Put away your worries about the durability of compact discs, squeeze into your acid-washed jeans and let's go watch the NBA's model franchise play at one of America's best sports venues, Reunion Arena. On the way we can fill up our Pontiac Fiero for 91 cents a gallon, mail some letters for 24 cents and debate hot topics such as Dukakis' chances of beating George Bush, Cabbage Patch dolls, Live Aid, Bull Durham, the world of Pete Incaviglia and the professional demise of Tom Landry.
It's 1988, a time when we're listening to Rick Astley and Billy Ocean, watching The Wonder Years and marveling at Carter High School's championship football season. The Internet? Just a rumor. The Trinity River Project? We just finished the Cityplace Tower. Dirk Nowitzki? A 10-year-old in Wurzburg, Germany fascinated by handball.
You with me? Good. Now, somewhere in the mixmaster of Interstate 35 and the I-30 turnpike, we encounter a wormhole, a right turn down a wrong path that transports us to 2011. People are driving sorta truck looking thingies. Everyone, it seems, is talking—and typing?—with their wallets. There's a white St. Louis arch over there, a big, new building that must be an American Airlines hangar just north of downtown. And, um, where is Reunion Arena?
Eighty-eight, meet 2011. Second-best team in Dallas Mavericks' history, get acquainted with the current, modern version, the first team to win a title in our town since the Stars back in the 20th century. Because it's time to answer the question: The '11 Mavs are champions, but are they the best team in franchise history? In a seven-game series played at their peak, could Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd hold off a blast from the past in the form of Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper and Mark Aguirre?
"Ro and I have had this conversation several times," says general manager Donnie Nelson. "I'll admit that the team in '88 was loaded. They could score the ball with any team in the history of the NBA. But I think I'd stick with my guys. We were a team that was outmanned along the way but we just wouldn't be denied. It's a series I'd probably pay to watch."
Says Blackman of the Fantasy Finals: "I'd like our chances, but they have the trophy for a reason."
The matchup of '11 vs. '88 is a contrast in style that soars beyond Bowley and Wilson vs. Erykah Badu. It's the Reunion Rowdies vs. the Platinum Club. It's Otis Day and The Knights' "Shout" vs. The Who's "Eminence Front." It's understated and classic public address voice Kevin McCarthy vs. the bombastic "deeeeeeee-FENCE!" demands of over-the-top Sean Heath. It's cutting-edge owner Mark Cuban vs. franchise founding father Don Carter. It's German star Detlef Schrempf vs. German superstar Nowitzki.
Most of all, it's offense vs. defense.
In '88, coach John MacLeod's Mavericks averaged 109 points per game in going 53-29. With a balanced, up-tempo offense predicated on ball movement, mid-range jumpers, relentless rebounding and a determined low-post game, Dallas shot 2,510 free throws and made 154 3-pointers. In other words, they played inside-out, a stark contrast to the '11 Mavs, who shot 660 fewer free throws but made 491 more 3-pointers.
The '88 team started Harper at point guard, Blackman at shooting guard, Aguirre at small forward, Sam Perkins at power forward and James Donaldson at center. Off the bench came Schrempf, Brad Davis and Roy Tarpley. With two All-Stars (Aguirre and Donaldson), the Sixth Man of the Year (Tarpley) and the league's best rebounding, the Mavericks bewildered opponents with a barrage of offense. Aguirre averaged 25.1 points per game while Blackman, Harper, Perkins and Tarpley all scored at least 13. By contrast, the '11 Mavs were 14th in rebounding and were led by Nowitzki at 23 points, with only Terry contributing more than 13.
The '88 Mavs defeated the Houston Rockets of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson in a best-of-five first-round series, 3-1. In the West semis, Dallas beat a Nuggets team led by Alex English and Fat Lever in six games. But in the conference Finals, the best Mavs team to date met one of the NBA's best teams ever.
With Aguirre scoring, Tarpley producing monster 20-point, 20-rebound games and with bench-warmer Bill Wennington enthusiastically waving his white rally towel, the Mavs won Game 6 in Reunion to force a Game 7 at The Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles. Against a legendary Lakers squad featuring future Hall of Famers Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Mavs were within four points with six minutes remaining before losing 117-102. The Lakers proceeded to beat the Detroit Pistons for that year's title.
"Without the Lakers in our way I think we could've won a title, maybe two," Harper said recently. "But those guys were an impossible mountain to climb."
While the '88 team was stonewalled five wins from a trophy, the '11 Mavs conquered LaMarcus Aldridge, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the way to singing "We Are the Champions" on the AAC balcony overlooking a packed Victory Plaza. The current team averaged only 100 points, allowed just 96 (the '88 team gave up 105 per game) and went 16-5 in the playoffs.
In our synthetic series, hard-nosed defenders Harper and Kidd would match steals and pace. Tyson Chandler would combat Donaldson in the paint. Marion would attempt to slow Aguirre. The '88 team would throw a combination of Perkins and Tarpley at Nowitzki.
"It was a more finesse league back then," says Bob Ortegel, who served as Dallas' TV analyst from '89 to '11. "The '88 team was a beast. I think they were more individually talented than this year's team. But they lacked what the 2011 team had: unity, commitment, chemistry and intangibles. In crunch time we'll look back at the current Mavs team as one of the best ever."
Everyone has an opinion on Old School vs. New School. But the numbers nerds at WhatIfSports.com have actual answers. I entered the data from the '88 and '11 teams, including statistics, player rotations and trends. The result? Not even close.
The '11 Mavs swept the '88 Mavs. They won Game 1, 109-107, on a Nowitzki jumper at the buzzer. Game 2 was a blowout, 108-97. Game 3: 111-109 as Harper missed a game-tying jumper in the final five seconds. Game 4 in another blowout, 115-101. Stubborn, I ran three more series—each with the same result. In 20 total computerized games, the '88 Mavs managed only five wins. Nowitzki averaged 29 points in the sweep, and Chandler bested Donaldson in the paint with nightly double-doubles. While the '88 Mavs lost to better competition, the '11 Mavs are clearly the better team.
With smiling eyes and a hoarse voice, Terry capped Dallas' post-parade celebration inside the AAC by looking to the rafters and bellowing: "Brad Davis, Ro Blackman...move over. There's new jerseys coming to town."
For now, the '88 Mavs have the only two retired numbers.
But the '11 Mavs have the only banner.