Three's a Crowd The high-scoring Mavericks are reeling off wins, but with too many power forwards and too little D, do they really have a shot at the title?

February 02, 2004

The love is so thick in the Dallas Mavericks' locker room these
days you can cut it with Shawn Bradley's femur. Ask Dirk Nowitzki
how he feels about sacrificing so much of his offensive game, and
he'll tell you that Antawn Jamison is the real hero for accepting
a sixth-man role. Ask Jamison about coming off the bench, and
he'll talk about Michael Finley's leadership. Ask Finley about
his positive influence, and he'll talk about Antoine Walker's
unselfishness. Ask Walker about his magnanimity, and he'll talk
about how he studies the moves of Steve Nash, the All-Star point
guard whose position he sometimes assumes.

Yes, it's clear that the Mavs, armed with more shooters than an
NRA convention, including newcomers Walker and Jamison, want to
convince the skeptics--and perhaps themselves--that you can't
have too much of a good thing. Halfway through this season, have
the Western Conference finalists from 2002-03 accomplished that?

"With all the weapons they have, they are a very, very scary
team," says Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Frank Hamblen.
"They're better than last year."

"They're not that good, and I don't think they're going as far as
they did last season," says the Lakers' head coach, Phil Jackson.

Well, there you have it. The diametrically opposite views of two
coaches from the same organization underscore the divergent
opinions about the Mavericks, who at week's end had won eight
straight, including a 108-99 home victory over the Sacramento
Kings on Sunday, a wild shootout that Dallas ended with an 11-2
run. From the start of the season players, coaches and owner Mark
Cuban have tossed around phrases like we've still got a ways to
go and work in progress, sounding as though they were describing
an intricate building project in downtown Dallas. Which, in a
way, they were. But the streak suggests to some--certainly to the
Mavs--that construction is proceeding apace, and that this
trigger-happy bunch (28-16 at week's end) is ready to resume its
place among the Western superpowers.

Sunday's win aside, the weight of evidence lies with the
Jacksonian view, though Dallas (like Sacramento) deserves high
praise for playing up-tempo hoops in a league stuck in first
gear. On paper--a phrase used frequently when discussing the
Mavs--the addition of 6'9" forwards Walker and Jamison should
more than compensate for the loss of backup point guard Nick Van
Exel. (That was the net effect of two blockbuster transactions
Dallas made before the season.) But the personnel changes have
exacted a price, most notably a reduction in the effectiveness of
the Mavs' best player, Nowitzki, who, like Walker and Jamison,
plays power forward. Adding the latter two players was tantamount
to trying to upgrade a supermarket by stocking the shelves with
more of the same product, high-quality though it might be.

Moreover, Van Exel was the team's Tasmanian devil, a fearless
competitor who gave a hard edge (particularly in last year's
playoffs) to a team overloaded with nice guys. Jamison, who came
from Golden State, collects figurines of angels; he has more than
100 of them, his favorite being a mother angel watching over her
child. Van Exel, now a Warrior, collects scalps. "There is no one
on our team right now with Nick's competitive temperament," says
swingman Finley.

There is also the issue of how change has affected Dallas's
defense, which can be described in one word. That word is sucks.
Last season Allas (ongoing joke--the team has no D) was actually
a middle-of-the-pack defensive team that made spot adjustments in
its zone and got solid defense from role players such as Adrian
Griffin and Raja Bell, both now departed, and rugged forward
Eduardo Najera, who has been out for three weeks (and counting)
with a sore left knee. Through Sunday the Mavs ranked 28th in
points allowed (99.6) and 26th in opponents' field goal
percentage (45.2) and had all but given up playing down-and-dirty
man-to-man, a staple of title teams.

Most of the time the Mavericks can be found, like your average
high school team, in a 2-3 zone, sliding their feet and keeping
their hands up, unable to zero in on open shooters or lock down
intruders in the lane. "Change requires time on defense," Nash
said after a practice last week, "so we've had to stay really
basic. Also, if you're relied on to be a scorer, you can't always
be relied on to do the defensive dirty work." He smiled and
scooped a chunk of pineapple into his mouth. "Plus, we're not
exactly loaded with stoppers." (To address that, president of
basketball operations Donn Nelson talked to the Portland Trail
Blazers last month about 6'11" Rasheed Wallace, who, just by
showing up, would have become the Mavs' best defender. Talks
never got beyond the preliminary stage.)

Whether you're in awe of their firepower or disdainful of their
softness, the Mavericks are always entertaining. The face of the
franchise continues to be Cuban, utterly comfortable in tight
blue jeans and dark-blue Mavericks pullover, the rock-star-owner
livery he wore to the United Center in Chicago last Friday. It
was a homecoming for both Finley and Walker, but it's a safe bet
that Cuban signed more autographs than they did before and after
Dallas routed the Bulls 106-93. Give the man credit for having
some restraint though: When Dennis Rodman, a Cuban experiment
that failed spectacularly during the 1999-2000 season, came out
of retirement last month to join the Long Beach Jam of the
American Basketball Association, Cuban didn't pick up the phone.

If the Plethora of Power Forwards Plan fails, the ax will not,
needless to say, fall on Cuban, who worked on the deals with both
Nelsons (coach Don and son Donn, who is also one of his father's
on-the-bench assistants). Will Cuban can Nellie? is a question
that never goes away in Dallas, and the answer is, Eventually. In
the NBA everyone gets fired except owners, P.A. announcers who
scream too much and Phil Jackson. But the more interesting
questions are these: How does a 63-year-old brook the meddling of
an assertive dotcom billionaire? And has their recent
coconspiring brought the Mavs closer to a title?

