By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
This is how stale our Dallas Mavericks are to the rest of America:
During last Sunday's nationally televised showdown against the Detroit Pistons, ABC's halftime feature—New Orleans native Avery Johnson talking about Hurricane Katrina—was a year-old interview about a two-year-old topic.
And this is how stale our Mavericks are to us:
Despite another successful regular season in which they'll amass 55 wins and enter the playoffs as one of the favorites to reach The NBA Finals, the Mavs can only get us titillated with rumors of a reunion with an over-the-hill point guard. We're spoiled. And we're wrong.
The Mavs won't trade for Kidd. Nor should they. In case you haven't noticed—and most of you haven't—they're doing just fine.
After Monday's night victory in Orlando salvaged a three-game road trip through the Eastern Conference division leaders, Dallas entered the week at 32-15, fifth-best in the league.
Sure there's nothing new or fresh about this team, as evidenced by ABC's cobwebbed centerpiece on pre-'fro Avery waxing eloquent about a 2005 non-basketball event. But there's also nothing wrong with this team.
Not yet, anyway.
Since last spring's colossal collapse to the Golden State Warriors, the Mavericks have fallen off the map without falling on hard times. While you've been obsessing on Jessica Simpson's boy toy, Exxon's unfathomable profits and David Tyree's super catch, Dallas has quietly, patiently remained among the NBA's elite.
Management astutely kept the top seven players intact. Dirk Nowitzki, who rediscovered himself by losing himself backpacking in Australia last summer, is having another spectacularly ho-hum season. Owner Mark Cuban has even been relatively anonymous, his last fine way back in June 2006.
"It's OK with us if we're not getting all the attention," says Nowitzki with a shrug. "Our goal is to be a great team in April, May and June, not in December, January and February."
Many fans—nationally and locally—have cast the Mavs aside like a writers' strike sitcom. They're soft physically and weak psychologically, goes the rerun rationale.
Maybe, but for now they're more into reloading than recoiling.
Determined not to max out his team the way he did during a hard-drivin' 67-win regular season ago, Johnson is now tolerant of hiccups that ultimately serve the greater good. The Mavs have lost to the Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks and twice to the Washington Wizards, but they are 4-2 against the West's big boys—the San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Hornets and Los Angeles Lakers. They already have 15 losses—matching last year's total—but they're also the NBA's best home team at 20-3.
"We've got a long way to go, but we're getting there," says Johnson. "You can see it building. Hopefully this year we'll peak at the right time and be playing our best basketball at playoff time."
The basketball universe is not convinced.
In casual circles the Mavs remain a harmless, flawed team, eternally too reliant upon one-on-one creativity and perimeter shooting. Like stubbornly trying to turn Barry Bonds into a deft bunter, they are determined to shove Nowitzki into the post. And, despite Avery's insistence to attack the rack, the Mavs too often settle for 3-pointers, their offense ass-backwardly shaping the defense.
Are his players not getting the message? Or merely choosing to ignore it?
"We're just not persistent enough," the coach sighs. "When a team gets pro-active on defense and really comes after us, we tend to give in a little and settle."
Despite their success—on pace for an eighth consecutive 50-win season—the Mavs' image has slipped significantly. Dirk's jersey is only the eighth-best seller, they are just 10th in souvenir revenue and they will have only one representative (Nowitzki) in the February 17 All-Star Game, one less than the 24-22 Wizards and two fewer starters than a Denver Nuggets team not even leading its division.
"That's a shame," said Johnson, lamenting the snubbing of Josh Howard. "We're happy for Dirk, but right now we think we're at a stage where we have two guys that deserve to be automatic All-Stars."
Less visibility equals less pressure. Unfortunately, it's a bad time for metroplex sports fans still fuming over the Cowboys' loss to stop kicking the dog long enough to realize it's basketball season.
With starting point guard Devin Harris sidelined three weeks with a bruised ankle, the Mavs' offense sputtered horribly in losses at East beasts Boston and Detroit before breaking out of a 6-of-36 3-point shooting drought to sink 5 of 10 triples against the Magic. This is significant because if the Mavs advance to the Finals, they'll likely face one of those three opponents. Going 1-2 on the trip isn't a definitive indicator of failure, merely a bombed SAT.
Which, more than ever, substantiates the value of Harris and the no-brainer of keeping him in Dallas and Kidd in New Jersey. In fact, I wouldn't trade Harris for Kidd, straight up.
Seemingly, there's pressure on the Mavs to do something before the February 21 trading deadline. The Spurs are adding Damon Stoudamire, and the Warriors are adding Chris Webber and the Lakers are adding Pau Gasol. But Kidd-for-Harris-and-others would be a long-term loss. No denying that the swap would make Dallas a better team this season. But maybe not next and definitely not beyond.
The right move...is no move.
The current nucleus deserves one more shot. Last year's first-round freak-out notwithstanding, the Mavs dominated the league last regular season and were six minutes from a 3-0 lead in the '06 Finals. Comforting it was then to hear Johnson and Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson all crow in unison last week:
"We like our team."
Kidd, Dallas' first draft pick in '94, would admittedly energize a lethargic fan base with an injection of right here, right now. The human triple-double has more playoff experience than Nowitzki, Howard and Terry combined, and surely his defensive tenacity would've slowed down Baron Davis last spring. But Kidd and Harris are headed in opposite directions.
In two years Kidd may be a 37-year-old Hall of Famer. In two years Harris should be a 27-year-old Tony Parker.
Despite a wiry frame that mandates limited durability, Harris is Dallas' one-man fast break, a blur that ad-libs open layups when defenses constrict the half-court jump shooters. The Mavs believe in him to the tune of last summer's five-year, $43 million contract extension.
In the end, Avery's legacy—similar to Jason Garrett's nurturing of Tony Romo and Ron Washington's development of Hank Blalock—may be hitched to Harris. The ol' point guard is charged with making a superstar out of the young point guard, who came equipped with all the bells and whistles as the fifth overall pick in the '04 draft.
Fail, and Avery will be fired and the Mavs will be blown up. Succeed, and Dallas will make legitimate title runs this decade and next.
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