THE MAVERICKS had averaged 55.5 wins over the four seasons before 2003-04, yet owner Mark Cuban knew they couldn't overtake the Spurs without improving his franchise's roster and payroll flexibility. That is why he heeded some old advice from former Dallas player-development guru and current Nuggets G.M. Kiki Vandweghe before letting the Suns sign MVP-to-be Steve Nash to a six-year, $60 million deal two summers ago. Explains Cuban, "Kiki told me when I first started: The worst thing is to wake up one morning and be an old, injury-prone and expensive 40-win team."
With their $93.7 million payroll, second only to the Knicks' $125.5 million, the Mavs are still expensive. And Nash did manhandle his old team last May in the second round of the playoffs, which Phoenix won in six games. But they've also pulled off the hardest trick for an NBA contender: overhauling the roster without plummeting into the lottery netherworld. In fact, after winning 58 games last season, the Mavs (27-10 through Sunday) are again challenging San Antonio (28-9) for the best record in the West. "We know what we're capable of," says point guard Devin Harris, "and that's to win a championship."
Brash words from a 22-year-old, but Harris has earned the right to speak them, having hastened the transition from the Nash era with his strong sophomore season. Backing up Jason Terry, the 6'3" Harris was averaging 10.9 points and 3.3 assists while shooting 46.1% at week's end. He erupted for 20 points in the fourth quarter of a November win over the Spurs, and USA Basketball has already identified him as a potential candidate for the national team after the 2008 Olympics. "I don't think there is any reason why he and Tony Parker can't be All-Star peers for a lot of years," says Cuban.
Team president Donnie Nelson thought so highly of Harris that at the 2004 draft, Dallas shipped Antawn Jamison, the league's reigning Sixth Man Award winner, to the Wizards for Jerry Stackhouse, Christian Laettner and the No. 5 pick, which it used on Harris. Though he ran a slowdown offense at Wisconsin, Harris has adapted so quickly to the Mavs' up-tempo attack that coach Avery Johnson has entrusted him to run the point in crunch time, thus freeing up Terry as a scorer. With his speed and wingspan, Harris is showing signs of becoming an excellent defender too. Of his ability to keep opponents from penetrating, assistant coach Del Harris says, "He's deceptively strong. In that regard he's like John Stockton."
Harris is only one example of the Mavs' knack for mining and developing young talent. In 2003 they took 6'7" Josh Howard with the final pick of the first round and signed 6'6" Marquis Daniels as an undrafted free agent; in addition to their ability to run the floor, both players have significantly upgraded Dallas's defense on the wings. Slimmed-down backup center DeSagana Diop, 24, who was signed as a low-cost free agent after four invisible years with the Cavaliers, has provided shot blocking and rebounding as Erick Dampier's backup. "At each position we've got a veteran and a younger guy who's learning the ropes," says Nelson, whose player-development staff also sees potential in inexperienced big men Didier Ilunga-Mbenga, Josh Powell and 7'5" Pavel Podkolzin, all of whom are under the age of 26.
The wealth of young talent has also helped curb the worst excesses of Cuban, who swears that he's learning to be less extravagant. "In the past when I was told, 'This guy would put us over the top,' I wanted so badly to win, I would go for it," he says. "Now three or four over-the-tops-not-happening later, I've learned that we are better served having roster and financial flexibility."
At the very least the Mavericks have the right pieces to fit with Dirk Nowitzki. "We didn't want Dirk playing his last couple of years and winning 20 games and playing with a bunch of 21- and 22-year-olds," says Nelson. On the contrary, it appears that Dallas has found a winning formula for years to come.
Familiarity Breeds Success
Early in the season Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan experimented with the youngest starting backcourt in league history. But shooting guard Martell Webster, 19, struggled from the field, and point guard Sebastian Telfair, 20, was sidelined by a sprained right thumb. So in mid-December, McMillan turned to the familiar combo of Juan Dixon and Steve Blake, who were Wizards teammates for two years after leading Maryland to the 2002 national title. "They know how to play off one another no different than a quarterback and receiver," says McMillan. "There are not a lot of guards who are in sync with each other on the floor the way they are, and it's a beautiful thing to see."
Portland didn't foresee the two free agents assuming such significant roles. In August the Blazers signed Dixon to a three-year, $7.5 million contract to provide scoring and backcourt leadership. A month later Blake signed a two-year, $2.1 million deal to be the third point guard alongside Telfair and rookie Jarrett Jack. After getting off to slow starts, Blake and Dixon joined the starting lineup in a Dec. 18 win against Washington. Since then they've brought stability and energy to the league's second-youngest team, averaging a combined 27.2 points, 8.8 assists and just 3.2 turnovers through Sunday. Portland, which had been scoring 86.1 points per game before Dec. 18, is averaging 92.0 since then.
Both guards are 6'3" playmakers eager to prove that they can be long-term starters. "We both enjoy playing scrappy basketball, and we have good chemistry," says Dixon. "Hopefully that will rub off on the other guys."
On Ben Gordon (right), last year's Sixth Man Award winner, who was averaging 14.4 points at week's end but shooting only 40.2% for the struggling Bulls:
"Apparently he wants to be a starter, but they can't afford to start him because he can't stay on the floor. He gets into foul trouble because he isn't anticipating what might happen, he doesn't move his feet, and he gets caught reaching to make up for it. Plus he'll pick up at least one offensive foul because he attacks the basket when his jump shot isn't going down. The last thing they want is to lose him at the end of the game, when he can make the biggest difference with his scoring. He should be careful about asking for a trade, because now he's on a team that's willing to live with his deficiencies as a ball handler and a defender."