Back to the Future

Welcome to a recap of The Short Happy Life of Dirk Nowitzki, in four-part harmony. Part I: Dirk rips down a rebound at one end, spins and takes off, bolting past unsuspecting defenders, dribbling the length of the court, then finishing with a thunderous dunk. Performed on numerous occasions at an arena near you during the Mavericks' sublime 53-29 Cinderella 2000-'01 season, this one-man fast break presents the full Dirk package--size, strength and agility.

Soon, opposing coaches warn their players to beware of the 7-foot German with blond hair and gym-rat pale skin. He ain't no speeding bullet; he ain't even Greyhound, they're told, but you'd better be on your toes, or he'll blow right by.

Part II: Utah, November 20, 2000, the Mavericks' 12th game of the season. Karl Malone, the Jazz power forward and resident bully, twists Dirk's arm into taffy while going for a rebound. A shoulder separation seems likely. Sprawled out on the court, Nowitzki writhes in pain. But when he rises, he does not cower, even as Malone flicks and jabs at the sore shoulder all night. The Mavericks serve early warning to the craftier Jazz with a 107-98 victory. Michael Finley, the team's stoic, fluid leader, rains in 29 points. Steve Nash, fluttering around like the second coming of little Bob Cousy, dishes out 17 assists. Nowitzki scrapes down 14 rebounds and holds Malone under 20 points.

The league is warned. This kid is physically tougher than he might appear.

Part III: May 12, 2001, Reunion Arena, Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinal series. After disposing of the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, the mentally drained Mavericks are on the brink of being swept by the more talented San Antonio Spurs. In a scramble for the ball, Nowitzki takes an elbow to the mouth. One of his front teeth is completely knocked out and blood oozes from his gums. His mouth cupped in his hands, Dirk jumps on top of and then over the scorer's table at courtside and runs into the locker room.

He returns shortly afterward and leads the Mavericks to a 112-108 victory. Nowitzki has 30 points and nine rebounds and plays all but six of the 48 minutes. This kid may not have all his teeth, but he's got heart.

Part IV: Two days later in San Antonio, Game 5. The Spurs dominate early and long, leaving no doubt the Mavericks' first playoff run in a dozen years is about to end.

But Nowitzki does not go quietly. He is tough but also elastic. He scores 42 points, the second-highest point total in Mavericks playoff history, and gathers 18 rebounds, the sixth-highest playoff total. And that is the way the Mavericks' can't-believe-it season ends, with Nowitzki still clawing, diving, pounding, scoring from here, there and everywhere.

Oh, yeah, the kid can shoot, too.

Now comes a new season and only a slightly different variation on last season's Cinderella theme. The nucleus--Finley, Nash, Nowitzki, 7-foot-6 center Shawn Bradley and power forward Juwan Howard--will be more familiar with each other and with Coach Don Nelson's effective, yet often unorthodox game strategies. Greg Buckner returns as the defensive pest (until injuries inevitably sideline him a month or two). Wang ZhiZhi, the 7-foot-1 Chinese import who made his American debut last year, is not expected to join the team until around Christmas. He could be intriguing, in an instant-offense sort of way. Eduardo Najera and Donnell Harvey could also provide a caffeine-like jolt when called on in pinch situations.

New and vital to the mix are veteran backup point guard Tim Hardaway, a vocal leader and gutty performer in those moments when the basket seems to get smaller; 13-year center/forward Danny Manning, a two-time All-Star whose 15 minutes per game should be quietly solidifying; guard Adrian Griffin, apparently rid of the back problems that sidelined him in Boston much of last year; and backup center Evan Eschmeyer, who moves well enough without the ball to pick up some hustle points and a few rebounds here and there.

Still, this team's most marked improvement may come from the continued emergence of Nowitzki (who, by the way, has chosen to play this season with a mouthpiece).

"Dirk is very intelligent, and he's extremely motivated," says Donnie Nelson, the club's director of player personnel and assistant coach to his dad. "He's got the same attributes a lot of unique superstars have. Great players like Magic Johnson know they want to be great, but then they go out and actually do it. The great ones don't get there without the work ethic. Period. End of story."

