Tonight was one of those nights. He hates those nights. They're tough to deal with, tougher still when reporters come around asking questions, revisiting his fresh pain.
Christian Laettner sits in front of his locker, one of several in the Mavericks posh dressing room. Unlike his teammates, the 6-foot-11 forward/center isn't running for the post-game buffet. He's not hustling off for a hot shower. Not playing PlayStation or watching television or fooling with the DVD player in his stall.
Instead, he's hunched over a single sheet of white 8 1/2-by-11 paper that lays on the floor. Tiny numbers cover the document. It may as well be an obit.
Laettner, shirtless and wearing only a pair of sky-gray wind pants, shakes his head as he peruses it, his feet bare on the carpet. Big Bill Curley, a recently imported backup forward, occupies the locker next to Laettner's. He tries to cheer up his pal. It's no use. There's no consoling him. Tonight was one of those nights.
It's become an unsettling trend of late. Some games, Laettner plays, gets all kinds of time, looks like a star--like the week before, in Sacramento, when he shot 6-for-11 from the floor and grabbed six rebounds in 25 minutes. Other nights, well, other nights aren't so pleasant. Like tonight against Seattle. He played just nine minutes more than you. Didn't hit the court once after the half. Watched most of the action from the bench while clad in a cloud-white warm-up shirt. Watched it from the sideline, molded to one of those fancy-schmancy chairs the owner purchased to make everyone more comfortable.
At least Laettner's ass wasn't sore.
Everything else about him was, though. As of Tuesday, he was averaging 6.6 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 14.8 minutes per game, all career lows for a full season.
"You can sit here and worry, but it doesn't help the team," he says softly, short-cropped brown hair covering his head. "It's disheartening, sure, but I've just got to do better when I'm in there, I guess. The few minutes that I get, I've got to be real productive, or I'm not going to get minutes, I guess. Got to try to do a better job."
The idea is to utilize his floor time, to hit a higher percentage of shots, to haul in more rebounds, to play tighter defense, to hustle. Always to hustle. The idea is to be The Man for 15 minutes per game in hopes that general manager/coach Don Nelson will notice and send him in more often. That's what Nellie told the ex-Piston, according to Laettner.
Here's the thing, though. When you're a starter and you're not starting, when you're a player and you're not playing, when you've never before averaged fewer than 30 minutes a game over the course of a season, isn't that tough to do? Doesn't the herky-jerky, in-then-out management of your floor time preclude you from showing what you can do, from nurturing the skills they want to see so badly? It's kind of like asking a distance runner to pull up after the first 400 meters, then deriding his effort when he doesn't lap the field.
"It's hard," Laettner concedes, looking somewhat dejected. "It's very hard to get into a rhythm without the minutes."
Four nights later, in a blowout win versus Denver, he'll play a robust 13 minutes, scoring six points and grabbing four rebounds. Originally, he was projected to get plenty of PT. Lots of insiders thought he'd be a starter, either at power forward or center. If not, no big deal. He'd come off the bench, add the quality sixth-man time the Mavs have lacked in recent years (in the recent decade?), along with a veteran's knowledge in tight situations. Besides, it's not really who starts games, but who finishes.
Except that he's not doing either.
Now, Dallas management will tell you they have better players this season. The Mavericks will tell you they like to throw a lot of different looks at teams, that, because of their depth, they're afforded that luxury at the cost of diminished minutes for most. All that's true. And all that's fine. If Nellie wants shooters, he inserts Courtney Alexander and Hubert Davis. If he wants ball control, it's Howard Eisley and Steve Nash. If he wants scorers, he turns to Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley. This is all good. Jiggy, even.
But if he wants to "go big?" Um, see, now therein lies the trouble.
Currently, most of the minutes down low go to this cat who looks like a large, white coffee stirrer. Walks the way a baby calf runs. Misses lay-ups from inches away. Gets blocked by guys nearly a foot shorter. Goes by the name of Shawn Bradley. You've heard of him, yes?
Unfortunately for Mavs fans everywhere, it seems Bradley is supplanted only by Donnie as Nellie's favorite son. Some think he's not as bad as punks like me believe. Others think Nellie is playing Bradley, who is in the final year of his contract, in order to showcase him for a later trade. Whatever, he plays. A lot. Too much. As of Wednesday, the Meek Mormon was averaging 7.2 points and 6.9 rebounds in 24.9 minutes per contest. (He's first in the NBA in blocked shots, but, at 7-foot-6, he should be.) Entering the season, his eighth, he had career marks of 10.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. Compared to Laettner's numbers to start the season (15.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Bradley's stats pale.
For some inexplicable, confounding reason, Nellie starts Bradley, though. Nellie has thought, for a while, that he can be something special. Me? For a long time I thought Cookie Monster lived under my bed.
"I wanted to play him more," Nelson says snidely after a recent practice. "But to play him more, he needs to play better. He's not playing well at all right now. He needs to play the entire game of basketball better."
So Laettner sits, 250 pounds of paperweight. The Mavericks traded one of their best scorers to Detroit to get him, remember? Cedric Ceballos--who has since been dealt to Miami--was shipped off for the Duke grad. Mark Cuban and Nellie were so proud of themselves on that late August day. So what if they surrendered the 16.6 points per game Ceballos dropped in last year? They had spoiled a potential four-team blockbuster that would have sent Laettner to the Lakers. They grinned broadly, talked of his ability, fantasized about how they would use a guy who's almost 7 feet tall and can play inside or out.
Now? Yesterday's treasure is today's trash, apparently.
"I didn't envision anything before I got here," Laettner says after the Sonics game, clearly tempering his comments. "It would be stupid to envision anything. That's how you get burned in the end. [I] came here with an open mind to work hard so I could play a lot, but I guess I haven't done that yet."
He's not pleased. You can see it plainly. Tonight was one of those nights. There's been lots of them, and they're not any easier on him now than they were a month ago. Yet it's early in the season, so he clings to the hope this won't become one of those years, too.
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