Tuesday February 26th, 2008

There's a kind of reverse age discrimination going on in the NBA these days, which should come as no surprise in a league that allows a player who hasn't suited up in two years to be re-signed and thrown into a trade. Suddenly 35 is the new 25. The Phoenix Suns parted with 29-year-old Shawn Marion to land center ­Shaquille O'Neal, who turns a creaky 36 on March 6. The Cleveland Cavaliers unloaded a pair of twentysomethings (Larry Hughes, 29, and Drew Gooden, 26) to lay claim to center Ben Wallace, 33, forward Joe Smith, 32, and swingman Wally Szczerbiak, who turns 31 on March 5. The San ­Antonio Spurs hoped to bolster their chances of repeating by acquiring 6' 9" forward Kurt ­Thomas and point guard Damon ­Stoudamire, 35 and 34, respectively.

But no franchise has put more on the line in this Anti-Youth Movement than the Dallas Mavericks, who, a half-season after achieving the league's best record, are not only entrusting their offense to a new face but also reshaping their identity. In a seven-player swap on Feb. 19 they scraped the mold off all-but-retired forward Keith Van Horn, 32, and sent him to New Jersey with their point guard of the future, 25-year-old Devin Harris, and an energetic shot blocker, 26-year-old ­DeSagana Diop, to land a player who'll turn 35 before the playoffs. That the senior citizen is Jason Kidd -- he of the off-the-charts basketball IQ and 99 career triple doubles -- is hardly irrelevant, of course, but it ­doesn't diminish the stakes for Dallas. Comedy is Van Horn getting $4.3 million essentially for moving to Jersey for a couple of months, a no-show gig that would have delighted even Paulie Walnuts. No one, ­however, will be laughing in Big D if the trade doesn't deliver a title.

"We're out there on this one, I'll admit that," says Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, now 30 pounds and one building block lighter than he was last year at this time. The weight came off because of rehab for a hip replacement and the aerobic work he did to prepare for Dancing with the Stars; Harris went away because Dallas felt compelled to keep pace with the other dealmaking Western Conference contenders. A 6' 3" blur who is a tough cover for the quickest guards, Harris is an avid charge-taker and a recognized stalwart in checking Spurs point guard Tony Parker (who, by the way, says he is overjoyed that Harris bid bon voyage to the West, even if his replacement is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer).

Still, the Mavs (37-19 and fifth in the West through Sunday) felt they needed a more vocal leader and a more seasoned playmaker, so they were willing to place the ball -- and their future -- in Kidd's battle-tested hands. After watching forwards Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard battle fiercely to get their points, the team wanted to get them easier scoring opportunities, both in the running game (in which Kidd excels) and in a half-court setting (where most playoff games are won and lost). Moreover, Kidd's size (6' 4", 210 pounds) and intensity make the team stronger and more versatile on defense, and thus better equipped for switching on the perimeter.

"This is the biggest hit [financially] I've taken on a single trade ever," Cuban said last week. "Nothing even within shouting distance." He rubbed his face with a towel after a one-hour aerobics workout at the team's hotel. "But if I wanted to play it safe," he added with a smile, "I ­wouldn't be in sports."

Integrating Kidd with two months to go in the regular season is a more delicate matter than, say, ­integrating O'Neal, a third or fourth option for the Suns whose acquisition had more to do with bolstering their defense. But Kidd has made the transition once before. Drafted by Dallas with the second pick in 1994, he was sent to Phoenix in December '96 in a package for Sam Cassell, Michael Finley and A.C. Green. The Suns were 8-19 when Kidd arrived and went 32-23 thereafter, though they never reached contender status before Kidd was dealt to New Jersey in the summer of 2001.