But the difference between this and last year's Mavericks will still hinge largely on the continued development of Dirk, as well as three other factors: how well the Mavericks compensate for a complete lack of rebounding, particularly in the absence of last year's promising backup center, Calvin Booth; how shrewdly Nelson uses the league's new zone defense rules to his advantage; and how well this team learns the lessons of past Mavericks success and failure.

Dirk Nowitzki noticeably winces when asked if he understands he could be the key to the Mavericks' success this season.

"How's that?" he asks, seemingly surprised even by the notion.

"Because," he is told, "your game stands to show the most dramatic improvement."

Nowitzki shrugs and says, "Oh, I think everyone's game could improve."

But everyone's game won't. As a general rule, once an NBA player reaches the age of 23 or 24, you can throw out the best and worst years of his career and find a remarkable consistency in the remaining numbers.

Dirk's game has not yet peaked, and the upside could be electric. Last year at age 22, even as he led the Mavericks in scoring (21.8) and rebounding (9.2), his overall game kept skyrocketing.

Donnie Nelson says, "We pretty much know what our top eight or nine players are going to give us, but every year Dirk returns from the off-season he's added some element to his game. That makes him the 'X' factor.

"Our taking the leap to the next level will largely depend on how much better he is. Dirk knows that. He's super humble, and he may downplay his importance to the media. But believe me, he's not light in the area of confidence."

Last season, Nowitzki canned roughly five free throws, two three-pointers and five two-point field goals in 38 minutes each outing. That's a two-point basket every 7.6 minutes of playing time. This year, Nelson plans to go with an expanded 10-man rotation that promises plenty of rest time for almost everyone, even Finley, the NBA's perennial toiler. (He once again led the league in minutes played last year.) But Nelson calls Dirk "a young horse" and the exception in his rotation. Look for Nowitzki to average about 40 minutes per game, shifting each night from small forward to power forward to center and back.

With any kind of improved post-up play to go with his willingness to drive hard to the basket, Dirk could earn an additional 100 trips to the free-throw line, where he's an 83 percent shooter. That alone will hike his scoring average a point per game. Figure a few additional shots per game with increased playing time, and Nowitzki could average 24 to 27 points per game, which puts him in elite company leaguewide.

Those numbers are not unrealistic. In March, when the Mavericks won 10 and lost four in an impressive stretch run for positioning before the playoffs, Nowitzki averaged 24.7 points a game. In the playoffs, when scoring usually drops off, he averaged 23.4 points a game.

No Maverick has put up numbers like that since Mark Aguirre waddled around Reunion Arena 15 years ago. And although it may seem the NBA has changed so much that all comparisons with this team and the late-'80s Mavs are moot, Nowitzki indeed has something to learn from the team's previous stud: an Aguirre-like post-up game.

Mark Aguirre was a thick small forward--thick-framed and thick-headed--who could back down lighter small forwards to within 10 feet of the basket, receive the pass and swish. Whether you liked him or not, Aguirre could lay that mother down.

Foreign big men, especially the European variety, learn the game facing the basket. They don't grow up with a ball in their hands, but they also don't develop lazy habits. They conquer the fundamentals in their teens following their biggest growth spurt, and they tend to be better passers, dribblers and outside shooters than their American big-men counterparts. This is true of Nowitzki.

But, the foreigners are too often unskilled in the art of posting up, whereby the offensive player gains better position near the basket by backing down his defender, then with or without a dribble rises, twists and shoots from a much shorter distance (often drawing fouls as well).

As impressively as the Mavericks started last season, Nelson longed for that vital post-up player who can jump-start a struggling offense with easy buckets. Nelson tried posting up Nowitzki, but Dirk seemed flustered by the back-to-the-basket approach, as if someone were asking him to sign his name with his off hand. Even with a much shorter defender on him, Nowitzki often acquiesced and passed the ball back out or rushed a clumsy turnaround jumper.

