By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
This is how it all began to unravel.
6:34: 16-foot jumper,
Jason Terry— Mavericks 89, Heat 76.
On Tuesday, June 13, 2006, at approximately 10:15 p.m. in Miami's American Airlines Arena, the Dallas Mavericks could taste their first NBA Championship. Already leading their best-of-seven NBA Finals series against the Heat, 2-0, Terry's wide-open shot over a hapless defense seemingly provided a death grip on Game 3.
Heat fans that arrived hours earlier waving white rally towels were now throwing them in as they trudged toward the exits. No NBA team had ever rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series, much less the NBA Finals.
Simply nurse the healthy margin home and Dallas' 26-year foreplay would finally climax in a parade.
"The trophy was right there—I mean, right there," recalls Mavericks' assistant coach Darrell Armstrong, a reserve guard on that '06 team. "But we had no idea how to grab it. We're up 13 and during that timeout, I remember looking at our huddle and thinking 'uh-oh'. It was eerie. Too quiet. We had this funny look in our eyes like 'we might actually win this thing,' and we weren't ready for it."
In a lot of ways, the Mavericks are still in that huddle.
Still trying to figure out how to win. Still haunted by their monumental implosion. And yes, still affected—in psychological scars and philosophical strategy—by that final 6:34 in Miami 32 months ago.
Instead of stepping on Miami's throat, the Mavericks pinched themselves right out of their dream. In the final five minutes, they passively settled for five missed jumpers of 15 feet or longer, made just one layup, committed five turnovers and watched as cornerstone Dirk Nowitzki nervously front-rimmed a free throw that would've forced overtime. Meanwhile, Heat guard Dwyane Wade morphed into Michael Jordan, scoring 12 of his 42 points down the stretch. Gary Payton made his only shot of the game in the final 10 seconds, just minutes after career 52-percent free-throw shooter Shaquille O'Neal went an unlikely 2-for-2.
By the end of the night the series was over all right, but it belonged to Miami.
The 98-96 epic failure left the Mavs irreparably gutted. They were blown out in Game 4, suffered another late-game collapse in Game 5 and watched Terry's game-tying 3-pointer rim out at the buzzer of Game 6's climactic loss in Dallas' American Airlines Center.
"Looking back," Armstrong says, "we never got out of Game 3."
Window = closed.
But for how long?
"You move on, but certain things will burn in you forever," says Mavericks' general manager Donnie Nelson. "What we went through that summer in 2006...the resolve and the inspiration from that experience is involved in everything we do around here."
The Miami meltdown commenced a three-year slide of diminishing returns. The Mavericks, as the No. 1 and then No. 7 seed, lost in the first round of the playoffs the following two years and this season have yet to distinguish themselves from a large pack of teams jockeying for playoff position in the middle of the Western Conference.
Had Dallas closed out Game 3 and captured its championship, odds are Avery Johnson would still be the coach, Devin Harris would be blossoming as an All-Star here instead of New Jersey and former mayor Laura Miller wouldn't be eternally vilified for her office's premature parade plans. Instead, the Mavs continue to try to convince themselves and their fan base that 2006 was a special team worthy of life-support.
Stubbornly, the Mavericks are clinging to their go-for-it mode, confident they can win back their lost championship before being forced to take the irreversible steps toward rebuilding. It's a strategy which could, at worst, endanger the franchise's foundation—trading Nowitzki, re-shaping the roster via a star-studded 2010 free-agent class, and even terminating Cuban's relationship—symbiotic as it is—with Nelson.
Is going forward by standing still the right move? With only two major changes since '06—Rick Carlisle has replaced Johnson as head coach and Jason Kidd is now the point guard instead of Harris—and no trades at the recent deadline, the Mavericks remain a team too good to dismantle, yet not good enough to beat the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics in a game, much less a series. With a discernible erosion of confidence, a playing core pushing into its 30s and a cupboard bare of young stars and high draft picks, the future is murky.
That's because the Mavericks' future—though chained to the past—is now.
