Battle of Midway

Hmmm, Bradley and LaFrentz in the lane at the same time. No wonder they took a picture.
NBA photos

More than a week after another disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings, the same odd mixture of feelings likely ties your gut in knots. The All Star break probably did little to assuage your fears, and yet there is hope. That strange dichotomy is the burden that both you and the Mavericks must bear. Because while the Mavs have burned to the best record in the NBA, they have also tripped clumsily through so many critical tests.

They are at once everything you'd hoped and feared--equal parts dream and nightmare. Now if only they understood as much. Or, better still, admitted it.

Instead, where there should be corrective action, there is denial and even exasperation. That last bit might not be so bad if it developed into something more productive, something on the order of righteous indignation. Of course, that would only serve them well if the right guys, namely the Big Three, were the ones spitting venom. But they're not.

Which leaves us all pondering what national sports fans have been asking for months now: Is this group good enough to win a championship? Ultimately, nothing else matters. The Mavs have long since passed the point where 50-plus wins and a playoff berth send you dancing into the streets. Forget powdered gypsum; championships are this town's principal drug. And so, in between fits of discomfort, you have to wonder if a fix is coming.

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"You know, you people are talking world championship here, and all we're trying to do is get through the season and do the best we can with what we have," head coach Don Nelson says. "You can talk about whatever you want, but we're not in the playoffs yet. I think that's when you start discussing those things. The great start we've had, and the overachieving that we've done--good grief. There's a lot of teams on paper that are better than we are, and yet we have the best record. People are always saying, 'Aw, they're no good. They're, you know, they can't win the championship and all.' We don't know that. We're not even talking about it. Other people are talking about it. We're not even in the playoffs yet."

It's true that the Mavs are one of the best teams in the NBA. There are plenty of clubs out there that would love to switch places in the standings with them. But that means nothing in the big picture. With everything that record of theirs has promised, only a run to the NBA Finals validates the season and your emotional investment therein.

The Mavs know as much. That's why they're scared. Maybe it's just me, but when Nellie went on the defensive, it smacked of fear. And why not? It's natural to lash out when you're cornered or worried.

Some of the Mavs might tell you different. They might say things are fine, that the regular season means nothing, or they might cite history. You know, we beat Sacramento three-outta-four in the regular season last year, and where'd that get us?

I don't think it's that simple. There's a mental block with this bunch, a knock-kneed gait they take into big games that's distressing. Where's the toughness they trumpeted during the preseason? Outside of Nick Van Exel, I don't see them fighting, and I don't hear them barking. And why not? Consider: Of their first 10 losses, five came in "big game" circumstances--two against Sacramento (arguably their stiffest competition), one against the defending champion Lakers (in which they surrendered an enormous lead), one against the Pacers (who were the hottest team in the league at the time) and one against Portland (a home game against one of the Pacific Division's best).

Those are the kinds of losses that, at the very least, should draw the ire of your leaders. What you want in those situations is some attitude, a sign that they're bothered. Instead, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley have been content to whisper and withdraw. I'm not the only one who's noticed, either; former players turned commentators Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Sean Elliott, to name a few, have all derided the Mavs for that very thing. Perhaps the lack of fire isn't overly concerning to the Mavs because it's still the regular season, but aren't they forming a dangerous habit that might be hard to break once the games take on added gravity?

More trouble with the Mavs lies within their interior. Their big men, Shawn Bradley and Raef LaFrentz, have been woefully unproductive.

"You just continue to show either how uniformed [sic], how lazy or how incapable you are," Mark Cuban, ever magnanimous, fires at me via e-mail. "Other than Shaq, which centers do you see as dominating? What is their plus-minus for their team? Compare them to Shawn's impact over the course of the season, and to Raef's since he got fully healthy, and tell me who you think is better. Do some fucking homework for once in your professional career rather than spewing the same tired shit all the time. Nothing worse than someone who talks like they know what they're talking about but has no foundation for what they say."

Homework? OK, how 'bout this: In the biggest game of the year, the last Sacramento game, Bradley and LaFrentz combined for 13 points and seven rebounds. Or, more simply, as many boards as Van Exel (a man who stands nearly a foot shorter than LaFrentz) managed that night. And that crap about the league being weak in the center department is specious reasoning. All that matters is production, not position. In that regard, Bradley and LaFrentz are 38th and 79th in the league in rebounding. Cuban babbled something about Bradley's rebounds per minute being the more important stat--an absurd defense. Because if the league is as poor at the center position as Cuban says it is, and if Bradley, who stands 7-foot-6, is as good as Cuban says he is, wouldn't it stand to reason that he'd play more than 24.2 minutes per game? But he doesn't, and that's telling.

Bradley doesn't--and can't--start against half the teams in the league because he's a liability. That's the hard truth. And LaFrentz spends more time on the perimeter than a power forward on this team should. Sure, he has fine field-goal and three-point percentages, but on a team that's staffed by a plethora of able shooters, shouldn't the inside guys be able to play inside? I mean, I know money can't buy you love, but it ought to buy Cuban a clue.

More damning than any of that--and in spite of Cuban's lame justification of the Boys Blunder--was Van Exel's recent candor. Even before the Kings loss, he said that if there were an available big man out there, and he were a management type, he would trade himself to get the deal done. That message was clear: These big men stink; can't anyone else smell it?

"We need to have a good presence inside," Finley says more diplomatically. "Whether it's defensively or offensively posting guys, we need that if we want to get to the next level."

OK, so where does that leave things? There's no questioning the assertion that the Mavs are better off than most teams. But are you confident that this bunch is tough enough to bring Dallas a title? I'm not. I think they're close, but I don't know that they're there yet. Something needs to change: They need to get tougher or smarter or better inside. Any of them. All of them. But they shouldn't stand still.

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