"Everybody matures in different ways," Donnie Nelson says. "When Dirk started out, he was in the fragile stages of being a young European man learning a new country. To me, the first step in his rite of passage came when he got his tooth knocked out in the playoffs. His showing that willingness to take a pounding, when the physical play got maybe a little out of hand, I think was a lesson to Dirk that you've still got to fight the fight."

Before the playoffs, though, no one knew if he was tough enough. It was certainly known he didn't have the low-post game needed in the playoffs. That's why, in February, Nelson got the post-up game he wanted in Juwan Howard as part of the eight-player trade that sent several players and some of billionaire owner Mark Cuban's pocket change to the Washington Wizards. The aforementioned Calvin Booth and Obinna Ekezie (don't bother learning to pronounce it; he's gone) joined Howard on the plane ride to Dallas. Howard's presence requires Dirk to spend most of his time at small forward. Dirk is versatile enough to make the shift without any qualms, but is it best for the team?

At power forward, Nowitzki forces opposing power forwards away from the basket and punishes them with three-point rainbows. Then he drives past them for layups and induces them to foul him. He's also in better position to rebound at power forward, and this team certainly needs his rebounding.

The solution: Develop a killer post-up game. Because Howard is so deft at posting up, he's always going to draw the power forward at the defensive end, and that leaves a size mismatch for Dirk every night. As good as Nowitzki already is, until he conquers the post-up game, all Larry Bird comparisons--and hopes for conquering the Lakers or the San Antonio Spurs--should cease.

For context, it is worth remembering just how good the Mavericks of 1986-'87 and 1987-'88 were before they fell so hard they became the Humpty Dumpty of all professional sports franchises throughout the 1990s.

The late-'80s Mavericks were much deeper and more skilled than most observers of the time realized. But they kept running up against Pat Riley's "Showtime" Lakers in the playoffs. Led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, those Lakers were very likely the greatest team in the history of the Western Conference, beep-beeping their way like roadrunners to four world championships in a seven-year stretch.

Dick Motta was architect/coach/dictator of the Mavericks in 1986-'87, the team that won the only basketball banner (Midwest Division champs) today hanging from the new American Airlines Center rafters. That club established the 55-win franchise record before being swept in the playoffs' first round, not by the Lakers, but by an inferior Seattle outfit.

Those Mavericks were led by Aguirre; a crunch-time shooting guard in Rolando Blackman; a double-headed monster at point guard in Derek Harper and Brad Davis; a wonderful defensive forward in Sam Perkins; a lumbering center named James Donaldson; a brilliantly gifted 7-footer named Roy Tarpley, who played above the rim like no Maverick before or after; and a graceful bench player, early among the European breed, named Detlef Schrempf. Schrempf was good enough to win the league's Sixth Man Award and to play effectively until retiring this year. Even the 10th man on that team, Bill Wennington, went on to win several rings with the Chicago Bulls.

"Nothing against the league today, but the talent was better then," says Motta, who at 70 splits his time these days between a cabin in Fish Haven, Idaho, and a home in Scottsdale, Arizona. "Unfortunately, we were not quite good enough to beat the Lakers. I figure that team today would still win 55 games and would still lose to the Lakers."

Motta resigned following the playoff loss to Seattle, and John MacLeod led virtually the same team to 53 victories in 1987-'88. Four months into the season, Riley called the Mavericks "the best team in the league today."

Of course, nobody believed him. The Lakers won 62 that year. In the playoffs' early rounds, the Mavericks whipped very decent Houston and Denver teams before encountering the Lakers in the conference finals. The Reunion Rowdies were never louder, and Dallas society never dressed any sharper. For the only time in this city's history, a basketball game was the place to be and be seen.

Those Mavericks took the Lakers the full distance, to a deciding Game 7 in L.A., and they were still within six points as the fourth-quarter clock slid under the six-minute mark. That's when Magic took over and, in what General Manager Jerry West called "the greatest game I've ever seen Magic play, considering the circumstances," pulled out victory.

