Near the top of the key, Michael Finley dribbles and talks, demanding with words and deed that someone--anyone--guard him. It's the second week of training camp, and practice is almost over, but he's tired of waiting. He wants a challenge now, not when the season begins, but right now.
Maybe the way last year ended--a first-round, unceremonious booting from the playoffs thanks to the troublesome Sacramento Kings--left him with bad memories that he can only shake loose with a ball in his hand and competition in his face. Maybe he can't wait to get started because the prospect of a new season with new teammates has infused him with an irrepressible energy. Or maybe he just likes the attention; a group of cameras is trained on him, recording every word, every dribble, every move.
Finley's first step is to the right, and quick enough that it makes me wonder why he stopped driving and started settling for those comfortable jumpers these past few seasons..."Come on, guard me for real," he taunts.
With the next move, he crosses left and nearly loses both defenders..."Come on, guard me for real," he says again.
He puts the ball between his legs, then behind his back. He's dancing, just he and the ball, a one-man ballet. The only things missing are those precious little ballet shoes, only that might look kind of odd considering that he's still trash-talking, and ballerinas don't usually do that. "Come on, guard me for real," he says once more. I'm sure something spectacular is about to happen...Then he dribbles the ball off his leg and out of bounds.
"Hey, slow down there, Hot Sauce," Dirk Nowitzki needles, referring to the street baller with the spicy name, the one who over-dribbles with fantastic, unthinkable moves as part of the And 1 Tour. Nowitzki is laughing big at his joke, and he's not the only one. The newly acquired--center Erick Dampier and guards Devin Harris and Jason Terry--laugh, too. There are a lot of new faces around here, but it seems that most of them are enjoying a good chuckle at the old dog's expense. But Finley doesn't seem to mind; he smiles and laughs right along with them. As they walk off the court together, they tease each other some more; one big happy family, ready to take on the division, the conference, the league.
For the second straight year, this is the image the Dallas Mavericks are selling: a new team, radically altered from the previous year yet totally cohesive and ready to win a championship. They're not strangers, you see; they're friends who haven't gotten to know each other. Chemistry won't be an issue. They'll be deeper, tougher and better defensively. They'll get along, they'll accept their roles, they'll even accept fewer minutes. Hell, they might hold hands and sing campfire songs. This is the image they're selling.
"We gave the same speech last year," Finley admits. "And it sounded good at this time last year. But as the season went on, it just...it didn't work out. This year, hopefully, we can learn from what we did last year and get everyone comfortable with their roles, comfortable with the coaching scheme and just comfortable with the overall environment. I think last year, at one point, we got too comfortable. We had guys who didn't want to work hard at keeping our team cohesive and getting victories. And once we gave that up, we seemed to drift apart, and as we did that, our season drifted apart, too. Hopefully, with me and Dirk back, and with Avery Johnson back--he's a vocal leader as well--hopefully that will be enough to keep the team on the same page and on the same path and pushing toward the ultimate goal to win a championship."
The idea last year was to assemble the kind of all-star cast that hadn't been seen in one place since Frank and Deano and the boys got together to shoot the original Ocean's Eleven. But last year's Mavs didn't coalesce into a unit with a cool name and a common purpose like the Rat Pack. Instead, they bickered, and some of that spilled over to the media. They never looked like a team so much as they looked like a bunch of individuals trying to get theirs and go home. And so the grand experiment, the one that convinced everyone Dallas would net a title, was scrapped. Sort of. The formula--the one that dictates that the Mavs bring in a bunch of pieces without much regard to how they might, or might not, fit together--was kept. Because it couldn't have been the formula. It couldn't have been the chemists; it had to be the chemicals. So Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison and Steve Nash and Eduardo Najera and just about everyone else you can think of--save Nowitzki, Finley, Marquis Daniels, Josh Howard and Shawn Bradley--were either traded or let go. Ten people who wore Mavericks uniforms last season will be playing elsewhere this year. In their place are so many different players that it's hard to keep track of all the newbies without a roster in hand.