6:15: 15-foot bank
shot, Dwyane Wade—
Mavericks 89, Heat 78.
foul— Mavericks 89, Heat 78.
5:36: Driving layup,
Wade (Josh Howard
foul)— Mavericks 89, Heat 80.
5:36: Free throw,
Wade— Mavericks 89, Heat 81.
5:19: 10-foot jumper,
Mavericks 91, Heat 81.
Owner Mark Cuban is on the StairMaster, insisting his team isn't on the treadmill.
"Treadmill teams don't have a realistic chance to win the championship," Cuban says in the AAC locker room before a recent home game. "They hope to win 41 games and sneak into eighth spot. That's not us. We're a game or two out of having home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. We've got a shot."
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.
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.
"The Lakers don't intimidate us at all," Cuban maintains. "In the West it's going to come down to whoever stays the healthiest and gets hot at the right time."
After a 2-7 start, the Mavericks are 34-17. Though led by the conservative Carlisle—a combo of Jim Carrey's looks and Jim Lehrer's persona—they are an up-tempo, creative offensive team that shoots 82 percent at the free-throw line (second in the league) and can alternately accessorize Nowitzki's consistent brilliance with Howard's quick starts and Sixth Man of the Year leading candidate Terry's 20 points off the bench. Out since February 7 with a fractured bone in his left hand, Terry returned on March 1 in a winning effort against Toronto, and hard-nosed veteran Jerry Stackhouse, though placed back on the inactive list with lingering heel problems after an atrocious three-game rehab stint last week, figures to be an integral part of Dallas' late-season playoffs push.
In crunch time, however, the Mavs will more often than not be appraised—as they have since 2000—on Nowitzki's fadeaway jumper. The defense—a cornerstone tenet under Johnson—has noticeably slipped under Carlisle, evidenced by a 74-point first half by the Celtics and a 57-point half by the lowly Kings last month at AAC.
"We're a running team, we can score," Carlisle says. "It's when we guard people and rebound that we become a really dangerous team. When we don't, we're a below-average team with very little chance of beating the elite teams."
Management's idea in training camp was to keep the nucleus intact and hang blame for most of last season's disappointment (16-13 after acquiring Kidd and a decisive 4-1 loss to the Hornets in the first round of the playoffs) on the departed Johnson. Injuries, however, have kinked the choreography.
Stackhouse has made just a brief cameo. Howard has missed significant time with ankle and wrist injuries. And just before the All-Star break, Terry was sidelined for three weeks in the midst of the best basketball of his career. Most nights the Mavericks have taken the court missing 30 points per game from last season's team.
"With all our injuries and to be where we are, we're in a great position," Kidd says. "Nobody's talking about us, and that's fine with us. Write us off."
The one troubling tendency is the no-show. Or, even more alarming, the give-up.
One-third of the Mavs' first 21 losses were by 19 points or more, including hideous road blowouts at New Jersey (24), Memphis (20) and Milwaukee (34).
"We tend to pout if we miss a couple of shots," Cuban says. "We've got to not lose focus, to find a way to stay in the game when our offense isn't clicking."
In the West the Lakers and Spurs appear to have separated from the pack, but teams 3-9 are differentiated by fractions.
"Can we win it all this year? Absolutely, yes," Nelson says. "We'll have to get a little lucky and peak at the right time. But if we're healthy, we can beat anybody."
1:48: Two made free throws,
Shaquille O'Neal (Erick Damp
ier foul)— Mavericks 93, Heat 90.
1:26: Missed 17-foot jumper,
Stackhouse— Mavericks 93, Heat 90.
1:16: 20-foot jumper, Wade—
Mavericks 93, Heat 92.
1:05: Terry turnover, steal
by Haslem— Mavericks 93, Heat 92.
1:03: Two made free throws,
Haslem (Terry foul)— Heat 94, Mavericks 93.
While the Mavs' on-court performance has remained steady during Nelson's 11 years as one of the franchise's most influential decision-makers, his relationship with Cuban is remarkable.
