By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Near the top of the key, Michael Finley dribbles and talks, demanding with words and deed that someone--anyone--guard him. It's the second week of training camp, and practice is almost over, but he's tired of waiting. He wants a challenge now, not when the season begins, but right now.
Maybe the way last year ended--a first-round, unceremonious booting from the playoffs thanks to the troublesome Sacramento Kings--left him with bad memories that he can only shake loose with a ball in his hand and competition in his face. Maybe he can't wait to get started because the prospect of a new season with new teammates has infused him with an irrepressible energy. Or maybe he just likes the attention; a group of cameras is trained on him, recording every word, every dribble, every move.
Finley's first step is to the right, and quick enough that it makes me wonder why he stopped driving and started settling for those comfortable jumpers these past few seasons..."Come on, guard me for real," he taunts.
With the next move, he crosses left and nearly loses both defenders..."Come on, guard me for real," he says again.
He puts the ball between his legs, then behind his back. He's dancing, just he and the ball, a one-man ballet. The only things missing are those precious little ballet shoes, only that might look kind of odd considering that he's still trash-talking, and ballerinas don't usually do that. "Come on, guard me for real," he says once more. I'm sure something spectacular is about to happen...Then he dribbles the ball off his leg and out of bounds.
"Hey, slow down there, Hot Sauce," Dirk Nowitzki needles, referring to the street baller with the spicy name, the one who over-dribbles with fantastic, unthinkable moves as part of the And 1 Tour. Nowitzki is laughing big at his joke, and he's not the only one. The newly acquired--center Erick Dampier and guards Devin Harris and Jason Terry--laugh, too. There are a lot of new faces around here, but it seems that most of them are enjoying a good chuckle at the old dog's expense. But Finley doesn't seem to mind; he smiles and laughs right along with them. As they walk off the court together, they tease each other some more; one big happy family, ready to take on the division, the conference, the league.
For the second straight year, this is the image the Dallas Mavericks are selling: a new team, radically altered from the previous year yet totally cohesive and ready to win a championship. They're not strangers, you see; they're friends who haven't gotten to know each other. Chemistry won't be an issue. They'll be deeper, tougher and better defensively. They'll get along, they'll accept their roles, they'll even accept fewer minutes. Hell, they might hold hands and sing campfire songs. This is the image they're selling.
"We gave the same speech last year," Finley admits. "And it sounded good at this time last year. But as the season went on, it just...it didn't work out. This year, hopefully, we can learn from what we did last year and get everyone comfortable with their roles, comfortable with the coaching scheme and just comfortable with the overall environment. I think last year, at one point, we got too comfortable. We had guys who didn't want to work hard at keeping our team cohesive and getting victories. And once we gave that up, we seemed to drift apart, and as we did that, our season drifted apart, too. Hopefully, with me and Dirk back, and with Avery Johnson back--he's a vocal leader as well--hopefully that will be enough to keep the team on the same page and on the same path and pushing toward the ultimate goal to win a championship."
The idea last year was to assemble the kind of all-star cast that hadn't been seen in one place since Frank and Deano and the boys got together to shoot the original Ocean's Eleven. But last year's Mavs didn't coalesce into a unit with a cool name and a common purpose like the Rat Pack. Instead, they bickered, and some of that spilled over to the media. They never looked like a team so much as they looked like a bunch of individuals trying to get theirs and go home. And so the grand experiment, the one that convinced everyone Dallas would net a title, was scrapped. Sort of. The formula--the one that dictates that the Mavs bring in a bunch of pieces without much regard to how they might, or might not, fit together--was kept. Because it couldn't have been the formula. It couldn't have been the chemists; it had to be the chemicals. So Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison and Steve Nash and Eduardo Najera and just about everyone else you can think of--save Nowitzki, Finley, Marquis Daniels, Josh Howard and Shawn Bradley--were either traded or let go. Ten people who wore Mavericks uniforms last season will be playing elsewhere this year. In their place are so many different players that it's hard to keep track of all the newbies without a roster in hand.