And so, in addition to working the neophytes into the rotation, they also have other, more specific concerns. Can Dampier be the dominant center they wanted but lacked for so long? Can Terry replace Nash? Can they actually improve the defense, or is that an impossibility for a team so enamored with scoring? Can they make Jerry Stackhouse happy and comfortable with his new role as sixth man? And, more important than any of that, can Nowitzki make the strides necessary to transform the Mavs from Western Conference underachievers to championship contenders?
The season isn't yet under way. There are still 82 games ahead of them, and no one can be certain what will develop. But you get little hints from what they say or what they don't say, and it could be more encouraging.
"It's coming along slowly," Nowitzki says. "It's only the first few preseason games, but they weren't quite...good. We've been messing up a lot on rotating defensively, knowing our assignments, and we haven't taken very good care of the ball. They still have to learn what we expect from them. It's going to take time. We have a lot of new guys here."
It's media day. There's commotion on media day. The players have a lot of commitments--getting pictures taken here and there and giving interviews to just about every news organization within 150 miles of Dallas--and so they're constantly on the move, milling about the American Airlines Center practice court like busy little ants with work to do.
The Mavs have yet to cut down their roster, so there are 18 players running all over the place today, and, to be honest, it's hard to keep track of who's who. One exceptionally tall player--he's only 6-8, but that's pretty tall in my world--stands a few feet away from me. I have no idea who he is. Nor do I care. The more important thing is that he's being interviewed by a 20-something hottie. Being a good, sneaky little hornball--I mean a good reporter--I sidle closer to find out what she's asking.
"OK, Vivica Fox or Halle Berry?" she asks him.
"Halle Berry," he says. "He" turns out to be Derek Hood, who, believe it or not, played two games for the Mavs last year. Who knew?
"Do you have a pet?" the unknown female asks.
"Yeah, I have a fish," Hood says.
"Well, what's your fish's name?"
"Fish. My fish's name is Fish."
And so it goes on Mavericks media day--a bunch of players you can't identify answering questions no one cares about in a really unnatural setting. It's painful, like being forced to watch The Benefactor over and over. (OK, maybe not that bad.)
A few feet from Hood, newly acquired center Erick Dampier looks similarly frustrated. Maybe he has a fish named Fish, too.
"I've heard that question a thousand times," Dampier says, talking about his role on the team, not his pets. "People always ask, well, the Mavs have never had a center, and they don't have a system, so how can I fit in? But that's something that will make me work hard each and every night and try to be consistent and prove everyone wrong about us."
Dampier was the gem of the off-season, though his shine is decidedly less brilliant than that of Shaquille O'Neal, whom the Mavs originally lusted after. But when it became apparent to everyone that the Lakers would sooner pants Jack Nicholson at halftime of a nationally televised game than trade Shaq to Dallas (he was eventually shipped to Miami), the Mavericks decided to go after Dampier instead. The Mavs got Dampier from Golden State in exchange for Christian Laettner, Eduardo Najera, two future first-rounders, cash and the rights to two guys I've never heard of and you probably haven't, either.
At 6-11, 265 pounds, Dampier is the true center head coach Don Nelson always bitched about not having. Along with Alan Henderson and Calvin Booth, both of whom were also acquired in the off-season, Dampier was brought in to do what no Maverick has done in a long while--command the post and play serious defense. Which is fine--if it works out. But anyone who has watched the Mavericks over the last few years knows that the post players they've had haven't done much. That's mainly because the guys they brought in were walking flagpoles, largely uncoordinated and without talent, but it also had to do with the fact that Nellie was enamored with small ball. If Nellie can adjust his run-first, shoot-second, worry-about-everything-else-third mentality, and if Dampier can build on the success he enjoyed last season when he averaged a career high in points and rebounds, then the Mavs could be interesting this year. But don't bet on it. It's hard to picture Nellie slowing down his offense simply because he finally has a big meat-eater in the middle.
"But we don't have to slow things down," counters Mavs assistant coach Del Harris. "I think it's easier with a big man. With a real big man, you can rebound and defend easier, and you can do more to accommodate the big man. We'll run sets for him, sure, but because he can rebound, that will help our breaks. And he's going to help us defend better."
Oops. Silly me for not getting around to another of the well-worn dictums sooner. In addition to bringing in a host of new guys who they swear will get along and, at the same time, going more "conventional" with a real-deal center, they're also singing the same old song about playing better defense.