The Mavs weren't exactly in bad straits before the deal, but they were running in place, and few players have more ways to jump-start a team than Kidd. The hoariest of hoops chestnuts -- he doesn't have to score to be effective -- seemingly was coined for him. Consider some of the things he did last Friday night in Dallas's 98-83 win over the Grizzlies in Memphis:

• On a routine first-quarter foray up the court, Kidd noticed that Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley Jr. was lollygagging with his dribble. So Kidd rushed to meet him, bodying up on Conley near midcourt and causing an eight-second violation (which, alas, went uncalled).

• In the second quarter Memphis ­forward Hakim Warrick seemingly had a clear path to the basket, but Kidd suddenly materialized and knocked him off-balance with a hard shot to the arm; Warrick missed both free throws. (Kidd manages to be physical without being considered dirty.)

• Minutes later Kidd noticed backcourt mate Jason Terry streaking to the basket from the right side. He whiplashed a one-bounce pass that never rose more than a foot above the floor and landed directly in Terry's hands for a layup.

But it's not the spectacular passes that define Kidd. Swingman Jerry Stackhouse, in particular, should benefit from quick post-ups in the transition offense. Run up the wing, establish position and Kidd will float the ball toward you at precisely the right time. "We just haven't had anybody who sees as much as he sees," says Stackhouse. "You might think, Aw, I'm not getting that pass. Well, now you are getting that pass. And you've got to be aware of it."

Baron Davis of the Golden State ­Warriors once said that his entire approach to the position changed after watching Kidd. "Jason always has his eyes up," said Davis. "A lot of point guards, myself included, start dribbling and look up later. Jason looks first and gets it upcourt with a pass."

Kidd's ability to get teammates an open look on the secondary break is nonpareil. He'll come steaming down the middle, conclude that a fast-break basket is not possible, veer off to one side to lull the ­defense to sleep and suddenly snap a pass to a weakside trailer. Nowitzki isn't a ­runner, but he's bound to collect such baskets in bunches the rest of this season, as he did twice on Friday night. With 3:26 remaining in the third quarter, Kidd had collected as many assists (12) as any Mav had in an entire game this season.

"Jason is even better than I expected," says Nowitzki. "A lot of players on this team pass the ball when you're open, but with Jason the ball's already on the way by the time you're open. He reads plays like nobody else."

Still, Kidd knows he has some work to do before he's fully up to speed. During timeouts he and assistant coach Joe Prunty often conference, with Kidd retracing the X's and O's of a second or third option he's still ­unfamiliar with. Even on the court Kidd defers when the situation demands it. Last Friday he signaled forward Josh Howard to utilize a back pick he set, but Howard, aware that the action was taking place on the weak side where Nowitzki was isolated, waved him off. "We're playing catch-up here," Kidd says, "and there's not much time. I'm asking questions constantly, trying to get in all the guys' heads, listening to all the coaches, trying to learn on the fly."

Hey, it's one big happy family. It usually is during the honeymoon period after a trade. (Szczerbiak would probably detail LeBron James's Hummer if asked, though one day soon Wally World will wake up and realize that he's not getting any of the big shots.) But a crucial aspect of the deal is how much autonomy coach Avery Johnson will give to Kidd. There is little doubt that the Little General -- himself a former point guard, who won a championship with the Spurs in 1999 -- was, to put it mildly, in Harris's ear. "Avery might've been good for Devin in the beginning," says an ­opposing coach who asked for anonymity, "but the kid had to get away from Dallas to really grow."

Johnson promises some accommodation for Kidd, who is, after all, already in the pantheon of NBA quarterbacks. "I'm going to help him get through this [early] period," says Johnson, "but I don't think I'll be screaming at him every play. The reason we got Jason is because he knows what to do."

But this is a headstrong point guard playing for a headstrong coach. "There are times," says Johnson, "I'm going to need him to manage this particular team different than what he did in New Jersey.

"We think Jason can actually get better," Johnson adds. "More than anything, he can be a little more selfish on the offensive end, find his spots on the floor to score, post up now and then. And we're going to help him get to that point."