Theirs is indeed a simmering teapot of a relationship that
sometimes boils over. Cuban is an eternal baiter; earlier this
season he suggested that Nelson does not emphasize defense enough
at practice. Nelson didn't appreciate the remark, but neither did
he overreact, for if there's one thing you learn after 40 years
in the business, it's who signs the checks. What Cuban and Nelson
share is a renegade streak, a compulsion to toss chocolate
jimmies onto the poached salmon. You say a team needs
complementary parts to succeed? Cuban and Nellie will load up on
shoot-first offensive types and win that way. The term Cuban
constantly uses when he talks about Nelson is open-minded. What
Nellie says about Cuban is, "He keeps me young." Cuban, for his
part, helps keep young with Grecian Formula, a mandate from his
wife, Tiffany.

The owner and the coach will share a hearty laugh if, come
spring, Nellie has reached the Finals simply by opening the
offensive spigots at full blast, as he did on Sunday against the
Kings, the team with the league's best record. Here's what will
have to happen for the Mavs to achieve that:

--Walker will help overcome Dallas's rebounding weaknesses by
drawing opposing big men away from the basket with his
playmaking, peering over the D. "With Steve in there, I'm going
to open spaces for a jumper," says Finley. "But with Antoine, I'm
taking chances, looking for lobs and back cuts." Determined to
show he's more than a shotaholic, Walker shed 30 pounds with the
help of Tim Grover, Michael Jordan's Chicago-based trainer. At
225, the eighth-year pro is finally svelte, and that's got to
make him more effective.

--Nash's diminished role as a ball handler will, in Nowitzki's
words, "keep Steve in one piece." Walker's forays at point
forward will buy precious downtime for a guy whose high-energy
style sometimes has him worn out by the postseason.

--Jamison will continue to provide instant offense. A 52.0%
shooter from the floor, he's especially effective alongside
Dallas's gunners because he cleans up on putbacks and doesn't
need plays called for him to score. "Sometimes I think the ball
has a nose for him," says Nash of Jamison, who was averaging 15.7
points through Sunday.

--The we'll-show-'em attitude of the Mavs will provide an
intangible edge. The veterans have welcomed Walker and Jamison
into the fold and desperately want to show that, as with an
amateur comedian on open mike night, there's no such thing as
being too offensive. "Hopefully the positive feelings that we
have for each other will be the key to overcoming the
imperfections this team has on paper," says Nash.

Hoping won't make it happen, though, largely for a reason Nash
concedes: "It's difficult to make three guys who play the same
position fit on the court, especially when they're all at their
best with the ball." Walker is without a doubt a gifted
passer--"a poor man's Magic Johnson," Nelson calls him, with some
exaggeration--but when he's at point forward, he's a guy who
pounds the ball with his back to the basket, a shot-clock killer
in an offense that has thrived on movement and fluidity.

Then, too, the more the ball is in Walker's hands, the less it is
in the grasp of Nowitzki, "a dangerous cat," as Blazers veteran
Dale Davis calls him. Forced to play center, Nowitzki doesn't
assert himself as he once did. You want that to happen to your
most dangerous cat? But that probably won't change because Walker
has always been, as one Western Conference coach puts it, "a guy
you've got to keep happy."

A major reason Nowitzki's stock had risen so high over the past
few seasons was his deadly effectiveness on pick-and-rolls with
Nash. If Nash's smaller defender switched, the 7-foot Nowitzki
could take him to the hole or shoot over him; if a big man
stayed, Nowitzki would beat him with quickness. But as Nowitzki
points out, "It doesn't make sense for me to run it with Antoine
because we're both the same size." Nash says his pick-and-roll
with Nowitzki "will still be our bread and butter" come playoff
time, but if they're not running it enough during the season--and
they're not now--it's going to be more like an underdone hors
d'oeuvre.

Still, all the Mavs seem to be feasting now, Sunday's victory
seemingly a further validation of their offensive dynamic. But it
says here that the makeover was risky, that they have only
applied a lustrous sheen to cover up flaws. Exactly, come to
think of it, what Grecian Formula does.

THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH POWER SURPLUS Main man Nowitzki (41) has been squeezed out of his comfort zone by the arrival of Jamison (33) and Walker (8). COLOR PHOTO: GREG NELSON COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (NELSON) RARE PAIR For now, Cuban (right) is in Nellie's corner. COLOR PHOTO: DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES [See caption above]

SPREADING THE WEALTH

At week's end each of the Mavericks' top five players was
averaging fewer field goal attempts than last year, though the
team's 88.1 tries per game led the NBA by 5.9 and were the most
since the 1999-2000 Kings hoisted 88.9. And while Dallas had
upped its average from 102.4 points in 2002-03 to a league-high
103.0, each of the fab five was scoring at a lower rate. --David
Sabino
'02-03 FGA '03-04 FGA '02-03 PPG '03-04 PPG

Dirk Nowitzki 18.6 16.4 25.1 20.7
Michael Finley 17.3 15.7 19.3 18.0
Antoine Walker* 19.9 16.0 20.1 16.1
Antawn Jamison+ 17.9 12.2 22.2 15.7
Steve Nash 13.6 11.0 17.7 14.1

*2002-03 stats with Boston
+2002-03 stats with Golden State

Cuban and Nelson share a RENEGADE STREAK, a compulsion to toss
chocolate jimmies onto the poached salmon.

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)