Last year, the Mavs led the league in points per game, but, not surprisingly, they were next to last in points allowed. The Mavs contend that, by adding Dampier on the interior and Jason Terry and Jerry Stackhouse on the perimeter, they automatically improve their defense. And that's true, because it's close to impossible for them to get any worse than they've been over the last few years.
"Listen, guys, we're not going to be the Detroit Pistons," says Avery Johnson, whom the Mavs are grooming to be a head coach. "We're not going to be Indiana. You guys have to get that out of your mind. We don't have a Ben Wallace or a Ron Artest. A better goal for us would be what we were two years ago when we held guys to 94 or 95 points and that was good enough to get us to the Western Conference Finals. We're probably not going to be first in defense, but we don't want to be last, either. Can we be in the top 10? Yes. I think we can. Damp helps us a lot inside. We're going to miss Steve Nash, but J.T. is a better rebounder and a better defender, and Stack is underrated as a defender, too."
I was with him right up until the end there. I can buy Erick Dampier and Jason Terry as better defenders, but I'm not completely sold on incorporating Jerry Stackhouse into the mix and having him be both a great defender and a first-rate scorer off the bench. The problem with Stack is that they brought him in to be their sixth man, something he's never done before. There's no doubt that he'll be able to provide offense off the bench, but will he be able to swallow his pride and play far fewer minutes? Will he be able to do what Nellie tells him and shut his mouth? And can he do all that while playing good defense, too? I doubt it. They asked Antawn Jamison to do all of those things last year, and he couldn't wait to get traded to a team where they'd use him all the time instead of when they felt like it. And Jamison, by all accounts, was one of the nicest, easiest-going human beings you'll ever meet. (And you thought just 'cause they traded Jamison that I wouldn't be able to kiss his ass in print anymore.) Stackhouse, while affable, has a reputation for wanting to make sure that his line on the box score is filled up with lots of pretty numbers, not zeros.
It just sounds like an awful lot has to go right with these new guys for the Mavs to be as successful as they'd like. Barring a complete implosion, they should make the playoffs. After that, nothing is guaranteed. And if they don't excel, if they don't win right away and threaten to go deep into the postseason, how long before they start fighting among each other the way they did last year?
"At one point, towards the end of the year, we had bickering among each other, and it got to the media," Finley concedes. "Things like that break down the team. I look back on that, and I shouldn't have let it get to that point. Even if it was about calling a team meeting before it got to that point, having us air out our differences with each other instead of bringing the coaches or the media into the situation, which made the whole situation more complex. But that's not going to happen. We've learned from our mistakes last year."
Nothing was supposed to happen today. It was supposed to be another day at training camp, another day in which the players tell us how well they're getting along, how they're coming together and picking up the system and how everything will be fine once the season gets going. It's a Friday, too, and nothing much is supposed to happen on a Friday. At least not this Friday. Nellie scheduled a short morning practice because the team has a charity golf outing this afternoon. Priorities, priorities. Most of the press corps sniff it out and decide to sleep in. Not me. I'm a complete professional. (Or completely dim, depending on whom you ask.) I head to the uneventful morning practice anyway.
Except it's not so uneventful after all. Despite being tired and hungover after a long night of poker, I'm glad I came. Nellie is talking about the point guard situation to the few of us who bothered to show, and what he's saying might be the most significant thing that's been uttered all camp. He's talking about his point guards, about how the ankle injury to Marquis Daniels leaves him with fewer options than he'd like. It means that while Daniels is healing, Devin Harris, the rookie from Wisconsin, will have to contribute. There will be no time to grow, no slow progression. They need him now; there's really no way around it.
"We know now why he was the fifth pick in the draft," Nellie says of Harris. "The last couple of days in practice, no one can stop him."
While Nellie is telling us how great Harris is and how good he's looked in practice, I'm trying to decide if he's spinning us or if he truly believes it. The kid has been pretty good in the first few preseason games. But Nellie's comments about Harris today starkly contrast with the comments he made just a few weeks ago when he was talking about whether or not the Mavs were in better shape after losing Steve Nash to the Phoenix Suns.