When they returned that night to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the downcast Mavericks found 4,500 cheering fans waiting for them. The throng formed a narrow path for players and coaches to walk through, and the path of people snaked through the terminal for a quarter-mile, maybe more, from the landing gate to the team bus, in a way that could not be duplicated in today's world even if desired.

Even if Dirk Nowitzki becomes an all-around superstar, how good will these Mavericks be if they get out-rebounded and manhandled almost every night? And how frustrating will it become if Shawn Bradley, forced to play too many minutes, keeps getting into early foul trouble?

Certainly, with the notable additions of Hardaway and Manning, the Mavericks should be mentally tougher than a year ago. They began last season with four rookies on the roster, and Nash had not yet proven himself over an entire season. There are no rookies in this year's rotation, and Nash did prove himself. Nelson says not even his very best Milwaukee Bucks teams, which in the 1980s won seven consecutive division titles and 50 or more games in seven consecutive seasons, were as deep as these Mavericks. This team can shoot with the best in the league, and the roster is filled with unselfish battlers.

So what's missing? Muscle.

Mark Cuban may be the first owner in NBA history to spend more hours in the weight room than any big man on his team. Don Nelson bemoans his team's lack of bulk. But if muscle were a Nelson priority, Dirk would be pumping weights instead of threes, and the roster would include a thug or two. Nelson prefers a team of interchangeable parts, built more on flexibility than brawn. But he knows at least a big body or two is vital, and he had the one he wanted to cultivate in recently departed Calvin Booth.

At 24, the 6-11, 250-pound Booth is still raw and only beginning to develop. He has great hands and a nice touch around the basket. After arriving in the eight-player swap, he played in only 15 regular-season games for Dallas, starting only seven, but in his nightly 20 minutes of court time he plugged up the middle, blocked shots, displayed a nice shooting touch and kept mistakes to a minimum.

More important, Booth was Nelson's anti-Bradley, more apt to stand his ground than be shoved around. Booth's last-second basket (thanks to Finley's alert pass) toppled Utah in the first round of the playoffs. Every minute Booth gave Nelson was a minute that Bradley stayed out of foul trouble, making Bradley, a looming defensive presence with a wingspan to match his height, more valuable late in games.

But during the off-season, Booth rocked Nelson by signing with Seattle as a free agent. Nelson is not exaggerating when he calls Booth's absence "a kick in the teeth." On this team, it would have been easier to replace Howard.

In Seattle, Booth will be a young starting center on a young struggling team. He might have been better off staying in Dallas another season. Bradley, meanwhile, is going to have to find ways to stay out of foul trouble, or he's of no use late in tight games.

Bradley is not the first tall underachiever in NBA history. He's just the most recent. Plenty of 7-footers succeed in the NBA, but few players 7-4 or taller even make it. Ralph Sampson, 7-foot-4, was supposed to change the way the game was played in the 1980s. He averaged 15 points and nine rebounds and refused to mix it up inside. Rik Smits, 7-foot-4, averaged 15 points, six rebounds and offered marginal resistance in the paint. Mark Eaton, the human mountain (pre-Shaquille O'Neal) at 7-foot-4 and 290 pounds, was an extraordinary shot blocker who managed only six points and eight rebounds.

Remember 7-foot-7 Manute Bol, who played for Nelson at Golden State? Try 2.6 points and 4.2 boards and a propensity for shooting three-pointers.

Bradley is good for 10 points and eight boards, but he can completely confound opponents with his defensive dominance. He's best, of course, when not counted on. Good things do not come to teams forced to rely on Bradley for minutes and production. He commits silly fouls, draws quick technicals, loses his wits, then disappears. Booth took the pressure off Bradley.

Now, Bradley is the center by default. Behind him is a backup center-by-committee of Eschmeyer, Manning, Nowitzki and (when Nelson is playing Very Small Ball) even Howard.

