By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
This is not what Tony Delk wants to hear. Not now, not when he's just finished practicing, not when a warm shower and some rest beckon seductively. Not ever, really, and certainly not from someone like me.
The Dallas Mavericks guard was about to skip up the stairs that lead from the American Airlines Center practice court to the locker room when I stopped him. He thought that he could sneak past the occupied media huddled around Antawn Jamison a few feet away. I was playing a different game, and distanced myself from the pack before leaping out to block Delk's escape like a border guard halting a drug mule.
With his undivided, albeit reluctant, attention, I asked him about his hot start, about scoring a good deal so far this season, about starting games rather than being part of an extremely deep bench. I asked about his playing more minutes per game than anyone save the Fantastic Five, or whatever the hell we're supposed to call the big-name boys on this club (Nash, Dirk, Fin, 'Toine & 'Tawn), and whether he expected to absorb so much floor time for a team that doesn't have a lot of it to distribute.
I think maybe he didn't like the questions. Which is why he's glaring at me right now. He's not a big man, only 6-foot-2 and 189 pounds, but he's got a paralyzing stare. I don't think he's angry, but he's not thrilled, either. He's just sort of blinking at me.
"Nah, man, I came here expecting to play," Delk says curtly, breaking the uncomfortable silence. "It's not like I didn't play in Boston. It's not like I can't play."
Of course, that's not what I meant; he's no scrub. Delk is a seven-year vet, a guy who played well during his time in Boston and averaged nearly 10 points per game for them last year. He can play a little defense for you, too, but mainly he's an instant-offense type, a guy who can fill it up the way Bobby Jackson has for Sacramento over the past few seasons. But Jackson did his damage as a sixth man. When the trade went down and Delk and Antoine Walker were shipped here from the Celtics, I looked at the Mavs' roster and the incredible depth and figured Delk for 15 to 20 minutes a game. I thought he would come off the bench, give Nash a rest or fill in at the two-guard. Naturally, I was mistaken.
Head coach Don Nelson is enamored with Delk, that much is clear. While the rest of the Mavs struggle on any given night to sync up and shoot straight (they're averaging a good deal of points, but that doesn't necessarily mean the team is polished), Delk has been relatively consistent. Which is why he's averaging about as many points per game as Michael Finley.
"That's what we thought he could do for us," Donnie Nelson, president of basketball operations, says. "We thought he could be a little microwave for us."
Fine. Maybe the Nelsons saw this coming. Maybe Delk expected it. Maybe you don't think it's all that odd, either. But I'm confused. Really, what exactly has happened here? Wasn't Delk supposed to be a throw-in to the Walker trade? Because from everything that's been said or written, the Celtics, not the Mavs, insisted on putting Delk in the deal, or there wasn't going to be one. That's not "hey, we want so-and-so." That's "hey, we want to get rid of so-and-so." Now, that had a lot to do with Boston's new management wanting to bring in its own players. Delk was in a similar situation to Walker's--he admits to not having much of a relationship with Celtics G.M. Danny Ainge, so he wasn't at all surprised when he was included in the trade. Still, if the Mavs were so high on Delk, wouldn't the interest have been there from jump?
"Oh, we love what he's done for us," Nellie says, refuting my theory. "We thought he'd be a player we'd use a lot. When I was told we could get him, I said do it. We've always liked him."
Whatever. All this is mostly academic, anyway. I guess why Delk is here and whether or not he was in the Mavericks' designs from the get-go is less important than his production. Pre-planned or not, the man has played awfully well. The rest of the squad looked sluggish in the first few games of the season, particularly against Toronto and Washington (both road losses). There have been times when they've been brilliant, but those were mostly flashes that foreshadow what will happen down the line when they get more comfortable with each other. In sports, that's what we like to call chemistry. But while the rest of the Mavs tinker in the lab, Delk has had his game down to a science. He started six of the first seven games (then suffered a minor injury) and shot more than 42 percent from the field. Not bad for a throw-in, a guy who may as well have stayed home the day he and Walker were introduced to the local media because none of us paid much attention to him. Now it's damn near impossible for anyone to ignore him or his contributions.
"That's a big plus for us, that we can get other people clicking that aren't a part of the Fantasy Five, or whatever you guys are calling us," Jamison says. Fantasy Five, huh? I'm not sure I like any of these names, but I'm too dim to come up with one on my own, so I guess that'll have to do. "This style fits his type of game. He likes to get up and down the floor and run a little bit. It's a good fit for him. You can tell that he's like the rest of us--glad to be in this situation."
True enough. But I wonder how long all of it will last. Nellie has a habit of switching up his rotations. Last year Walt Williams was the early surprise, then he disappeared at the end of the season. I don't think Delk is Walt Williams. I think he has more hop in his step, more to offer in the long run. But I'm not sure if, on a team with five serious stars and plenty of scoring, that a guy who is largely one-dimensional (he's averaging about one assist per game) can continue to soak up so many minutes. At some point, I keep expecting them to get Danny Fortson or someone taller than 6 feet on the floor. Then, what do I know? Like I said, I didn't figure on any of this, so Delk is probably a lock to stay in the lineup and then pull a Nick Van Exel come playoff time.
"I'm still feeling my way," Delk says. "It's a new system, a new team. I think I can offer more. We all can. It's coming. You can see that we're going to get together, and then we're going to be a really good team. We'll get there, and I plan on being a part of that."
Right. Got it. No more questions.