It was quiet on the practice court. Almost eerily so--like a wake without the dead men. But give it time on that score--by the end of the season, there will be plenty of corpses around here. Only a few of the scrubs remained when they let the media into practice--all the principals had long since scattered, scurried up the stairs and into the locker room where the salivating reporters couldn't get to them. The Mavs--Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley and the whole lot of them--took the easy way out. They decided not to answer any more questions. It was hard to blame them.
The night before, Dallas took the Sixers to double overtime and won. It was a crazy game, complete with wild swings and more than a few wasted leads. There was drama, but not nearly as much as in the pre- and postgame interviews. Rumors abounded leading up to the game, rumors about trading this player or that one, rumors about Mark Cuban being dissatisfied with the club's lack of achievement, rumors about various higher-ups in the organization blaming each other for the team's disappointing record, rumors about the possibility of head coach Don Nelson being fired before the end of the season and being replaced with former Heat coach Pat Riley. All kinds of rumors, none of them good.
Naturally, the talk before and after the game was dominated by those rumors. Somewhere in there Cuban even called Nellie a drama queen but promised he wouldn't fire his coach. Which prompted Nellie, in front of various journos, including The Dallas Morning News, to quip: "He told me he's not firing me--he didn't say when."
Yeah, there was a lot said before we were let into that empty practice last week, so maybe there wasn't anything left to say. Maybe. More likely, it was the stuff of cowards, the tactic of a bunch of basketball players who know they haven't measured up this season and who can't even look each other in the eye, much less a pack of critical reporters. It was weak and obvious.
It's easy to be counted when things are going well and your team is winning, but the real measure of an athlete is the one who offers himself to the mob when everyone is convinced there's something wrong but no one is sure how to fix it. Don Nelson isn't an athlete anymore, but he is most definitely a man. Perhaps the only man associated with the Mavericks these days.
So the day after all the drama, the day after the Mavericks kingdom very nearly crumbled, reporters and fans were far from appeased. We wanted more. Nellie was the only one willing to sate our appetite, though he did what he could to spin the situation the way he knows best--with jokes and belly laughs and big, bright smiles.
"I think it's best to leave all that as yesterday's news," Nellie said when asked about the negative vibe associated with everything Mavs. He paused for comedic effect before adding, "and let the chicken shit on the pages."
Approximately halfway through the season, that exchange pretty much sums up everything that's happened to this point. Less than five months ago the Mavericks were busy making blockbuster trades and smacking each other on the ass for jobs well done. Now most of them can't point fingers fast enough. The reality here is that this crew is a long, long way from last year's run to the Conference Finals in both record and makeup. To win just 50 games, the Mavs (with a 24-16 record) would have to go on a 26-16 run. Last season, they won their first 14. This year, they've already lost 13 on the road. Last year, it took them until the final month of the season to lose that many away from home. The contrast is alarming.
All that's left to do now is wonder when the boom is coming. Because you have to know that something is going to change with the Mavs--it always does. Either Nellie is going to get fired or one of the players is going to get traded or both. But something is going to happen, because the idea of Mad Mark watching this team struggle on the road and limp to an unimpressive record and an early-round playoff loss just doesn't seem possible. That's not Cuban's style. For good or ill, the man is not afraid to make moves. The players know it just as Nellie knows it, which is why Antawn Jamison has yet to buy a house here--unpacking doesn't make much sense if you're just going to move again. (Last weekend, he was very nearly traded to Portland, even though the Mavs denied it.)
Despite the fact that they've played better the last week or so, you have to figure it's a matter of when and who, not if. For my money, I'd deal the other Antoine, because Walker will get you a triple-double, but he'll also disrupt the flow of the offense.
"No one is frustrated with any of the pieces," Donnie Nelson, president of basketball operations, told ESPN radio in an attempt to settle things a bit. "Everyone loves the pieces. There's a lot of talent on this team, and they get along famously. It's about fitting the pieces together. It's a time issue. We preached patience on this thing since the very beginning. It's not gonna happen overnight. It's not the pieces. It's fitting the pieces together.
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"And I don't buy that Antoine is the problem here. His spirit and energy is the same that Nick [Van Exel] brought. Antoine is a winner. The chemistry issue is this: In the past, with the other deals we've made, the big three carried the day for us. This year, there have been some struggles with Steve and Dirk having to play center and Michael starting slowly. We've had issues, but I think they'll come together over time."
Time, unfortunately for the Mavs, is one thing they're all short on. There is the possibility that Donnie is right, that Dallas could coalesce, go on a second-half tear and play the kind of quality basketball that, on paper, it says they ought to be capable of, the kind of hoops we've all been eagerly awaiting. But that scenario seems unlikely. Which means we all have to prepare ourselves for something less palatable, for the ever-increasing chance that this little experiment isn't going to work and that they're going to have to come up with another plan. Worse, we might have to admit this season is already wasted and there's nothing left to do but plan for next year. It's a difficult notion to wrap your head around. For the Mavs, too.
"It's definitely wearing on me a little," Nellie said. "I feel a little tired. I'm probably drinking too much when we lose--too many scotch and waters. It's hard."
And ugly. Halfway through the season, and just a few months from the start of the playoffs, the Mavs seem further away from a championship than ever.