By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban says a half-dozen players came to him at the end of last season, expressing a desire to play elsewhere if Avery Johnson remained the head coach. Let's tiptoe out upon the limb and predict that Jason Kidd was included in the mutiny.
Because while Avery the player—all 5-foot-10 of him—had no chance of stopping the future Hall-of-Fame point guard, Avery the coach—ingrained in defense, discipline and drab—did exactly that by stubbornly censoring one of the most successful fast-break passers in the history of basketball. After the controversial mid-season acquisition of Kidd, Johnson refused to let the runner run.
Time and again, Kidd would take an outlet pass, prepared to lead a 3-on-2 break, only to have a screaming, sometimes stomping Johnson yank the reins by calling for a set play in the half-court offense. In a first-round playoff series loss to the New Orleans Hornets in which he was badly outplayed by younger, quicker, better counterpart Chris Paul, Kidd often found himself 40 feet from the ball, a fourth-option set-shooter in a predictable offense that became easy to defend and painful to watch.
Inexplicably, Johnson tried to change Jason Kidd into Jason Kapono. You'd have a better chance of transforming a small-town Alaska governor into vice president.
"It was frustrating," Kidd says at American Airlines Center during last week's Media Day, on the eve of a training camp. "I just know that we didn't run. We didn't play the way we were supposed to play."
With this year's season opener against the Houston Rockets in just three weeks, the Mavericks' 2008-'09 theme is dripping with "Blame Avery." Careful. It's a dangerous game.
Yes, Johnson ultimately proved more little bully than little general. His long practices, early timeouts and offensive handcuffs frazzled players. As Media Day concludes, Cuban admits last year was a horrible "death by a million little cuts." Just a few minutes earlier, Dirk Nowitzki characterized Johnson's oppressive regime as a "dictatorship." But was it all Avery's fault?
We're about to find out.
Because gone is the head coach who led them to the NBA Finals, who won Coach of the Year in '06, who drove them to 67 regular-season wins, who pushed Nowitzki to the MVP in '07 and who had them among the league's top 10 defenses in '08. And still here are the players. Basically the same players.
The only significant changes from the Finals team to this year's squad: Kidd is the point guard instead of Devin Harris; Brandon Bass the eighth man instead of Adrian Griffin; Rick Carlisle has replaced Johnson.
"Do I think we're a better team than the team that went to the Finals?" Cuban asks, repeating the question. "Yeah."
Because Avery's gone. And Kidd can finally arrive.
At this first official team function of the season, Kidd's body is tanned and adorned with two Olympic gold medals, Nowitzki's hair is buzzed, Josh Howard's disposition is humbled and Cuban's enthusiasm is rebooted. But as I look around, it's almost too familiar.
Jason Terry and Jerry Stackhouse will again be the shooting guards, Howard (apology accepted, fingers crossed and common sense dusted off) and Nowitzki again the forwards and Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop again the two-headed center. We've heard this song, right? Isn't there a really sour note toward the end?
The experts, to put it mildly, aren't impressed. Most pre-season predictions tab Dallas as the third-best team in Texas and fourth in their own division. The consensus is that they'll be left fighting for a playoff spot, unable to seriously threaten the Western Conference's elite.
And to think, just 28 months ago the Mavs were five quarters from the NBA championship.
Despite eight consecutive seasons of 50-plus wins and playoff appearances, Dallas' unprecedented success has been diluted by indigestible failures. Their bummer of a summer did little to change hearts or minds. Hard to rally support when your top draft pick (Shan Foster) opts for Europe and your most notable transactions are re-signing Devean George and J.J. Barea.
Nonetheless, the Mavericks believe they can reinvent themselves through higher RPMs. They believe in Carlisle. They believe in their core.
They believe in Kidd.
"Everyone seems to be writing us off," Nowitzki says. "But with Jason playing like he can, I think we're a lot closer than people think."
Adds Kidd, sarcastically, "Maybe we shouldn't even suit up."
I was vehemently against the Kidd-for-Harris trade last February. Because the Mavericks gave up too much for an aging, if not over-the-hill point guard, and I worried that Kidd's creative substance would butt philosophical heads with Johnson's conservative style. With Avery manning his leash, it was too much to ask Kidd to instantly increase the team's basketball IQ and mental toughness, to impose his will in pivotal moments of pressure games and to suddenly energize a fan base that had become lethargic.
The result: The Mavericks went only 16-13 down the stretch and bowed out meekly in five games to the Hornets. On his way out the door, Johnson lied that he never wanted Kidd in the first place, while lamenting his team's lack of "a point guard that could create opportunities off the dribble." Ouch.