For Raef Lafrentz, there had already been a lot to deal with:
the unexpected news 21 hours earlier that he had been released
from the Mile High Penitentiary in Denver and sent to Dallas in
a seven-player trade; the foreign language of the Mavericks'
playbook, in which he noticed that what the Nuggets called
"2-up" was referred to as "fist"; and the irritating realization
that he had left his favorite hoops shoes back in Denver. Still,
after his first practice at American Airlines Center last Friday
afternoon, LaFrentz faced his greatest challenge: the
bewildering array of electronic gadgetry staring at him from his
oversized cubicle in the Mavericks' supersized locker room.
"Man," said LaFrentz, "there's a lot of stuff in there."
Welcome, Raef, to Team Wretched Excess. The Mavericks place a
high-definition TV, Sony PlayStation and DVD and VHS decks at
every player's fingertips. They provide fluffy white robes for
padding around in after games and practices. They have a pool
table, catered delicacies and a full workout room a few steps
from the high-tech lockers. And since acquiring LaFrentz, Nick
Van Exel, Avery Johnson and Tariq Abdul-Wahad for game but
limited forward Juwan Howard, game but limited guard Tim
Hardaway and just plain limited forward Donnell Harvey, they
possess a roster that can safely be described as an
embarrassment of riches.
Scorers? Dallas trots out more weapons than a Schwarzenegger
movie. Four players (Van Exel, Michael Finley, Steve Nash and
Dirk Nowitzki) were racking up more than 19 points a game at
week's end, and another, LaFrentz, averaged 14.5. Point guards?
They've got three worthy starters in Nash, Van Exel and Johnson.
Big people? They've got five "footers"--7-footers, give or take
an inch, in NBA parlance--in LaFrentz, Nowitzki, Evan Eschmeyer,
Wang Zhizhi and the Human Windmill, 7'6" Shawn Bradley. Mad
bombers? Coach Don Nelson could start a lineup (Nowitzki, Van
Exel, Nash, LaFrentz and Finley) that through Sunday had buried
a total of 419 threes. Global appeal? Nellie can send out
swingman Abdul-Wahad (from France), forward Eduardo Najera
(Mexico), Nash (Canada), Nowitzki (Germany) and Wang (China).
Buzz? While lesser teams such as the New York Knicks could get
nothing done by Thursday's trading deadline, Dallas, whose 39-17
record was third best in the NBA at week's end, improved by
plundering a putrid team. "The Mavs' management [read: Nelson
and owner Mark Cuban] keep coming at you and coming at you,"
says Boston Celtics general manager Chris Wallace, who was in
Dallas last Saturday to watch the new Mavericks whip the
league-leading Sacramento Kings 111-97. "What they got done at
this point in the season was simply amazing." The swap also got
the highly coveted Jerry West Stamp of Approval. Before pulling
the trigger, Nelson called the Los Angeles Lakers' former
personnel whiz and presented the scenario. West's response: You
are a moron of the first order if you don't make this deal.
From the Nuggets, Dallas got 21.4 points and 8.1 assists per
game from Van Exel; three-point shooting and an average of three
blocked shots from LaFrentz; a locker room leader in the
too-good-to-be-true Johnson, 35; and a hard-nosed slasher in the
6'6" Abdul-Wahad. It was also the perfect Cuban trade in that it
involved large piles of money. He threw in $1 million (as well
as a 2002 first-round draft pick) and--in picking up the bloated
contracts of Van Exel (four years remaining at $42.5 million),
Abdul-Wahad (five years, $34 million) and Johnson (two years,
$10.4 million)--faces a possible payout of $15 million if the
luxury tax kicks in. Plus, he has to re-sign LaFrentz, 25, who
will be a free agent after this season.
In their drive for the title--or, as Cuban calls it, "the quest
for the jewelry"--the Mavericks made a deal that essentially told
the rest of the league: We are bold. We are committed to winning.
Oh, yes, you'll need to score a ton of points if you want to beat
us. That message alone should make the trade a success despite
the following question marks:
--Who's on the floor? Many coaches would quiver at the prospect
of finding minutes for four players (Nash, Nowitzki, Finley and
Van Exel) who have been All-Stars and another, LaFrentz, who
could develop into one. In his 24 years as a coach, however,
Nelson has seldom relied on a set rotation, running players in
and out based on matchups and hunches and without regard to
position. That should keep the stars on their toes and the bench
players happy. "This situation would be a disaster for me," says
NBC commentator P.J. Carlesimo, a former NBA coach, "but it's
perfect for Nellie."
