By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It was the day after Nick Van Exel went down with a knee injury. Avery Johnson--who became the team's pro tem backup point guard when Van Exel bit it--stood by a set of black metal stairs that lead to the American Airlines Center practice-facility lockers. He talked about how his role might be altered while Van Exel is out, and then someone asked Johnson if he was going to take on a more vocal position. (That's what you have to ask a 37-year-old basketball player; it's framed as "you're gonna be another coach" type of question when really it means "seriously, dude, you are old.")
He looked down for a moment and was about to answer when assistant coach Del Harris cut him off.
"He couldn't be more vocal," Harris joked loudly from a few feet away.
"Nah, I'm just quiet," Johnson said, laughing, with an odd, squeaky Louisiana accent. "I don't want to get in trouble. I pick my spots when to talk..."
That easy back-and-forth didn't take years, friend, only months. They clearly like Johnson as a fella--head coach Don Nelson wrapped a big 2-by-4 arm around him earlier and they shared smiles. Yep, good guy. That's the consensus.
What I realized thereafter was that I know very little about Johnson. (You don't tend to hear much about the third point guard.) I do know, for instance, that he's a good guy. A week after the Johnson-Harris extemporaneous chuckle-fest, that's still all I've got. Problem is, I don't think the Mavs and Nellie know much more, either. That's what worries me.
Sure, we know he played in 68 games last year with Denver and Dallas, and before that he made a name with the Spurs, leaving San Antonio as the franchise's all-time leader in assists. He also won a championship there and made the all-interview team. (I copied that straight out of the media guide...God bless you "Hooked on Phonics.") But all that is faded glory, and old memories rarely serve teams trying to do something about now and later.
Johnson is currently in the second year of a three-year, $15 million deal. The idea was for him to be the third point guard, a guy who could do spot work and share the wisdom of his years. (Read: fill out a uniform and try not to get in the way.) Now things have changed. Either he plays, and helps account for some of the 20 minutes Van Exel averaged this year, or Nellie goes back to increasing the Big Three's floor time. That last strategy has been tried before. It gave birth to an ugly playoff roster--a dispirited, tired crew that played like a bunch of geriatrics.
Losing Van Exel wasn't horrible, but it stung. He was a terrific option off the bench, able to score and direct the offense, not to mention give Nash a blow. And he offered security. If Nash suffered an injury, there was a real-deal understudy waiting backstage to pick up the fallen script. Now the show is in limbo.
Johnson is going to have to take on some of that responsibility. That, or someone else will have to. That means either more weight for the Three Kings, and particularly Nash, or the Mavs bring in one of the available free-agent guards like George McCloud, Dell Curry, Matt Maloney or Dana Barros. I don't know about your eyes, but my fingers feel dirty just writing all that.
How the next three to five Van Exel-less weeks unfold all depends on Johnson. Can he still hoop? Does he have any juice? I'm not sure. I wonder if Nellie knows. In the first four games after Van Exel was lost, Johnson played nine minutes, then 23, then 16 and 11. That's some serious ebb and flow. Either Nellie is changing things as situations dictate--which has been known to happen; the man is a fine game manager--or he's not totally sold on what Johnson has left.
Consider: "It's a blessing to have a third guard like Avery Johnson who can step in there, and a veteran guy who knows what he's doing," Nellie starts out. "A lot of positives along with him. The negative would be, of course, he's 37-something, and, uh, you know, we have to be a little careful because he's lost some of his skills that he had five years ago. But still he's a very capable third guard and we're able to use him now." OK, not what you'd call a solid endorsement there, but it could have been worse. Tell me more.
"We still got a ways to go. There are some issues we have to, you know, work our way through--the injuries issues and things like that. Minutes and a lot of other things. It's early in the season, and I can call on my Big Three to play more minutes at this time. They're fresh and ready to go."
That did it, now I'm confused. Does he sound willing to use Johnson more or not? I can't figure it out, and I've been trying for a little while. Glad it's Nellie and not me who has to bend the whole thing to his favor. I don't have that sort of dexterity.
If I had to make the call, I'd go with Johnson. He's probably better, even at his advanced age and arrested talent, than what's rotting on the open market. And better to run him more than saddle Nash and Friends with any more baggage. So I'd cast my lot with Johnson, but I wouldn't sleep well. It would be a lot like that nightmare they just passed off as the Texas elections--I wouldn't be voting for someone so much as I'd be voting against everything, and everyone, else.
"Nellie knows how to use me," Johnson assures. "He won't play me how he plays Nick. But there are situations that he'll put me in where I can be successful to help the team.
"One of the things I always try to do is get to the areas where I operate best. I operate best from 18 feet on in. Nick operates from the 3-point line on in. You won't see me out there shooting the 3. I'll just get to my spots, and when I get to my spots, I feel pretty good."
Let's quickly recap. Johnson is a good guy. Johnson likes his spots. And...and...well, I guess that's all the intel we have at the moment. That kind of positive reinforcement warms the spirit, doesn't it?
"We have great depth," Nash says faintly. "That's why we are where we are, because of our depth. [Johnson] can step in for us, with Nick out, and we'll be OK."
Depth, that would help. Instead, Van Exel, one of their best bench players--and a personification of depth--is laid up for a while. What the Mavs do from here until his return will go a long way toward telling us where they are as a team and, more important, where they might end up. This is a significant stretch, then. It won't break them, but it might not make them, either.
What does that so-so-clever practice banner say again? Ah, yes: "Every game counts." How true.