License to Thrill
It was early Monday morning, and I was on my way to the dentist. A friend called with good news just before my appointment: Raef LaFrentz had been traded to the Celtics. I didn't even hear whom the Mavs got in return before I started doing a little dance and screaming thankfully to the heavens. I didn't care, either. It would have been equally joyous to learn that they'd given him away for two passes on the Staten Island ferry. (On the other end of the spectrum, another buddy of mine from Boston was hot with rage. Those poor bastards; first Grady Little and the Red Sox, now this.)
It wasn't Shawn Bradley, but it was the next best thing--really thrilling, the stuff that makes you blissfully numb. I would have let the dentist maul me.
What? You call that instrument the gouger? Yes, yes, whatever...but did you hear about the trade?
It was the second hijacking the Mavs had pulled off in three months. If Ashcroft didn't have a file on Mark Cuban already, he does now. The Mavs unloaded LaFrentz (and the four years and $38 million remaining on his contract), Jiri Welsch and Chris Mills in exchange for Antoine Walker and Tony Delk. That the Mavs got anything for LaFrentz--a guy who went from a double-digit scorer in Denver to 9.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game last year--let alone a three-time All-Star forward and an able backup guard, is amazing.
But the Mavs' good fortune probably has as much to do with the Celtics' desire to get rid of Walker as it does with sound maneuvering by Dallas. Toward the end of his seven-year tenure in Boston, Walker had been vilified by the media and management. He was seen as a walking headache, selfish and obstinate. Danny Ainge, who took over as Boston's director of basketball operations at the end of last year's playoffs, openly criticized Walker. The two were brought together in a strained rapprochement. It was like watching the Palestinians co-exist with the Israelis--you just knew it would unravel before long.
"The way he talked about me, that was one person's opinion," Walker said. "He felt a different way. He wanted to take the team a different direction. He didn't feel like I fit in. We didn't really have a relationship. I mean, we spoke briefly over the summer after he took over the job, but I knew that when he got the job he didn't have a high regard for my game individually...He never really spoke positively about my game."
Not so with Mavs head coach Don Nelson and son/president of basketball operations Donnie. They all but slobbered at the news conference, two geeks ready to toy with their latest software purchases. Walker will be a starter most of the time, and Antawn Jamison--who was the object of their desire until last week--will come off the bench, immediately staking claim to the title of most accomplished sixth man in the league. Ah, but who knows how long that will last? Nellie loves to tinker with his lineup--he's quite mad that way. Now, with a team that is legitimately 11 deep (other clubs in the West may have one or two players who are better, but no squad is as loaded from top to bottom), he's sure to cause all kinds of havoc. He'll be hated and feared by opposing coaches everywhere. All he needs now is a handlebar mustache and someone to tie to the railroad tracks.
"I do enjoy coaching this way, yeah," Nellie said, forgoing the evil laugh. "But I would like to take a crack at Shaq. I've tried to get a dominant center for 30 years. I've never had one. So that would be nice."
If you're looking for the catch here, you don't have to look all that hard. LaFrentz is gone, leaving the Mavs with only two true post players. One is Danny Fortson, who is tough and thick (260 pounds) but stands only 6-foot-8. The other is 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley. I don't have the strength to outline the shortcomings of someone that tall--just know he's a liability. All of which means that Dirk Nowitzki, the resident pretty boy, will have to cut back on playing from the perimeter in order to help out at the center slot. Nowitzki is a lot of things--polished on the dribble, smooth with a jump shot, capable of rebounding and making a decent pass--but he's not a banger. He'll have to play center differently from most; he won't be able to get down there and trade gut-shots. He's only 240 pounds, you know. You have to wonder how long, or how well, that sort of experiment would work. Because playing with all those brutes figures to batter Nowitzki's body, and who knows what it might do to his beautiful hair?
Someone asked Nellie, if none of his three bears is quite right--one is too short, one is too skinny, and the other is just plain awful--who will he use to defend Shaq when the Lakers come calling?
"That's a good question," Nellie said. He paused for a moment, then broke out in a mischievous grin that was followed by sustained laughter. "I'm not sure. But whoever it is, he's gonna get his ass kicked."
Kidding aside, there are issues. They are an unparalleled offensive force--how do you defend against a lineup that features Nowitzki, Finley, Jamison, Walker and Steve Nash, for godsakes?--but they also head willfully into the season knowing that they'll need Bradley and his six fouls. A deal with the devil? Maybe.
But would you rather have it some other way? The larger picture is the important thing here. Forget about the merits of the trade. Forget, for just a moment, about the problems that might arise, like a team that could be at a serious disadvantage on low-post defense, or a club that might have too many ballers and only one ball. Concentrate, instead, on the drama. Revel in it. Because most cities aren't this fortunate. The best part about all of this, about the Mavs, really, is that they are never boring. We live in Dallas, so we are treated to a production that comes complete with a crazy owner and a lively coach and a team that's so deep it's beginning to border on the absurd.
What you have is something rare: a team that will spend loads of money or make headline-grabbing trades to assemble a cast of proper talent; one that, each year, and especially this season, will be wildly entertaining. Who else can say that? Yankees fans, sure, but after that there are no absolutes. In places like Washington the assembly is force-fed Jerry Stackhouse and 11 other guys who look like they were plucked from a Reno 911 lineup.
The Mavs will win at least 50 games. They'll make the playoffs. They'll be exciting. Whether they can get through the West is anyone's guess, but finding out is guaranteed to be fun.
Enjoy it. You could do worse. You could live in Boston.
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