4 Dallas Mavericks For all the fun in run-and-gun, the Mavs learned that there's no substitute for strong defense. Can these guys get serious about clamping down?

October 28, 2002

It's easy to forget that Don Nelson, the mad scientist of
offensive strategy, began his coaching career with the Bucks
emphasizing defense. Milwaukee ranked as the top defensive team
in the league from 1980-81 through '85-86, based on opponents'
field goal percentage. "Coaches should spend more time on
defense than offense," says a born-again Nelson. "On offense you
want your players to feel free to play, but on defense you want
them to really zero in."

It's back to basics for the 62-year-old Nelson as he enters the
final coaching season of his contract. Against the Kings in the
second round last spring the high-octane Mavericks came up short
because of their failure to produce fourth-quarter defensive
stops. So Nelson shelved the offensive playbook for the first
week of training camp, a change his players welcomed. "We're not
a team of defensive stoppers," says point guard Steve Nash, "but
we can be a good defensive team."

That depends mostly on the play of the Dallas big men. One
promising sign is the rejuvenation of 7'6" center Shawn Bradley,
who was out of shape last season and started just 16 games. He
spent the summer working out in Dallas and is in the best
condition of his career. His return to the starter's job will
allow Nelson to shift 6'11" Raef LaFrentz--who arrived through a
trade last February--to power forward. Their shot-blocking
prowess should liberate 7-foot small forward Dirk Nowitzki and
6'6" shooting guard Michael Finley to play tighter defense
against smaller, quicker scorers. "Our rotations as a team have
to be sharper," says Nowitzki. "If my man beats me, then I've
got to know my teammate is coming to help me and that somebody
else is coming over to help the helper."

It won't be easy to maintain defensive continuity because Nelson
likes to juggle his lineup from game to game, taking advantage
of the Mavs' depth and versatility. While a number of the subs
are skilled defenders, the starters must set the defensive
standard if Dallas is to contend for a title.

No one has embraced the new approach more than Finley, 29, who
focused on defense this summer while training with the U.S. team
and playing pickup games in his hometown of Chicago. "He's not a
good defender, but he's working as hard as anybody," says
Nelson. Finley hopes to pattern himself after Larry Bird, who
wasn't skilled enough to be a stopper but who knew how to play
effective team defense. "Bird worked hard at defense, and his
team was successful," Finley says. "After the playoffs last
season I realized that I had to become a better defender
individually and bring that same mind-set to the team."

It won't be easy to change the culture, but the Mavs have no
other option. "We need to concentrate on defense over the long
haul," says Nash, "and not just be cramming for the final exam."
If by midseason they've reverted to outgunning opponents, you
can write them off as challengers to the Lakers, the Kings and
the Spurs. --I.T.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH DRIVING AMBITION No scoring slouch, Finley spent his off-season working toward a more well-rounded game.

FAST FACT
In 2001-02 the Mavericks set a record for fewest turnovers;
their average of 12.1 lowered the '96-97 Pistons' mark of 12.7.

ENEMY LINES
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Mavericks

"I see them improving just because Dirk Nowitzki keeps getting
better. You can't stop him--he can score inside and out--so you
just ask your defender to be physical with him and not give him
any open shots.... I'm a big fan of Michael Finley. He's the
third star there, behind Nowitzki and Steve Nash, but it has to
be awkward for him because there's always talk about him being
traded. He doesn't complain and he continues to act as a
leader.... Don Nelson does a great job of explaining things to
his players and keeping them aware of their roles. It looks like
he's gotten Nick Van Exel to accept coming off the bench.... The
Mavs are loaded when it comes to making last-second plays. They
can put Finley, Nash, Nowitzki, Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz out
there, knowing each guy's got experience at hitting a
game-winning shot.... I don't think the Mavericks can change
their identity and become a defensive team. Their up-and-down
style leaves them unbalanced; they're always going to give up
easy baskets because of the way they play offense. When they
were having trouble on defense in the preseason, they were
switching to a zone. If they were sincere about getting tougher
on defense, they would stick with man-to-man and force their
guys to play it--even if it means embarrassing them.... There
aren't any quick fixes. The most important thing for Dallas is
to stop making trades and see if the core players can grow
together over time.... It's going to come down to playing hard
defense on crucial possessions, and those key plays aren't going
to be decided by the coaching staff. The players have to decide
whether they're committed. It's a moot point anyway. Unless Shaq
gets hurt, there's no way the Mavericks are beating the Lakers."

DEFENSIVE RATINGS

Tough D
NASH

Fair D
LAFRENTZ
BRADLEY
FINLEY

No D
NOWITZKI

[BOX]

PROJECTED LINEUP
2001-02 record: 57-25 (second in Midwest)
Points scored: 105.2 (1st) Points allowed: 101.0 (28th)
Coach: Don Nelson (sixth season with Mavericks)

STARTERS PVR* 2001-02 KEY STATS

SF Dirk Nowitzki 8 23.4 ppg 9.9 rpg 1.01 bpg 47.7 FG% 39.7 3FG%
PF Raef LaFrentz 45 13.5 ppg 7.4 rpg 2.73 bpg 45.8 FG% 38.8 3FG%
C Shawn Bradley 194 4.1 ppg 3.3 rpg 1.21 bpg 47.9 FG% 92.2 FT%
SG Michael Finley 28 20.6 ppg 5.2 rpg 3.3 apg 0.94 spg 46.3 FG%
PG Steve Nash 35 17.9 ppg 3.1 rpg 7.7 apg 48.3 FG% 45.5 3FG%

BENCH PVR* 2001-02 KEY STATS

G Nick Van Exel 88 18.4 ppg 3.5 rpg 6.6 apg 40.9 FG% 34.0 3FG%
G-F Adrian Griffin 176 7.2 ppg 3.9 rpg 1.8 apg 1.29 spg 49.9 FG%
G-F Walt
Williams[1] 203 9.4 ppg 3.4 rpg 1.4 apg 41.9 FG% 42.6 3FG%
F Popeye Jones[1]240 7.0 ppg 7.3 rpg 1.6 apg 0.63 spg 43.7 FG%
F Eduardo Najera 273 6.5 ppg 5.5 rpg 0.6 apg 0.90 spg 50.0 FG%

[1] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college season)
* PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 92)

I DON'T SEE THEM CHANGING THEIR IDENTITY. THEY WILL ALWAYS GIVE
UP EASY BASKETS.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)