Every team in sports that made it big can pinpoint a pivotal event that set the team on its championship course. For the Miracle Mets of 1969, it was a two-game September sweep of the first-place Chicago Cubs. For the Pittsburgh Steeler dynasty-to-be, it was Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception against the Oakland Raiders in the 1972 playoffs. For the New York Islanders, it was the decision to play Billy Smith—and no one else—in goal when the Stanley Cup was on the line in 1980.
Well, if big things are in store for the Dallas Mavericks, the turning point may well have come last Friday night in the Los Angeles Forum.
The upstart Mavericks had won six games in a row, but now, and on the road, they faced the formidable Lakers, the NBA champions in two of the past four seasons. Dallas raced to a 16-point lead in the second quarter, but L.A. rallied to go ahead 101-100 at the end of the third quarter. None of the assembled 16,044 would have been surprised if the Lakers had roared away to a lopsided win.
But Earvin Johnson, the L.A. 6'9" All-NBA guard, went out with a dislocated finger at 5:42 of the fourth quarter, and the magic was gone. The Lakers came unglued and the Mavericks came together, shooting 12 for 21 in the last period to pull away for a 133-118 victory. The Forum was strangely quiet.
The next night in Dallas, the Mavericks romped to their eighth straight victory, routinely (they're 11-0 at home) putting away the Chicago Bulls 110-100 as Forward Mark Aguirre, who had scored 42 points in L.A., added another 32. And so the Mavs ran their record to 13-4, and their Midwest Division lead to 3½ games over Denver. Even more impressive is that they're only a half game behind the champion 76ers in the overall standings. "If they ended the season now, I'd be delighted," said Dallas Coach Dick Motta.
Before the season, no one, including Motta, would have dreamed that the Mavericks would beat the Western Conference elite—the Lakers, the Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs—twice apiece in their first 16 games of the season. "When I looked at our early-season schedule, there was no way I saw us near .500," says Motta. "Now I think we should have had one more win [he was referring to a 100-98 loss to Houston just prior to the start of the winning streak]. I don't expect not to lose anymore, but I think this team is capable of continuing to win."
The Mavs definitely have learned how to cope with considerable adversity. Last year Dallas won only one of 31 games in which it trailed going into the fourth quarter. The Mavericks have won four of eight such games already this year, including their L.A. caper.
After going 15-67 in 1980-81, their inaugural season, the Mavericks improved to 28-54 in '81-82 and 38-44 last season. They did so with one of the youngest teams in the league and without a "true" center. Actually, they still don't have a "true" center; 6'9" Pat Cummings, who has manned the position since being acquired from Milwaukee before the 1982-83 season, is more of a "big forward" than anything else. "People can say what they want about our supposed lack of a center," says Cummings. "The way I see it. we're 13-4, so something good has to be happening."
Much of that good has resulted from the fact that Dallas now has a little depth. By starting guards Brad Davis and Rolando Blackman, Cummings and forwards Aguirre and Bill Garnett, Motta has the luxury of using Forward Jay Vincent—Dallas' leading scorer two seasons ago—as a sixth man. After missing five games early in the season with a torn right calf muscle, Vincent returned to find Garnett in his starting position. Jay was not overjoyed, but Garnett has filled the role popularized by the Lakers' Kurt Rambis and the Sixers' Mark Iavaroni—the blue-collar power forward who doesn't mind sacrificing stats for the good of the team. "I just think I'm a better player as a starter," says Vincent, who is averaging 11.4 ppg (down from 18.7 last season) in 22.9 minutes per game (down from 33.7). "I can recall a couple of seasons ago when Larry Bird was hurt and the Boston Celtics won 15 straight games without him. But when he was ready they put him back in the lineup."
The Mavericks have improved faster than just about any expansion team in any sport, and have done so by avoiding the expansionist's pitfall: the quick fix.