"I like point guards who can push the ball," Nellie said a few weeks before training camp began. "I like point guards who can guard and defend their position. I think our rookie [Harris] has some of those same strengths, but I don't think he'll be ready as a rookie. That's why I think it's important that we have minutes for him in order to develop him, but I don't think he'll be ready to start an NBA season."
Huh. Would you look at that? Now here he is, a week or so into camp, talking about how unstoppable Harris has been in practice and how he can clearly see the potential that made him the fifth pick in the draft. But only a few weeks earlier, he wasn't sure that Harris would be ready for the start of the season. What gives? Did he not have a good feel for Harris before camp began? Did Harris make some sort of supreme stride between then and now? Or is Nellie spinning us because he's concerned about the backup point guard spot now that Daniels is out? It could be a little of each. But regardless of what motivated his flip-flop, the fact that Nellie has changed positions on what he thinks about his point guards says all we need to know about this team, or at least its floor leadership.
For the last few years, point guard has been one of the constants for the Mavericks. You knew what you were going to get from Nash (solid shooting, fantastic passing, absolutely no defense), and you knew what you were going to get from his understudies (not much of anything--until, that is, Daniels came along). But now Nash is gone, off to Phoenix to enjoy the five-year, $65 million deal that owner Mark Cuban wouldn't give him. (The Mavs were offering four years and about $20 mil less.) And Daniels, one of the two rookie surprises from last year, is injured. Which leaves Nellie with two players with whom he's not familiar. By all accounts, Terry is a much better defender than Nash, but after that it's hard to say that he's better in any one area than Nash. Granted, they're different players, and Terry is new, so it's going to take time for him to figure out where Nowitzki and Finley and Dampier like the ball and when. And Harris, well, no one is sure what to make of Harris yet. Not even Nellie. But none of that changes the fact that, more than any other spot on the floor, point guard remains the biggest unknown.
Here's the truly troubling thing: There have been a lot of roster changes over the last few years, but with each move Nellie was always quick to label them a net gain for the Mavericks. His evaluations were consistently saccharine. But not now. Not when he talks about his ball handlers.
"We're not sharp yet offensively," Nellie says. "That's what camp is for, but we're just not a good passing team yet. I'm used to having a guy named Steve Nash who was a leader in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio. That's hard to find. It's hard to replace. When we had Steve, we wanted the ball in his hands at all times. Now we'll have to move the ball more. We want at least two guys on the floor at all times who can pass it. Dirk isn't half-bad, so he counts as half."
Ouch. It's a tacit, but biting, indictment of Terry. The only way he could be more critical is if he said that Terry reminds him of Corky from Life Goes On. He's not the only one who thinks Terry represents a handicap to the Mavs. One reporter, who has as good a feel for the team as anyone, didn't bother tempering his appraisal: "Terry? Terry sucks. That's it. He sucks. I know it's early, and maybe I shouldn't say that yet. But right now, he sucks. He might get better. But he might not."
Taken on the whole, it's hard to see how the combination of Terry, Harris and Daniels will be better than Nash, Daniels and Travis Best, now playing for New Jersey. But that has everything to do with Nash, who was the offensive catalyst around here for years. I'm no scientist, but when you take the catalyst out of the equation, what you have is a slow-moving, or potentially failed, experiment.
If you pinned Nellie down, pumped some beer into him and got him alone, I think he would freely admit that he'd like to have Nash back. But his greatest challenge now, aside from getting used to the fact that Nash is long gone, will be getting the guys he does have to be judicious with their passes. They'll need safe passing and sound ball handling while everyone gets adjusted to their new teammates. But what if Daniels doesn't get healthy any time soon and the other point guards don't play well? What then?
One journo asks Nellie as much, asks him if he has a contingency plan for everything going wrong--for Terry and Harris not playing well while Daniels is recovering. The reporter even asks if there might be a chance that Jerry Stackhouse, supposed sixth man and longtime shooting guard, would help out at the point. Nellie thinks about this for a second, and a curious look spreads across his face. At first I think he's pondering the idea, giving it a chance to marinate inside his big Nellie brain. But then he opens his mouth, and I realize it's not that at all.
"You want me to tell [Stackhouse] that?" Nellie asks, half-incredulous, half-joking. "He's a scorer, you dumb bastard. If we ask him to play the point, we'll have 50 turnovers a night."