Had Booth stuck around, Nelson's Washington trade would have been a winner. It still might be, but only Howard remains. Howard is well-liked in the clubhouse and the community. But his presence moves Nowitzki to small forward, and Howard only gets around seven rebounds a game. He'll be expected to fend off the West's very talented and physical power forwards--Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace, Malone, the list goes on. It won't be easy. Or pretty.

Could the zone defense be the thing that saves the Mavericks, then? Not likely.

Last time the Mavericks were really good, the league was different. Every team ran. It was not uncommon for teams to ring up 130- or 140-point nights. In 1986-'87, when the Mavericks won their most games ever (55), they scored 116 points a game. A year later, when Dallas made its greatest playoff run, every single team in the NBA gave up 100 points a game.

Then Chuck Daley changed things in Detroit. His "Bad Boys" Pistons won their first of back-to-back NBA championships in 1988-'89 by slamming all aerial acts to the ground. They pounded opponents all year, which prepared them for the playoffs. In doing so, the Pistons made "thug ball" fashionable.

Pretty soon, every coach was stressing defense and developing ways to take the fast break out of the game. They ordered quick fouls on breakaways, always kept a defender back, employed isolation tactics and doubled- and tripled-down. Offenses that fine-tuned their half-court game all season were rewarded by being better prepared for the playoffs. But the league suffered. In 1996-'97, during Michael Jordan's dominance with the Bulls, only eight offenses could muster 100 points a night.

The lack of scoring so dragged the league down that the Competition Committee finally decided to do something about it. This year, zone defenses are allowable. The catch is that if a defender remains in the lane three full seconds, he must be within an arm's length of an offensive player, or a technical foul will be called. To avoid the technical, the defender must hop out of the lane. The idea is to open up the game, to encourage quicker shots and more athleticism as players cut to the basket.

A team like the Mavericks, long on pure shooters and short on muscle, has the best chance of prospering, if anyone does. Say goodbye to thug ball. Maybe.

Former Mavericks Coach Dick Motta was a member of the Competition Committee.

"You can write all the rules you want," Motta says, "but it's still going to depend on how the refs call the game and how the league office administers the rules. The new rules might open things up, but they might also knock scoring down. I think the refs will call a lot of technicals early (for defenders in the lane), but they'll start letting it go after a while.

"Then the game will be more low-scoring, and in low-scoring games Shawn Bradley will be more valuable because he can change outcomes defensively."

The new rules may also help disguise the Mavericks' glaring weakness on the backboards. The Mavericks can trap more outside and still cheat back inside.

Don Nelson says he doubts any of the good teams will abandon man-to-man defense in favor of zones. But the Mavericks cannot play the Western Conference's two most talented teams, the Lakers and Spurs, straight up. They've tried. It's left to Nelson and Assistant Coach Del Harris to devise game plans that will help offset the tremendous advantage powerful Shaquille O'Neal gives the Lakers and San Antonio's 7-foot Twin Towers, Tim Duncan and David Robinson, give the Spurs.

"The new rules should add to the strategy of the game," Harris says. "Statistically, there's nothing that shows that zone teams rebound better than man-to-man teams. But in certain situations, teams will emphasize man-to-man defenses with some zoning principles. In the long run, my feeling is it will actually inhibit scoring, not increase scoring."

So despite its potential to physically become the NBA's version of the 98-pound weakling, could this be Dallas' best team ever? That's not likely. Motta says the league is too diluted to compare teams. "When I first came into the NBA in the late 1960s," he says, "there were five great centers, five great point guards and 14 teams. Today, there are still five great centers and five great point guards, but 29 teams."

Things do have a way of changing, often drastically and for the worse. Look how far Dallas fell from Motta's team. Roy Tarpley elevated his romance with nose candy. The moody Aguirre was sent packing to Detroit. Almost overnight, losing became a very nasty habit. Ownership, front office personnel, coaching staffs, players, the home arena--everything's different now. Then again, now the team is on the rise; it has good young talent but still probably can't get past the Lakers.

Oh, wait. Everything's the same again.


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