"The year before we came into the league [Vice-President and General Manager] Norm Sonju and I did a study of all the NBA expansion teams," says Rick Sund, Dallas' player personnel director. "If there was a common denominator it was that they all lost, meaning they subsequently got the first pick in the next draft. That was going to happen with us whether we won 10 games or 22. But in order to help our improvement along, we decided in that first year to trade anyone we could for first-round picks."
During the 1980-81 season Dallas dealt Mike Bratz, Jerome Whitehead, Richard Washington, Kiki Vandeweghe (its unsigned No. 1 choice) and Geoff Huston in return for five first-round picks. As of now, Dallas has five first-round and four second-round choices over the next two drafts, including Cleveland's No. 1 pick for the next three. It's easy to see why the Mavericks may soon be creating locker space for the likes of Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Akeem Olajuwon.
If and when those blue chips come aboard, Motta will be in a position to capitalize on his labors of the past couple of seasons, in which he probably did as fine a job of coaching as in his 50-victory seasons with the Chicago Bulls and with the Washington Bullets, NBA champions under Motta in 1977-78.
There was established talent up and down the rosters of both those teams. In Dallas, says Motta, "There wasn't any sort of role model whatsoever. Think about it. When we started out we had people like an immobile Tom LaGarde and Brad Davis," who had struggled throughout his NBA career. Davis was cut by the Lakers, toured around the Continental Basketball Association and now stands as the leading example of Motta's various reclamation projects. Says Motta, "I was a real bitch. If those guys came a minute late to practice, they paid the full fine, no excuses. When it was time to leave, if they were five feet away from the bus I closed the door."
No Maverick, perhaps no one in the NBA, has been ridden so hard as Aguirre has been by Motta. The first pick in the 1981-82 draft, Aguirre came to Dallas out of De-Paul with a reputation as a great talent but perhaps an even greater pain in the neck. To some extent, both the rep and the rap were borne out in his rookie season when a somewhat pudgy Aguirre averaged 18.7 points per game, all the while checking in and out of Motta's doghouse.
There were times when it seemed that Aguirre didn't care about his performance, either on the floor, where his pained facial expressions were sometimes construed as show-offish, or off the court, where he was just as likely to miss a personal appearance as make it.
"I thought that one of us would die before the season was through," says Motta. "I wondered if he'd ever grow up. More than once I convinced myself that we had drafted a loser, that he wouldn't make it with us. Now I know that Mark's a good kid. All it was was immaturity." Motta decided to crack down even harder on Aguirre last season. "I told him things you wouldn't say to a dog," says Motta.
In a November 1982 game against San Antonio, for example, reserve Forward Allan Bristow took exception to the lackadaisical manner in which Aguirre replaced him in the lineup. Motta upbraided Aguirre and Bristow for a full 30 seconds. Five months later, things hadn't changed. Against Milwaukee during the final seconds of a close game in which he had scored 35 points, Aguirre made the mistake of fouling the Bucks' Sidney Moncrief instead of Alton Lister, a poorer free-throw shooter. After Moncrief hit a pair to give the Bucks a cushion in an eventual 108-102 win, Motta chewed Aguirre out unmercifully.
To his credit, Aguirre took all the criticism in stride. "It was either that or be mediocre throughout my career, maybe even falling by the wayside," Aguirre says. "Things were tough, but I decided not to question anything Coach said or did, that everything that happened had to be for the better."
Things have gotten so much better this season that Motta says he has yet to raise his voice to Aguirre. Mark is averaging 28.7 points (third in the league) and 7.2 rebounds per game, and his glittering performances last week—39 points and seven rebounds against Houston, 42 points and seven rebounds against the Lakers and 32 points and seven rebounds against the Bulls—have become fairly commonplace.
"I don't really feel that I'm any different than in the past," says Aguirre. "Maybe I'm just more ready to handle and accept things. It takes a while to fit into the NBA and this system. I guess right now I just know what to do and when to do it. I'm in the flow."
And those picks are there, which means Dallas' destiny is darling.