Good to know the point guard predicament hasn't arrested Nellie's sense of humor.
Financially, letting Nash walk was the right decision, because you can't really justify paying him that much when you're not sure how much longer he'll be at an All-Star level, not to mention that he played defense worse than President Bush in the first debate. Overall, I thought he was a terrific point guard, but I was no fan of his off the court. I found him supercilious, and there were too many instances when he let Nowitzki and Finley answer the tough questions while he retreated to the shadows.
A brief aside: I wrote a column toward the end of last season, when the Mavs were really playing poorly, that criticized Nash for letting Nowitzki absorb the media crush at practice the day after an especially tough loss. I even called him a coward. That didn't go over so well. One radio "personality," after he talked smack about me to the rest of the journos, finally told me that he thought my opinion was, uh, garbage. He put it another way, of course, but you get the idea. He thought that Nash was a genuinely good guy and that I'd crossed the line.
Ignoring, for a moment, the fact that the radio head in question is a big skirt for the way he handled things, his objection still underscores my main point: People are going to miss Nash, and not just because he was one of the best point guards in the league.
Perhaps no one will feel his loss more than Nowitzki. Nash was his complement in basketball and life. There aren't many guys who can feed you the ball precisely where you want it and then stand next to you in some drunken photo that gets plastered all over the Internet. That's a pal.
"With Steve, he lost a teammate and a close friend," Finley says. "I'm not trying to replace Steve as his friend, but I want to be a positive influence on him. I want to be in his ear and tell him that we need him and what I believe he's capable of--that I think he has it in him to be able to take this team where we want to take it.
"I have goals written down for Dirk. I'll probably share them with him on the first road trip when we have a little time to talk and you guys aren't around. I just haven't told him yet. It's time for him to take it to another level. In order for us to go where we want, for us to go where I want to go and I know he wants to go, he has to be ranked in the top five for the MVP at the end of the year."
And there it is. Finley managed to do what the rest of us haven't--ignore the side stories and the distractions and focus on the central truth. Despite all the roster changes, despite the fact that Nash is gone, how well the Mavs do really depends on how well Nowitzki does. Their success is largely reliant on whether or not he becomes one of the elite players in the league, a one-name giant like Kobe and Shaq, or whether he simply stays put--content to be good instead of unspeakably great.
"I think that I have to raise my game up," Nowitzki says, "but we have a lot of good players on this team. Basketball is a team game."
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He droned on after that, but I stopped listening. It was a classic example of the main issue people have with Nowitzki--his reluctance to look around and realize what everyone else already knows: that he is, unquestionably, the man around here. He has to be the man for them to go deep into the playoffs, so he might as well puff out his chest and strut a little and act like he's playing the lead role instead of pretending he's part of an ensemble cast full of equally valuable characters.
"That's always been the knock on Dirk," says one NBA Western Conference scout. "He's a special talent. He's one of the best players in the league. But the people that I talk to wonder when he's going to realize that and make the jump to the next level. [Kevin Garnett] was like that, but he made the jump last year. Dirk has it in him to carry a team the way K.G. did, but he still has to show the willingness."
Like it or not, that's probably where they are right now: casting their lot with Nowitzki. Because they tried the "deep-team-with-lots-of-stars" thing last year, and it didn't work out so well. The chief lesson learned last season wasn't so much that you can't have a squad packed with name-brand talent; it was that you have to have one guy whose name appears on the marquee above all the others--and the others have to accept that fact. You have to have one guy who demands more attention than all the others--and the others have to accept that, too. You have to have an undisputed leader. Either Nowitzki assumes that role and demands more from himself and, by extension, his teammates, or the Mavs will likely re-create last season.
"I think last year we put a lot of pieces together, and everyone was saying that because we got this guy or that guy that we would rise to the top," Finley says. "I think as a team we read into that a little bit, and we got too comfortable. Now, with the new guys coming in, hopefully they want to prove that they want to win. And with the guys who are returning, we know that it doesn't matter what you have on paper. We still have to go out there and play. People are underestimating us now. With us as the underdog, I like that. I wouldn't change it. I hope we stay the underdog all year long."