By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
On February 19, 2008, the Mavericks traded Harris, first-round draft picks in '08 and '10, $3 million in cash, backup center DeSagana Diop and reserve guards Trenton Hassell and Maurice Ager to the Nets for Kidd, guard Antoine Wright and forward Malik Allen. Trading a rising 25-year-old point guard for a declining 35-year-old point guard mocks conventional NBA wisdom, but as the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Kidd in a Mavs uniform screamed a week after the deal: "Go for It!"
"I'd do it again, 100 out of 100 times," Cuban says. Why? "Because he makes us a better basketball team."
For all the speed and finishing ability that made him an All-Star, Harris has fundamental flaws. Against the Heat in The Finals, the Mavs' pet pick-and-roll play was diluted because Harris refused to shoot open 17-foot jumpers. Because Johnson remained reluctant to entrust his offense to Harris, Dallas deteriorated into a predictable offensive team remote-controlled by a dictator too reliant upon Nowitzki.
The trade was made not only to acquire Kidd, but to re-energize Nowitzki.
"Look, I'm a huge Devin fan," Nelson says. "My wife and daughter almost disowned me when I traded their favorite player. But we needed a true facilitator, a true point guard."
Only in the last month has Kidd flashed the up-tempo pace, the uncanny passing and the unique intangibles that have chiseled his spot among the best point guards in NBA history.
Last year—just nine days after the trade and a week after announcing at Kidd's introductory press conference that "he knows how to win, how to close out games"—Johnson harpooned Kidd's credibility by yanking him out of a game in San Antonio with Dallas trailing by two and 34 seconds remaining. And this year, it was only after a humbling 24-point loss in Boston on January 25 that Carlisle felt comfortable enough to pitch Kidd the keys to the offense.
What took so long?
"It's a new relationship, and we've got to learn everything ourselves," Cuban says. "There's no guide book to tell us what to do and when to do it."
After a recent practice, Kidd pauses and chooses his words carefully when Johnson's stifling structure and Carlisle's delayed play-calling freedom are broached. "I guess it's just taken us a while to get comfortable," he says.
A little slower and a lot smarter than in his first tour with Dallas, Kidd is finally injecting his unorthodox blend of will and skill. Though his nine points per game are a career low, his 3-point shooting percentage is up, he's fifth in the league in assists, third in steals and he grabs more rebounds per game than any guard in the league.
"I don't know if I've lost a step or not," he says. "If I have, I must have better timing, or I know the angles better because I'm still keeping up."
Since Kidd began calling the offensive sets, Dallas is 11-5 and has topped 110 points seven times. With Carlisle calling most of the plays from the bench, the Mavericks topped 110 only five times their first 44 games.
"He's been better than even I expected," Carlisle says. "He does so many things to help us win games, it's amazing."
Kidd's resurgent play and expiring $21 million contract are also helping the Mavs remain in their aggressive mode. "We want him to stay, and hopefully he wants to stay," Cuban says. "But it's not my style to negotiate until after the season. Either he'll have a reason to stay or he won't."
Waiting until Kidd becomes a free agent, of course, exposes Dallas to the danger of again losing a high-profile, free-agent point guard (Steve Nash ring a bell?) with zero compensation.
Kidd, however, plans to play until he's 40 and hopefully end his career in the same place it started.
"I'm healthy and having a blast," he says. "Why would I stop? Why wouldn't they re-sign me? I know it's a business, but we're right there. We can win this thing. This team's been good for a long time and there's no reason we won't be good again next year."
3:18: Nowitzki turnover,
offensive foul— Mavericks 91, Heat 88.
3:06: Missed layup, Wade—
Mavericks 91, Heat 88.
2:49: Two made free throws,
Nowitzki (Udonis Haslem
foul)— Mavericks 93, Heat 88.
2:32: Missed 3-point jumper,
Wade— Mavericks 93, Heat 88.
2:04: Missed 3-point jumper,
Terry. Dallas team turnover, 24-second shot-clock
violation— Mavericks 93, Heat 88.
The lack of a deal at last month's trading deadline indicates that the Mavericks think they can make a deep run in this year's playoffs with their present roster.
Depending on when you've tuned in—marquee victories at Portland, San Antonio and Orlando are contradicted by inexcusable losses to the Grizzlies, Kings and Clippers—the Mavericks have either looked like the best of the West behind the Lakers and Spurs, or like a team one turnover from the lottery. Out of the All-Star break they dropped road games at conference rivals Houston and San Antonio (limited to paltry outputs of 86 and 76 points) and since Kidd's arrival are only 4-14 on the road against the West's elite.
This year they are 0-4 against the Lakers and Celtics—last season's finalists—by an average margin of 11 points, recently blowing a 15-point second-half lead in a home loss to Boston.