At this stage in his career Kidd is probably thinking, I'm pretty happy with the way I play, thank you very much. Scoring has always been third, fourth or fifth on his to-do list, and that was the case through his first three games as a Maverick when he took only 19 shots. Kidd's reluctance to shoot coupled with an uncertain perimeter touch (his 36.6% accuracy from the field might partly explain his reluctance to hoist) have resulted in some peculiar stat lines over the years. His triple double totals are often all right around 10. And on a team with scorers such as Nowitzki, Howard, Terry and ­Stackhouse, but without the willing rebounding of Diop, Kidd could have a lot of four-point, 11-rebound, 17-assist evenings. (He averaged 7.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 12.3 assists in his first week with Dallas.)

Yet for all his skills, Kidd comes with more than a little baggage. He has a rep for being a clubhouse lawyer: Myriad sources confirm that he chased coach Byron Scott out of New Jersey despite the Nets' making consecutive Finals appearances in 2002 and '03. This season Kidd publicly asked to be traded in late January, never exactly ­criticizing coach Lawrence Frank but never gathering him to his bosom ­either. And that's not even touching on his off-court troubles: The Suns unloaded Kidd six months after his arrest on a misdemeanor domestic abuse charge against his wife, Joumana. (Kidd pleaded guilty to spousal abuse, was fined $200 and ordered to take anger management training.) Last summer the two went through a very public and messy divorce, with allegations of spousal abuse from both sides. And in December, Kidd was sued by a 23-year-old woman for allegedly groping and threatening her at a New York City nightclub. (The case is pending.)

For now, though, the Mavs are only concerned with his comportment on the court. It was completely natural to see Kidd, in his first game for Dallas, stride to midcourt for the captains' pregame meeting. Leading is second nature to him, which it is not for Nowitzki, the other co-captain by virtue of his being the tenured superstar. According to Peter Vecsey of the New York Post, ­Johnson asked management to trade Nowitzki ­because he was dissatisfied with the reigning MVP's leadership, and the Kidd deal was more about finding a new team leader than a new point guard. Various Mavs have issued denials, none more vociferously than Cuban. "Avery has never, ever come to me and asked me to trade a player," says Cuban. "And there has never been a discussion about trading Dirk."

Still, the Post story stung Nowitzki, who concedes that it isn't easy for an international player to become a team leader, saying, "There are little barriers you have to deal with -- cultural barriers, ­language ­barriers." (Asked if teammates have bothered to learn any German, ­Nowitzki says, "Nothing ­beyond ­gesundheit.") "I've been trying to find my own way of leading," he adds. "I don't give speeches. I say things when I feel them. But I try to lead by example. And two years ago that brought us all the way to the Finals, so it can't be too bad."

Not everyone in Mavericks Nation feels that way, as Nowitzki knows. He took a lot of the blame for Dallas's collapse in 2006 (when it led the Miami Heat two games to none and then lost four straight in the ­Finals) and almost all the blame for last season's first-round loss to the eighth-seeded Warriors, the biggest playoff upset in NBA history. Should the Mavericks not reach the Finals this spring, the backlash from dealing Harris will be enormous and the team's window of opportunity reduced to the size of a mail slot. Would the Mavs consider Kidd's leadership reason enough to give him an extension on top of the $21.4 million that he's due next season in the final year of his contract? (The Nets said no to an extension last fall, leading to Kidd's ballyhooed one-game "strike" on Dec. 5.) And even if he gets a new deal, would Kidd and Nowitzki, 29, be able to keep Dallas ahead of up-and-coming, younger title hopefuls like the Los Angeles Lakers and the New Orleans Hornets?

But those are worries for the future. The one-man cavalry that has arrived at Nowitzki's door for this season's stretch run comes none too soon, for the competition has never been more intense. The Mavs hope it will be Kidd's play that gets them to the Finals, but it sure won't be kid's play, not in the Western Conference, where at week's end the top nine teams were bunched within 5 1/2 games. So look to Dallas, and to Phoenix, too, to see if those who are long in the tooth can lead the way, or if the West is indeed no country for old men.

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