Simply put, Nelson's boss despises Nelson's dad. And vice-versa.
"It was a prerequisite before I took this position in 2002 that I'd never be put in the spot of choosing one or the other," Nelson says from his AAC office. "There have been challenges there, sure. I love them both dearly. But they've both lived up to their word and never placed me in an awkward position."
Last summer Nelson's father and former Mavs' coach, Don—the patriarch of Dallas' rise from the NBA cellar—won a $7.1 million judgment against Cuban from a federal arbitrator. The decision stemmed from the language about deferred payments in his original coaching contract. The two got crossways during Don's '03 contract negotiations, and their relationship deteriorated into suit/countersuit. When Don attempted to obtain his deferred money, Cuban responded that his former coach and consultant violated a non-compete clause by agreeing to coach the Golden State Warriors in '06. (The case is currently in mediation.)
How does Donnie balance listening to dad while reporting to boss? For that matter, how does Cuban have confidential, one-on-one meetings with a top advisor whose father just so happens to be suing him for millions?
"From my perspective, Donnie's a great employee," Cuban says. "You'll have to ask him about his relationship with his father."
Says Donnie, "I owe my NBA existence to Nellie. Mark embraced Dad and me at our darkest hour when he bought the team and kept us on. You don't love your parents any less just because they decide to get a divorce. This was a business version of that."
The irony of Nelson's working environment with Cuban? While dad and boss haggle over a legal document, he works with only a handshake.
"I told Mark from Day One that his hand was good by me," Nelson says. "There's no paperwork at all."
Nor, despite his team's horrible hiccups, is there any call for his resignation.
In most franchises, winning 67 games in the regular season only to lose a first-round series to an underdog eighth-seed coached by your former Godfather would be the ultimate humiliation. But in Dallas, it only exacerbated the pain from Miami.
"When you get your arms around the cup but don't come away with it, it takes some time to get your swagger back," Nelson says. "The next season we won 67 games, so I'd say we got over it. Doesn't mean we don't think about it, or we're not motivated by it."
0:49: Missed 15-foot jumper,
Terry— Heat 94, Mavericks 93.
0:42: Missed free throw, Posey
(Terry foul)— Heat 94, Mavericks 93.
0:42: Made free throw, Posey—
Heat 95, Mavericks 93.
0:33: Driving layup, Harris—
Mavericks 95, Heat 95.
0:09: 21-foot jumper, Gary
Payton— Heat 97, Mavericks 95.
While the Mavs focus on this season and next, the NBA is already salivating and strategizing over the summer of 2010. That's when the delicious free-agent crop could include LeBron James, Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, Paul Pierce, Tyson Chandler, Manu Ginobli, Joe Johnson, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Steve Nash and Michael Redd. Oh, and Nowitzki.
"It's a factor," Nelson says. "You want to be as good as you can be now, obviously. But you've also got to maintain your financial flexibility for '10. Everyone's lining up for that."
This summer—for a relatively puny yield including Kidd, Bryant, Carlos Boozer and Ron Artest—most teams will be thinking outside the box and negotiating upside-down, signing players to one-year contracts and attempting to trim salary-cap fat for '10. A "nuclear winter," Cuban predicts.
"But I'm not even saying that we're definitely going to have cap room for '10," he says. "If everybody else is looking one direction, we'll look the other."
Just in case, the Mavs passed on trading Howard for the Nets' Vince Carter, partly because Carter has a $17 million salary in '10 and Howard has a team option that season.
Whatever their approach, the Mavericks must improve their talent evaluations and personnel decisions. For it's not their ying-yang play that makes 2010 and beyond appear sketchy, it's their lack of young players.
While the Texas Rangers trumpet their No. 1-rated farm system with an embarrassing amount of hubris, the Mavs' sustained six—Nowitzki, Terry, Howard, Kidd, Stackhouse and Erick Dampier—will each be in their 30s by the end of next season. Of their younger players, only forward Brandon Bass, guard J.J. Barea and Wright have flashed the potential to be reliable contributors on a playoff team.
