In sorting through the rubble of a series, a season and an era that totally and hideously imploded, Dallas Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson is discombobulated. How else do you explain him awkwardly giving a vote of confidence to his team's wayward pot-head while leaving a crack in the door for trading the gutsy franchise superstar?
Nelson on Josh Howard: "He's ours. We love him. He's a marquee player, and we've got to get him back to where he was."
Nelson on Dirk Nowitzki: "Untouchable? No. In this business, you never say never. In our situation there are no untradeables."
Nowitzki, of course, isn't going anywhere. When the Mavs commence training camp for the 2009 season in October he'll still be the Mavs' All-Star, heart and soul.
Otherwise, let the overhaul begin.
In the wake of their first-round playoff loss to the New Orleans Hornets, the Mavericks—same team that two springs ago had us scrambling for ticker tape—stagger into an off-season saturated with uncertainty and bone-dry of a coach, draft pick and, honestly, many bullets for the reloading.
(Seems like as good a time as any to retort to those who lampooned me for criticizing the Jason Kidd trade. I think a hearty "Toldja!" should suffice.)
So now what? Barring major detours it appears Dallas will hire former Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle and again construct its team around aging, future Hall of Famers Nowitzki and Kidd. But that's only a start.
To fix the Mav-wrecks, we've got to delve into their past, present and future.
To put this delicately, Avery Johnson is a liar.
Just two years ago he was the NBA's Coach of the Year and had the Mavs within four quarters of a championship. But this season—after a controversial mega-trade that he himself kick-started—Johnson's team unraveled faster than Roger Clemens' reputation.
His players, beleaguered by three years of demanding practices and early-game timeouts, totally tuned him out. Once upon a time a master motivator, Johnson deteriorated into a parent screaming "Brush your teeth!" before his kid's feet hit the floor each morning. The final nail came last week when Johnson, miffed that players had attended Howard's birthday party after a Game 4 loss, canceled practice, only to have his insubordinate team conduct a players-only workout.
What Johnson lacked in strategy he usually trumped with spirit. But when the choir stopped "Amen"-ing his sermons, it was time for Avery to go and, apparently, hurl Kidd under the long, yellow kid-carrier on his way out.
During a May 1 press conference at his Ritz-Carlton Hotel "home," Johnson thanked so many people and so tooted his own trumpet that I wasn't sure if he'd just been handed a pink slip or a gold statue. He patted himself on the back for getting last year's Mavs to overachieve and for working a miracle to get this year's Mavs into the playoffs—despite being hamstrung by a point guard whom he alluded wasn't quick enough and didn't have the skills to create opportunities off the dribble.
"We had Devin Harris knocking on the door to be an All-Star," said Johnson, hinting that he never wanted Kidd in the first place. "He was going to be an 18 [points] and 8 [assists] player for us. I invested a significant amount of time in him. If we just hold on a little while...The team was changed, and we never really got back on track. The deal was made. Hey, it's over. Something was tried, but it didn't take us nearly to where we wanted."
Let me make this very clear: Johnson became so disenchanted with Harris that he approached Nelson and owner Mark Cuban about an upgrade at point guard. Or, better yet, let Nelson make it very clear.
"There isn't a decision made that three people didn't check off on," Nelson said. "Period."
If the Mavs go with Carlisle—he got two interviews before any other candidates had their first—it would be a hire about as sexy as Amish porn. (Pale bodies, poor lighting, etc.) He's not exactly anti-Avery jovial, either.
But the guy can coach. He took the Pistons and Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals in consecutive years and was the NBA's Coach of the Year in '02. Considering his intense, single-minded persona and penchant for calling plays in every stinking half-court set, isn't he just a white Avery Johnson—an Ivory Johnson?
If the Mavs don't come to their senses and land Pat Riley or Mike D'Antoni or even Donnie Nelson (who better to coach Nowitzki than the guy who discovered him?), Carlisle will be charged with giving the Mavs a distinct identity. Under Johnson they wilted with neither emotion nor composure. More important, Carlisle must customize his motion offense to Kidd's open-court creativity.
That doesn't happen, and we'll be right back here next spring.
The Mavs, simply put, are an un-athletic, older team with few options. This was the danger in trading half the team and all the future for a 35-year-old point guard with a $21 million salary, then censoring his ad-libbing with Johnson's conformist system. It didn't work, and now the Mavs are stuck with a roster full of more holes than the Interstate 30 bridge.
If you think Kidd has regressed to the point where he's merely the role player that produced negligible stats in the playoffs, then you might as well become a Texas Rangers fan. Because, like it or not, Kidd is more crucial to the Mavs' success next season than any new coach. He needs to be able to run without consequences. He needs to post-up smaller defenders. He does not ever need to sashay to the weak side of the court as a potential spot-up shooter if the Nowitzki/Jason Terry pick-and-roll breaks down.
He does not (sorry, Avery) need to be re-wired. He needs to be re-Jason Kidded.
"Jason needs to be able to express himself," says Nelson.
Scary as it sounds, the Mavs' rebound is tied to two 30-somethings and a guy whose off-season recreational activities will be closely monitored by the league. Center Erick Dampier is here to stay. So is the only bright spot of the season, power forward Brandon Bass. Jason Terry will be back, ideally as sixth man.
"After that about half our guys are free agents," Nelson said.
They need a backup center, a backup point guard, a backup plan. The days of 60-win seasons are gone. And, if the Mavs can't finally fill their void at shooting guard, say goodbye to 50. Other than finding a coach with a softer touch and keeping Howard clean, it's priority No. 1.
Since Michael Finley left in '05 the Mavs have tried Adrian Griffin and Jerry Stackhouse and Eddie Jones and Greg Buckner and Maurice Ager and Trenton Hassell and a handful of others that flopped. To maximize the Kidd-Nowitzki arsenal, the Mavs have to get a shooting guard that can, well, shoot.
With their first-round draft pick shipped to the New Jersey Nets, the facelift will have to come via trade or free agency. Corey Maggette? Andre Iguodala? Gilbert Arenas? Doable, but difficult.
"We've got to plug some holes and hopefully get deeper and more athletic," says Nelson.
Of course, these days he also refers to Howard as "an intelligent man."
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