Mr. Nice Guy

Is Antawn Jamison too big a sweetheart to make the Mavs tough enough?


The memory is indelible, if you're a Mavs fan or just someone who enjoys watching a good, violent wreck. The Mavs were up 13 in the fourth quarter in Game 6 of last year's Western Conference Finals. It stood to reason that they would force San Antonio into a Game 7. Then they imploded, absolutely destroyed themselves without provocation or warning, and watched the Spurs not only come back to win that game and the series, but also the NBA Championship. It was a bitter, depressing loss for Dallas, for the team and the city, and it still lingers. Because you need only ask Cubs fans or Red Sox fans to know that you get precious few opportunities in sports, and you had better make the most of them.

Cuban, like him or loathe him, had no intention of letting the depression consume him or arrest his desire to improve. While all of us, especially me, were criticizing him and the Mavs for sitting idly while the rest of the Western Conference loaded up on all-stars and Hall of Famers (e.g., Karl Malone and Gary Payton both going to the Los Angeles Lakers), Cuban remained patient, and so did Donn Nelson, the Mavs' president of basketball operations. They waited quietly in the brush, and when the wounded Warriors strolled by, they pounced. Then they pounced again when the Celtics stumbled past.

But the deals weren't just unparalleled successes for the team--they were also an admission of failure. Last year's playoffs exposed the team's weaknesses--the lack of toughness and rebounding first and foremost. Though Van Exel played with incredible heart, they saw that system for what it was--a loser in the long run. And bully for them. Because if there's been a constant failing in Cuban's administration, it's been obstinacy--the maddening reluctance to indict "their guys" when it was so plain to everyone else that they weren't getting the job done.

"People think that just because I'm soft-spoken that I'm going to take it easy on the court. That will be their mistake."
Mark Graham
"People think that just because I'm soft-spoken that I'm going to take it easy on the court. That will be their mistake."
Antawn Jamison, seen here drawing a foul in a preseason game against New Orleans, is adept at getting to the  free-throw line, but traditionally he hasn't shot as high a percentage on foul shots as most of his Mav counterparts.
Mark Graham
Antawn Jamison, seen here drawing a foul in a preseason game against New Orleans, is adept at getting to the free-throw line, but traditionally he hasn't shot as high a percentage on foul shots as most of his Mav counterparts.

"We went through this whole thing last year," Cuban says. "Other teams made trades. Other teams added rookies or signed free agents. That's just the nature of the industry. We feel we've done just as good a job, if not better. The grass is always greener. The other girls are always prettier. That's just the way the business is.

"Either you're the champion, or you finish in last place. That's what it comes down to. It was exciting. The atmosphere last year in the arena and throughout Dallas was amazing as we got further. The bottom line is, we had fun, it was a great journey, but we didn't get all the way. To me, either you win it all or you don't win it all. That's why we have a $70 million-plus payroll."

Like the rest of the Western Conference, the Mavs grabbed a new deck and shuffled. Of the 15 players Dallas invited to training camp, only seven wore a Mavericks uniform last year. (And one of them, LaFrentz, is gone.) There is no question that the Mavs did the right thing by making moves, but you still have to wonder if this team will be a team at all. Because the last few clubs were a rare combination of ability and understanding--a group that acted as one.

"There are so many new guys, no one knows what to expect," point guard Steve Nash admits. "It's hard to compare this team to years past because we have so many new faces. There are a lot of uncertains right now, but I'm confident that we'll come together."

If they can come together, this team will be scary good, because it's far deeper than it has been in recent memory. Travis Best, a veteran point guard who plays smothering defense, was signed as a free agent, and the Mavs drafted Josh Howard from Wake Forest, another fine defender who can also score. Assuming that the Mavs don't have more deals in the works, Antoine Walker will provide serious points and some rebounds, too. And Tony Delk? Well, as the third point guard, he's bound to be a winner. But they are all relatively little guys, and the Mavs have never needed little guys. Say what you will about LaFrentz (and I said plenty in the past, none of it good), but he stands 6-11. Now the only guy they have who's that tall and who plays exclusively in the post on offense and defense is Shawn Bradley. Uh-oh. Which means, in turn, that Dirk Nowitzki will have to play some center. Uh-oh, again. So what they need is what they've always needed: big guys who are also tough. In the meantime, Nellie needs to figure out a way to take a gentle small forward like Jamison and transform him into a snarling beast who can rebound around 7-footers.

"I know Dallas was trying to get bigger in the off-season, but you don't really get bigger with Jamison," one NBA Western Conference scout says. "He will score for you in the paint--he likes those little floaters--and he's tougher than people give him credit for being. I guess Nellie's approach was to be even more of a prolific scoring team. I still really like the trade for Dallas."

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