Rock of Ages

Shockingly, Mark Cuban has been quiet this year. No running out onto the court. No staged battles with refs. No comments about the league office. Nothing. For a while there after his television show went under (what was the name again? Mad TV? How I miss it so.), I wondered if the Mavericks owner would ever surface again.

I was about to give up hope when, following the Dallas vs. Phoenix game before the All-Star break, Cuban popped his head above ground like a Whack-a-Mole with a silly grin. The Mavs won a spirited game against the Suns that evening, a game that signaled to some that Dallas is a contender in the West after all. Cuban was, not surprisingly, jazzed about that. But he was also thrilled with the way Michael Finley played. Finley had been much maligned by the local media for weeks before the break, written off as past his prime and obsolete, a hindrance instead of a help. But he went off against the Suns, dropping 33 points and thereby reminding everyone that he still has some game left. All of which, naturally, prompted Cuban to forget about Jenga and the Nielsen ratings and trumpet his real boys.

"You know all those people who were complaining about Mike not being hot and being in a slump?" Cuban asked rhetorically on the ESPN radio postgame show. "Na-na-na-na-na."

Yes, na-na-na-na-na, indeed. It's hard to be more articulate than that, but when you're a billionaire, sophistication comes easily. The man is a modern-day Gatsby.

Despite Cuban's thoughtful endorsement, it remains to be seen whether Finley was going through a slump and finally snapped out of it, or if that nine- to 10-game lackluster stretch was a harbinger of things to come. From late January to early February, things were grim for Finley. He long ago abandoned the idea of getting to the free throw line regularly, and he doesn't drive to the basket nearly as often as he did earlier in his career. But, over the last few seasons, he still served the team well by making good decisions and, most of all, by being a reliable jump shooter. He was the salt to Dirk Nowitzki's more pungent pepper. But that main, valuable ingredient that he lent to the team was in short supply heading into the All-Star break. Instead of knocking down jumpers from the arc or spotting up for the midrange shot, he had some forgettable shooting evenings: 6-for-23 against the Sixers; 9-for-21 against the Sonics; 9-for-22 against the Blazers. Ugly stuff.

Understand, players go through slumps. All players. The good ones, too. Finley, for his entire career, has been a good player. But he's 32 now, and he doesn't do everything he used to do, which has allowed the buzzards to circle, looking to pick at pieces of his flesh. Five years ago, the fans and the pundits would have shrugged it off. Today, they salivate and conspire against him, taking shots at him when openings present themselves. And they're not the only ones.

"He's gotta start thinking about it, as you get older, how you play," head coach Don Nelson told the media during a February practice. "And this is what I told him and all the players: You have to start playing with your brain more than your physical attributes, because as you lose a little bit, you can continue on and get the same numbers if you're smart.

"We need him to be more aggressive, and you know he's going to try to do that. He's a great guy, good friend of mine, and I love him dearly, but he needs to play better and get more numbers."

Where to start on that one? First, it's classic Nellie trying to mute his words, post-fact, with the "he's a good friend of mine, and I love him dearly" line. Second, when was the last time Finley had to face that sort of harsh public criticism from anyone in the Mavs organization? For the longest time, he's been the Mavericks organization, the face of the franchise during its metamorphosis from awful to average to contender. For the longest time, he was leader and identity, an untouchable in so many arenas. But those days are gone, and that's clearer now than ever. It's Nowitzki's team--he's the false god these days, and everyone else is expendable. Transparent hedging or not, that's really what Nellie's words meant--play better, bub, because we don't need you as much as you need us.

To Finley's credit, he knows as much, and he's fine with it. Whatever his shortcomings, he is, and always has been, a man. Of all the professional athletes I've covered, Finley has been one of the best about owning his mistakes and facing all comers. He could have shouted down his coach or lashed out at the fans, but he chose, instead, to assume the pressure they thrust upon him and move forward. Had it been me, I would have likely selected a different course, perhaps thrown out some obscenities and defended myself with vigor and vitriol. Because it's not as though he's gone from being a stud to a slacker. He's averaging 18 points per game this season; not much worse than his career average of a little more than 19. And he's probably still, regardless of what everyone likes to think, the team's second-best scoring option after Nowitzki. So why not tell everyone to back off? Why not growl and show some teeth?

"Look, I wasn't backing it up at all, and [Nellie] challenged me," Finley told the TNT analysts following that Suns game. "I took it personal, and now I'm trying to lead this team in the right direction. I wanna do whatever it takes for this team to be a winner."

He is, among many things, a class act, and it's good for you and the Mavericks that he is. Because, despite the condemnation of his recent play, there is no doubt that Dallas will need him come playoff time, need his leadership and his experience and, yes, even his jump shot. They'll need him to forget about how a lot of people around here wanted to toss him out with the morning garbage. They'll need him to do what he's always done--be a team player and give a strong effort. They'll need him to be a pro.

Players get older and their skills erode, that's true. And it may also be true that Finley's days in Dallas are numbered, because if they're willing to call him out in public, then they'd be willing to ship him off to Portland or Atlanta or wherever else if the price is right.

For now, though, for this season, Dallas could do a lot worse. For now, the Mavs and the fans and the media should remember that. Because Finley is valuable--which is exactly what Cuban said. Sorta.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez