The day after Dallas crushed the faltering Kings at home, the Mavs looked like a team reborn. They were everything they hadn't been in the previous few weeks--confident and excited and happy. Especially happy. They joked with each other and smiled. They were like bipolar patients who suddenly remembered that taking their meds would even out their collective temperament.
"It's better that they're yelling and screaming at each other than at me," head coach Don Nelson quipped, looking at the good time going on around him--the result of a much-needed winning streak. "It's a nice change of pace that way."
It was a pleasant scene, but no one was sure that they'd be able to replicate it on the regular. That's the thing with this year's Mavs--they are wholly unpredictable on all fronts.
Even before Dirk Nowitzki let slip what we all suspected--he said that there were players who aren't buying into Nelson's system--there were serious issues with this club that portended disaster. They came one after the other, a funeral procession of distractions and gripes that turned this squad into the walking dead for a good while. Antoine Walker bitched loudly about wanting more minutes. Nellie was labeled a racist in some book no one will read. Mark Cuban and Nellie, once again, were rumored to have a fractured relationship that everyone supposed will end with the coach's dismissal following the playoffs. And on and on. Not surprisingly, while all this was happening, they fell apart on the court. Their defense continued to handicap them on the last lengthy road trip--during which they played terribly enough to fall to the Sixers, who were without Allen Iverson. That's like getting mugged by a guy shooting an empty squirt gun.
Before that went down, it had gotten bad enough that the Mavs held a players-only meeting. In theory it was probably a good idea. In execution, it was laughable. The meeting was led by two people, one of whom was Scott Williams, who had been on the club for about an hour and a half. If that doesn't scream indifference, what does?
"I'm not used to it here. I'm not used to it many places," Nellie said of the team's publicly displayed unrest. "You deal with it as best you can. I'd rather keep it behind closed doors, but if it gets to the media, you deal with it.
"We're not divided, we're just not playing well. The bickering, it happens. Self-evaluation is the hardest thing in the world. You guys would have a hard time with it, as would I. For the players, it's the hardest thing in the world. For a long time, coaches, friends, their family have told them that they're the best players in the world. Well, when a coach comes along and says no, or uses them differently, it's hard for them to deal with. But that's my job."
But just when things looked darkest, when the bags under Nellie's eyes were more pronounced than ever, he changed everything. With a roster of world-class players at his fingertips, and the playoffs nearly upon them, he recommitted to last year's "small ball" approach while trying to find more time for his two main rookies. It left most everyone confused, because wasn't that philosophy junked at the end of last season? Wasn't that idea abandoned as being a loser in the long run? In the short term, though, switching things up gave them a jolt, pushing the Mavs to a few wins that have everyone wondering which team will show up for the playoffs--the club that can't get its shit together, or the all-star version that can beat just about anyone once they get moving.
"The whole season, it's been long and disappointing," Nowitzki said. A Gatorade towel was draped around his neck, and he used it to dab the perspiration from his brow. It could be that he was still hot from the afternoon workout. More likely, he was sweating for a different reason. "We have a lot of talent on this team, but we haven't played up to our potential. We haven't been consistent. Not at all. We have guys with nice stats, but we haven't played as a team. We need to be more consistent."
Without naming specific players (or smacking Walker in the back of the head), that was as damning a statement as you'll hear from the trio formerly known as the Big Three--the team's supposed core of leaders. Michael Finley--with a straight, even an angry, face--denied the Mavs are besieged by drama. Steve Nash skipped out altogether, scurrying up the stairs after practice like a coward while Nowitzki distracted the media and took the heat. Nowitzki, who has long been criticized for his reluctance to stand up and be heard, has now popped off plenty. Nothing could be more indicative of their vacillation from bad to good and back again. Sure, they've played better as the season has funneled toward the playoffs, but that doesn't mean they won't revert to dysfunction again.
That's the real problem here. These jokers are out of time. They kept telling us that it takes awhile to mesh so many new personalities together, but after an entire regular season, we ought to know more about these guys. But we don't. Ignore the everything-is-fine spin that nearly everyone, save Nowitzki, is practicing. They are what they've always appeared to be: incomplete. And so they must head into the playoffs with a unit that really isn't much of one, with a bunch of players that Nowitzki says are more worried about getting theirs than winning games and playing consistently. And they must do so without the home court they so desperately need.
"It's been hard for a lot of us to find a niche," Walker says, trying to explain it all away. "We have lots of offensive pieces here, but not everyone can score 20 points. But things do gotta change. We gotta get better defensively, system or no system. We gotta play better or we're gonna be an early exit from the playoffs. That's looking myself in the mirror; that's looking everyone in the mirror. We gotta play better or we're out early."
It could be that the Mavs will go on a terrific playoff run and, just in time, realize the potential we've all been expecting. But that seems like an awful lot to ask. Why should they pull it all together now? Simply because it's the playoffs and they feel more urgency? No, that seems improbable because good teams, teams with postseason futures, don't generally stumble all season before magically correcting their gait. It seems more plausible that they'll be a first-round victim, which wouldn't be all bad. Sometimes you have to be optimistic: At least they'd be able to get out of town before summer.