season games for Dallas, starting only seven, but in his nightly 20 minutes of court time he plugged up the middle, blocked shots, displayed a nice shooting touch and kept mistakes to a minimum.

More important, Booth was Nelson's anti-Bradley, more apt to stand his ground than be shoved around. Booth's last-second basket (thanks to Finley's alert pass) toppled Utah in the first round of the playoffs. Every minute Booth gave Nelson was a minute that Bradley stayed out of foul trouble, making Bradley, a looming defensive presence with a wingspan to match his height, more valuable late in games.

But during the off-season, Booth rocked Nelson by signing with Seattle as a free agent. Nelson is not exaggerating when he calls Booth's absence "a kick in the teeth." On this team, it would have been easier to replace Howard.

Chemistry teacher: Coach Don Nelson, top, mixes old player (Michael Finley, second from top) with new (Tim Hardaway, third) and somewhat-new (Juwan Howard, forth) players. But he still hasn't found a dominating post-up player like Dallas had back in the day with Mark Aguirre (bottom).
Mark Aguirre
Chemistry teacher: Coach Don Nelson, top, mixes old player (Michael Finley, second from top) with new (Tim Hardaway, third) and somewhat-new (Juwan Howard, forth) players. But he still hasn't found a dominating post-up player like Dallas had back in the day with Mark Aguirre (bottom).

In Seattle, Booth will be a young starting center on a young struggling team. He might have been better off staying in Dallas another season. Bradley, meanwhile, is going to have to find ways to stay out of foul trouble, or he's of no use late in tight games.

Bradley is not the first tall underachiever in NBA history. He's just the most recent. Plenty of 7-footers succeed in the NBA, but few players 7-4 or taller even make it. Ralph Sampson, 7-foot-4, was supposed to change the way the game was played in the 1980s. He averaged 15 points and nine rebounds and refused to mix it up inside. Rik Smits, 7-foot-4, averaged 15 points, six rebounds and offered marginal resistance in the paint. Mark Eaton, the human mountain (pre-Shaquille O'Neal) at 7-foot-4 and 290 pounds, was an extraordinary shot blocker who managed only six points and eight rebounds.

Remember 7-foot-7 Manute Bol, who played for Nelson at Golden State? Try 2.6 points and 4.2 boards and a propensity for shooting three-pointers.

Bradley is good for 10 points and eight boards, but he can completely confound opponents with his defensive dominance. He's best, of course, when not counted on. Good things do not come to teams forced to rely on Bradley for minutes and production. He commits silly fouls, draws quick technicals, loses his wits, then disappears. Booth took the pressure off Bradley.

Now, Bradley is the center by default. Behind him is a backup center-by-committee of Eschmeyer, Manning, Nowitzki and (when Nelson is playing Very Small Ball) even Howard.

Had Booth stuck around, Nelson's Washington trade would have been a winner. It still might be, but only Howard remains. Howard is well-liked in the clubhouse and the community. But his presence moves Nowitzki to small forward, and Howard only gets around seven rebounds a game. He'll be expected to fend off the West's very talented and physical power forwards--Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace, Malone, the list goes on. It won't be easy. Or pretty.

Could the zone defense be the thing that saves the Mavericks, then? Not likely.

Last time the Mavericks were really good, the league was different. Every team ran. It was not uncommon for teams to ring up 130- or 140-point nights. In 1986-'87, when the Mavericks won their most games ever (55), they scored 116 points a game. A year later, when Dallas made its greatest playoff run, every single team in the NBA gave up 100 points a game.

Then Chuck Daley changed things in Detroit. His "Bad Boys" Pistons won their first of back-to-back NBA championships in 1988-'89 by slamming all aerial acts to the ground. They pounded opponents all year, which prepared them for the playoffs. In doing so, the Pistons made "thug ball" fashionable.

Pretty soon, every coach was stressing defense and developing ways to take the fast break out of the game. They ordered quick fouls on breakaways, always kept a defender back, employed isolation tactics and doubled- and tripled-down. Offenses that fine-tuned their half-court game all season were rewarded by being better prepared for the playoffs. But the league suffered. In 1996-'97, during Michael Jordan's dominance with the Bulls, only eight offenses could muster 100 points a night.

The lack of scoring so dragged the league down that the Competition Committee finally decided to do something about it. This year, zone defenses are allowable. The catch is that if a defender remains in the lane three full seconds, he must be within an arm's length of an offensive player, or a technical foul will be called. To avoid the technical, the defender must hop out of the lane. The idea is to open up the game, to encourage quicker shots and more athleticism as players cut to the basket.

A team like the Mavericks, long on pure shooters and short on muscle, has the best chance of prospering, if anyone does. Say goodbye to thug ball. Maybe.

Former Mavericks Coach Dick Motta was a member of the Competition Committee.

"You can write all the rules you want," Motta says, "but it's still going to depend on how the refs call the game and how the league office administers the rules. The new rules might open things up, but they might also knock scoring down. I think the refs will call a lot of technicals early (for defenders in the lane), but they'll start letting it go after a while.

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