By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
While the Mavericks collectively wince when asked to revisit 2006, its rancid ramifications are always lingering. To fans, it's a case of infinite blue balls, the source of knee-jerk calls for Cuban to "blow the whole thang up!" To players, coaches and management, it gnaws like a low-grade headache.
Since winning the championship, the Heat have disintegrated. In the 2006-'07 season, they finished fourth in the East; last year they bottomed out, ravaged by the retirement of coach Pat Riley, the trading of O'Neal and a season-ending injury to Wade. This year they are hovering around .500, given little chance at post-season success.
When Miami makes its annual visit to AAC April 1, you'd think the Mavericks would snicker with satisfaction at the demise of the villains who stole Dallas' spouse at the altar. But the truth? They'd swap spots.
Because that one shining moment is worth years of rubble in the aftermath.
"I've accomplished a lot in this game," Nowitzki said back on the eve of training camp at AAC. "The one hole I'm desperate to fill is winning a championship. It's all I'll care about until the day I retire. If we would've won in '06, we might all look at things differently."
While the Heat have only three players remaining on their roster from '06, the Mavericks have retained a six-player nucleus and changed only coaches, point guards and ancillary players in an attempt to fortify their quest. So far, so bad.
In '07 Dallas won a franchise-record 67 games and Nowitzki earned his only Most Valuable Player award. Last year the Mavs acquired Kidd in an aggressive attempt to pair future Hall of Famers. This year Carlisle's more flexible style has supplanted Johnson's rigid micro-managing.
The results? While the Mavs have won 64 more games than Miami the last three seasons, they have the same number of playoff series triumphs: 0.
"Look at the Dallas Mavericks," Hall of Fame and TNT analyst Magic Johnson told the Dallas Cowboys during a visit to their training camp last summer. "They had their window, but now it's closed. When you get that chance you have to take it. You may never get it back."
Cuban, of course, remains defiant, downplaying the wasted opportunity. "You never know if it's your only window or not," he says. "All we can do is put ourselves in position again and do the best we can to make our own luck next time around. But am I over it? You kiddin' me? Of course."
While few experts favor this year's team getting past the second round of the playoffs, a decade of unprecedented consistency—along with no ticket-price increases next season, Cuban's version of a stimulus package—is muting most fans from demanding an overhaul. Still energizing Victory Park at a time when upscale joints there fizzle, the Mavericks enjoyed their league-high 306th consecutive sellout at AAC last week. How? Because, after winning only 11 and 13 games during a hideous stretch in the '90s, the Mavericks have averaged 56 wins and made eight consecutive playoff appearances.
Since the start of the 2000 season through this year's All-Star break, only the San Antonio Spurs (504) had won more regular-season games than the Mavericks (480).
This year the Mavs are again on pace (49-33) for a lofty record. But can this team win this year's championship?
"Yes," Cuban says through his pouring sweat, "but it will take us getting some breaks."
Ever the contrarian, Cuban refuses to push the panic button—trading Nowitzki, for example.
"I remember being out at Dancing With the Stars in L.A., and the Lakers were trying to trade Kobe Bryant," he says. "There was a time when everybody was trying to take Paul Pierce off the Celtics' hands. Look how things turned out for both of them."
Despite their worst All-Star break record (31-21) since 2000 and the fact that Kidd will be 36 and an unrestricted free agent at year's end, the Mavs are committed to here, now. The best bet is they'll re-sign Kidd to a one-year contract and again "go for it" in 2009-'10. If that still doesn't produce the elusive championship, it will be time to drastically re-shuffle the deck.
"When we're healthy and playing together, this team can beat anybody," Kidd says. "The easy thing to do is panic, but the smart thing to do is let us stay together and give us another shot."
Over the last 25 years, only seven franchises have won an NBA title. It's not a one-hit-wonder league. Though the Mavs came close in 2006.
"I was golfing in Oregon, so I really didn't pay that close of attention," Kidd says. "But I got close with the Nets against San Antonio, and I know how falling short feels. Maybe not scars, but memories. Memories that stay fresh for a long time."
5:00: 3-point jumper, James
Posey— Mavericks 91, Heat 84.
4:34: Missed 21-foot jumper,
Terry— Mavericks 91, Heat 84.
4:20: 17-foot jumper, Wade—
Mavericks 91, Heat 86.
3:55: Missed 18-foot jumper,
Dirk Nowitzki— Mavericks 91, Heat 86.
3:36: Driving layup, Wade—
Mavericks 91, Heat 88.
Kidd, who began his NBA career in Dallas as a first-round draft pick in 1994, was re-acquired for the sole purpose of winning an NBA Championship.