By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In the maddening moments after yet another premature evacuation by the Dallas Mavericks, I know what you were thinking:
Blow it up! Trade Dirk Nowitzki. Cut Jason Kidd. Fire Rick Carlisle. Ball-gag Bob Ortegel. Hang Mark Cuban. Change everything!
I know, because I temporarily echoed those sentiments in the knee-jerk infuriation after the Mavs lost Game 6 and the series to the Spurs in San Antonio last Thursday night. In the wake of another first-round playoff exit, all felt broken and everything needed fixing.
But a funny thing happened on the way to turning the Mavericks into this month's Texas Stadium. The sun came up, the blood pressure went down and this realization set in: It could be worse. Much, much worse.
I covered the Mavericks as a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in the early 1990s. One year they went 11-71, then 13-69 the next. They were the Dallas Mavwrecks.
Blow it up? Let's all be careful what we ask for.
"It's a failure that we didn't win the championship," Mavericks guard Jason Terry said as players cleaned out their lockers last Friday and trudged into a long, restless summer. "It was our goal. Our job. We failed. But life's not over."
The Mavericks have produced 10 consecutive playoff seasons of 50-plus victories. Still, with just one tantalizing tease at a title in 2006, they are undeniably underachievers. Each year it seems there is a 13-game winning streak here or a Player of the Month there or a Southwest Division championship banner to get us excited about another playoff run. But they have lost in the first round three of the last four years and are now the only team in NBA history to lose opening series as both the No. 1 and No. 2 seed.
Let's face it. The Mavericks are sports' most successful losers. It's like landing a blind date with a TV celebrity, only to have it be annoying Progressive insurance spokeswoman "Flo."
This year's autopsy is particularly hideous. Against a Spurs team thought to be on its last, old legs, the Mavericks were out-worked, out-coached and out-played in a 4-2 series loss. Did I mention out-coached?
It was a simple series, really. The faster the Mavs played, the better the Mavs played. The Spurs forged four championships drawing opponents to its walk-it-up, slow-it-down pace. Push the ball, color outside the lines and turn the game into ad-lib, free-form basketball and the Spurs are vulnerable, if not altogether uncomfortable.
Inexplicably, Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle repeatedly allowed his team to be lured into San Antonio's trap. In its two wins Dallas scored 100 and 103 points. In its four losses it managed just 88, 90, 89 and 87.
After a rousing, fast-paced, 22-point blowout victory in Game 5, the Mavericks had momentum and seemingly a blueprint for Game 6 in San Antonio's AT&T Center. But just two minutes into the game, Dallas played not to lose. Walking the ball across mid-court. Dribbling away the shot clock. Settling for long jumpers.
The result was a passive, pathetic performance. The Mavericks scored a franchise-low eight points in the first quarter and trailed 41-19 early in the second. More out of desperation than inspiration, Carlisle inserted rookie Roddy Beaubois.
The mosquito-quick guard changed momentum, the game and—almost—the series.
Where veteran and future Hall-of-Fame point guard Jason Kidd stood and probed, Beaubois drove and attacked. He scored on floaters over Spurs star Tim Duncan, hit a 3-pointer and set up teammate Shawn Marion for a layup off a penetrating drive.
He continued his resurrection of a franchise in the third quarter, snaking through San Antonio's defense for a layup. Duncan helplessly flailed at Beaubois, like King Kong trying to swat buzzing airplanes. Popovich sat mouth agape, bewildered and void of a retort. Beaubois scored 16 points in 18 minutes. The Mavericks erased a 22-point deficit, took a brief lead and trailed by only seven at the end of the third quarter.
It was as if Carlisle had waited until just the right time to unleash his secret weapon.
Then, in one of the worst coaching moves in the history of Dallas professional sports, Carlisle sat Beaubois on the bench. For nine long minutes. Beaubois didn't return until 2:44 remained.
Carlisle is a good coach with a playoff pedigree, but his benching of Beaubois is a fireable offense. Especially when you consider that he played the rookie only 10 minutes through the series' first five games. In 2006 head coach Avery Johnson—stubborn as any coach—inserted a young point guard named Devin Harris into the Spurs series and Dallas went to the NBA Finals. Carlisle didn't use Beaubois until it was too little, too late.
"I understand the second-guessing, but Roddy is our third point guard and third two guard," Carlisle tried to explain. "I went with veterans who have won games time and again for this franchise. Can a case be made that I should've gone back to Roddy quicker? Sure. But I'm comfortable with the way I handled it."
Long-suffering Mavericks fans—some of whom were already on Carlisle's case for not playing him more in the regular season and who started a grass-roots "Free Roddy B" campaign—aren't so convinced. In a series in which his team's offense seemed stuck in refrigerated molasses, Beaubois was only allowed to provide a glancing blow of his game-changing talent.
"He should've been used more the entire series," said Derek Harper, who played 12 years for the Mavericks and is now the team's TV studio analyst. "He could've made a real difference. Why didn't he play more? Coach Carlisle has to answer to that one."
Without a first-round draft pick and with Carlisle, Kidd, Terry and—in all likelihood–Dirk Nowitzki back next season, the 2011 Mavericks will likely not look drastically different. The hope? Beaubois will blossom after spending the summer working on his point-guard skills, and Dallas will use Erick Dampier's expiring $16 million contract to help land an impact player in free agency. Though LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will be available, the Mavericks are more likely to target a Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer or Joe Johnson.
The long-shot kink in the plans is Nowitzki, who could in July opt out of a contract scheduled to pay him $21 million next season and become a free agent able to sign with any other team. After another spectacular season ruined by insufficient help—only twice in 10 years has he had a 20-point scoring sidekick—a downtrodden Nowitzki isn't rubber-stamping his return to Dallas.
After playoff elimination in 2007, Nowitzki headed for a month of soul-searching and backpacking in the Australian outback. Here's hoping that's as far as he goes this summer.
Said general manager Donnie Nelson, "I can tell you from Mark [Cuban] to management, all the way down, we will do whatever needs to happen to make sure Dirk's in a Maverick uniform."
Without Nowitzki, the Mavericks totally rebuild and crumble into a lottery team.
With him, they add an elite free agent and simply, stubbornly reload.
"We're close," Terry said. "We're constantly evolving. We keep changing. The city of Dallas deserves a championship. And we are going to get one."
Are we there yet?
Sadly, still nope. But neither are we totally, hopelessly lost.