--How will they distribute the wealth? One game doth not a
pattern make, but the Mavericks had no problem sharing against
the Kings. Van Exel was particularly sacrificial, passing up
open looks and raising his arms in triumph whenever Nash (28
points), Nowitzki (26, to go with 21 rebounds) or Finley (15)
finished a play. With time running out in the third period, Van
Exel had the ball at the point for the final shot when Nellie's
directive came from the bench: Give it to Finley for the
clear-out. Van Exel did, then applauded with the rest of the
team as Finley drove and scored.
--What about a post-up guy? The NBA bible says you've got to
have a back-to-the-basket scorer to win a title. To some extent
the Mavericks had one in Howard, and they don't have one now.
"Raef has maybe this much of a low-post game," says Van Exel,
holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. Dallas did not
get LaFrentz with the hopes that his post-up game will blossom;
it got him to launch shots from the outside, a la the Teutonic
Tosser, Nowitzki. The Mavs want more heaving from long range,
not less. Is this a fun team or what?
--Dude, where's the defense? Other than Abdul-Wahad, who will
get scant minutes, the trade didn't upgrade the Mavericks' D.
"We allow a layup line on a consistent basis," says Nelson, who
usually opts for matchups that give his team a scoring edge
rather than a defensive one. (The 6'3" Nash, for instance, was
checking the 6'9" Peja Stojakovic for stretches of Saturday's
game.) "They still can't guard anybody," said Kings playmaker
Bobby Jackson, before adding, "Like us." That's the salient
point. The Los Angeles Lakers notwithstanding, the West isn't
loaded with stoppers, and the most potent offense may stand the
best chance of reaching the conference final. Dallas was the
league's highest-scoring team, with 104.9 points per game before
the trade, and that average will only go up.
--Will this team Ex-plode? On Jan. 8, before facing the Nuggets
in Dallas, Mavericks assistant coach Del Harris extended his
hand to Van Exel, who walked by without acknowledging it. For
four seasons beginning in '94-95 those two endured many an
acrimonious moment when Harris was coaching and Van Exel was
quarterbacking the successful but somewhat dysfunctional Lakers.
Any player who disses a peace offering from a gentleman like
Harris chalks up a hundred punk points on his life scorecard.
Yet Van Exel has always been ripped more by fans and the media
than by his peers. There are hard cases who can't play and who
don't care if they win, and there are hard cases who desperately
want to win and act churlish when they don't. Put Van Exel, 30,
squarely in the latter category. Though he was the Maverick most
upset by the trade of his Chicago homeboys, Howard and Hardaway,
Finley was quick to accept Van Exel. "Sometimes the bad side of
Nick comes out because he wants to win so much," he says. "But
when he gets around us, positive guys who are definitely going
to win, his attitude will not be a problem."
The word around the league was that any team that wanted
LaFrentz also had to take the Ex Man, who didn't hide his
disgruntlement in Denver and demanded to be dealt. The Mavericks
not only wanted Van Exel but also felt they needed him because
they're concerned that Nash is breaking down. Although he hasn't
missed a game, Nash has a strained right Achilles tendon and a
body that is sore all over. He plays like a dervish, darting,
weaving--and falling. His floor burns have floor burns. Whether
Van Exel plays with Nash or in place of him, the theory goes, he
will enhance Nash's effectiveness, not diminish it.
--Can they break through the purple-and-gold wall? So what else
could the Mavs have done to improve their chances of beating the
Lakers? Gone after a low-post player, such as the Seattle
SuperSonics' Vin Baker? Searched for the next Shaq? "If he's
anywhere," says Cuban, "he's in fifth grade." The consensus is
that the Mavericks have moved closer to the two-time defending
champs. "With both LaFrentz and Nowitzki on the floor," says
Minnesota Timberwolves veteran Sam Mitchell, "even the Lakers
are in trouble, because Shaquille will have to go outside to
It's a tad premature to proclaim that Los Angeles is quaking
over changes made by a team it has beaten 23 of 24 times over
the past seven seasons. But like a stubborn pastry chef who
insists that the best way to improve his creme pies is to add
more cream, Dallas pursued a strategy of strengthening its
strengths. "It is impossible to have too many good offensive
players," says Johnson. "The key is for those players to
understand there are going to be nights when their individual
numbers will be down. Do we have that here?"
He tied the belt around his fluffy robe and looked around the
star-studded room. "I absolutely guarantee it."