The lack of a firm future is enough to place Nelson's tenure under the microscope, if not in jeopardy.
Handicapped by a combination of Dallas' success and trades resulting in unfavorable draft positions—the Mavs have had only three first-round picks this decade, none in the top 10—Nelson has nonetheless whiffed with seven top selections, while hitting on only one, Howard ('03). Though Wright—considered an afterthought in the Kidd trade—is temporarily flourishing as starting shooting guard, the Mavericks have also failed to secure the successor to Michael Finley after his '05 release.
This season's acquisitions of Gerald Green, Shawne Williams and Diop, inexplicably given a five-year, $33 million contract and since traded, have also flatlined. The Mavs have their first-round draft pick this summer—again likely to be in the bottom one-third—but no selections in '10.
"Nobody bats 1.000," Nelson says. "I don't like to grade myself, but I never claimed to be an A. Hopefully I'm not an F."
Again, all the more reason to win big now.
"I like this team," Nelson says. "We're versatile. We've got great chemistry. We've got a lot of guys playing in their prime."
But if his Mavericks come up short again this season and next, will Nelson survive? While his big moves may keep the Mavs in position to win short-term, his failure to upgrade the roster's periphery puts them, and possibly him, in long-term limbo.
"I love this city, this team, this franchise," Nelson says. "They'll have to kill me to take me away from here."
Already etched on his tombstone: Here lies the man who discovered Dirk.
"I still think about losing that chance," Nowitzki says. "Sometimes I wish we could go back to Game 3, or even that whole week in Miami. Just try it over again, you know?"
0:03: Made free throw, Nowit
zki (Haslem foul)— Heat 97, Mavericks 96.
0:03: Missed free throw,
Nowitzki— Heat 97, Mavericks 96.
0:01: Made free throw, Wade
(Nowitzki foul)— Heat 98, Mavericks 96.
0:01: Missed free throw, Wade—
Heat 98, Mavericks 96.
As important a role as he played in getting the Mavs to this point, Nowitzki will be a bigger focal point of where the Mavs go from here.
He's the face and the fabric of the franchise. Nelson's legacy—he was the first to recognize Dirk's talents as a teenager and was responsible for convincing the Mavericks to acquire him in 1998—rests on the giant German. Aside from various injuries that have temporarily sidelined Nowitzki, Cuban has never entered a game as Mavs owner without him being offensive options 1 and 1a.
"If I could trade him for Kobe and LeBron ... " Cuban jokes, "I might have to listen."
Other than the occasional night when he scores a season-low nine points in Houston or he's been forced into bad misses by unheralded Celtics defender Leon Powe, Nowitzki this season is better than ever. He's had four games of 40-plus points, is fifth in the NBA at 25 per game and would be a candidate for his second MVP if the Mavericks had a better record.
"He's been at an MVP level all season," Carlisle says. "But the reality is he's not in the conversation because our team isn't having the kind of success it needs to for him to be considered."
He's one of the most underrated, underappreciated athletes in the history of Dallas sports and by far the best Maverick ever.
At this point—whether rejoicing or rebuilding—it's impossible to imagine the Mavs without Nowitzki.
"You never say never," says Nowitzki, whose contract expires in 2011 but includes an opt-out clause after next season. "I want to stay here and win a championship here. I've poured my heart and soul into this team for 10 years, and I want to win here. I'm clear about that. But if they find a deal to make the Mavs better by trading me, they'd be foolish not to."
0:00 Nowitzki turnover, steal
by Wade— Heat 98, Mavericks 96.
"Dirk's not untouchable. Nobody is," Nelson says. "But he's the closest thing to it. He's in his prime, and we think we're still right there. If anybody leads us to a championship, it should be him."
Eight consecutive playoff seasons. An average of 56 wins. Two trips to the Western Conference Finals. One of the game's best players. That lingering scent of The Finals. And a hole still desperately yearning to be filled.
This is how it all stays held together.