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A New Sheriff in Big D

March 03, 2008
March 03, 2008

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March 3, 2008

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A New Sheriff in Big D

In hot pursuit of an NBA title, the Mavericks dealt for a new leader in Jason Kidd. But is he too old to tame the wild West?

THERE'S A kind ofreverse age discrimination going on in the NBA these days, which should come asno surprise in a league that allows a player who hasn't suited up in two yearsto be re-signed and thrown into a trade. Suddenly 35 is the new 25. The PhoenixSuns parted with 29-year-old Shawn Marion to land center Shaquille O'Neal, whoturns a creaky 36 on March 6. The Cleveland Cavaliers unloaded a pair oftwentysomethings (Larry Hughes, 29, and Drew Gooden, 26) to lay claim to centerBen Wallace, 33, forward Joe Smith, 32, and swingman Wally Szczerbiak, whoturns 31 on March 5 (page 32). The San Antonio Spurs hoped to bolster theirchances of repeating by acquiring 6'9" forward Kurt Thomas and point guardDamon Stoudamire, 35 and 34, respectively.

This is an article from the March 3, 2008 issue

But no franchisehas put more on the line in this Anti-Youth Movement than the Dallas Mavericks,who, a half-season after achieving the league's best record, are not onlyentrusting their offense to a new face but also reshaping their identity. In aseven-player swap on Feb. 19 they scraped the mold off all-but-retired forwardKeith Van Horn, 32, and sent him to New Jersey with their point guard of thefuture, 25-year-old Devin Harris, and an energetic shot blocker, 26-year-oldDeSagana Diop, to land a player who'll turn 35 before the playoffs. That thesenior citizen is Jason Kidd—he of the off-the-charts basketball IQ and 99career triple doubles—is hardly irrelevant, of course, but it doesn't diminishthe stakes for Dallas. Comedy is Van Horn getting $4.3 million essentially formoving to Jersey for a couple of months, a no-show gig that would havedelighted even Paulie Walnuts. No one, however, will be laughing in Big D ifthe trade doesn't deliver a title.

"We're outthere on this one, I'll admit that," says Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, now30 pounds and one building block lighter than he was last year at this time.The weight came off because of rehab for a hip replacement and the aerobic workhe did to prepare for Dancing with the Stars; Harris went away because Dallasfelt compelled to keep pace with the other dealmaking Western Conferencecontenders. A 6'3" blur who is a tough cover for the quickest guards,Harris is an avid charge-taker and a recognized stalwart in checking Spurspoint guard Tony Parker (who, by the way, says he is overjoyed that Harris bidbon voyage to the West, even if his replacement is a slam-dunk Hall ofFamer).

Still, the Mavs(37--19 and fifth in the West through Sunday) felt they needed a more vocalleader and a more seasoned playmaker, so they were willing to place theball—and their future—in Kidd's battle-tested hands. After watching forwardsDirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard battle fiercely to get their points, the teamwanted to get them easier scoring opportunities, both in the running game (inwhich Kidd excels) and in a half-court setting (where most playoff games arewon and lost). Moreover, Kidd's size (6'4", 210 pounds) and intensity makethe team stronger and more versatile on defense, and thus better equipped forswitching on the perimeter.

"This is thebiggest hit [financially] I've taken on a single trade ever," Cuban saidlast week. "Nothing even within shouting distance." He rubbed his facewith a towel after a one-hour aerobics workout at the team's hotel. "But ifI wanted to play it safe," he added with a smile, "I wouldn't be insports."

INTEGRATING KIDDwith two months to go in the regular season is a more delicate matter than,say, integrating O'Neal, a third or fourth option for the Suns whoseacquisition had more to do with bolstering their defense. But Kidd has made thetransition once before. Drafted by Dallas with the second pick in 1994, he wassent to Phoenix in December '96 in a package for Sam Cassell, Michael Finleyand A.C. Green. The Suns were 8--19 when Kidd arrived and went 32--23thereafter, though they never reached contender status before Kidd was dealt toNew Jersey in the summer of 2001.

The Mavs weren'texactly in bad straits before the deal, but they were running in place, and fewplayers have more ways to jump-start a team than Kidd. The hoariest of hoopschestnuts—he doesn't have to score to be effective—seemingly was coined forhim. Consider some of the things he did last Friday night in Dallas's 98--83win over the Grizzlies in Memphis:

• On a routinefirst-quarter foray up the court, Kidd noticed that Grizzlies point guard MikeConley Jr. was lollygagging with his dribble. So Kidd rushed to meet him,bodying up on Conley near midcourt and causing an eight-second violation(which, alas, went uncalled).

• In the secondquarter Memphis forward Hakim Warrick seemingly had a clear path to the basket,but Kidd suddenly materialized and knocked him off-balance with a hard shot tothe arm; Warrick missed both free throws. (Kidd manages to be physical withoutbeing considered dirty.)

• Minutes laterKidd noticed backcourt mate Jason Terry streaking to the basket from the rightside. He whiplashed a one-bounce pass that never rose more than a foot abovethe floor and landed directly in Terry's hands for a layup.

But it's not thespectacular passes that define Kidd. Swingman Jerry Stackhouse, in particular,should benefit from quick post-ups in the transition offense. Run up the wing,establish position and Kidd will float the ball toward you at precisely theright time. "We just haven't had anybody who sees as much as he sees,"says Stackhouse. "You might think, Aw, I'm not getting that pass. Well, nowyou are getting that pass. And you've got to be aware of it."

Baron Davis ofthe Golden State Warriors once said that his entire approach to the positionchanged after watching Kidd. "Jason always has his eyes up," saidDavis. "A lot of point guards, myself included, start dribbling and look uplater. Jason looks first and gets it upcourt with a pass."

Kidd's ability toget teammates an open look on the secondary break is nonpareil. He'll comesteaming down the middle, conclude that a fast-break basket is not possible,veer off to one side to lull the defense to sleep and suddenly snap a pass to aweakside trailer. Nowitzki isn't a runner, but he's bound to collect suchbaskets in bunches the rest of this season, as he did twice on Friday night.With 3:26 remaining in the third quarter, Kidd had collected as many assists(12) as any Mav had in an entire game this season.

"Jason iseven better than I expected," says Nowitzki. "A lot of players on thisteam pass the ball when you're open, but with Jason the ball's already on theway by the time you're open. He reads plays like nobody else."

Still, Kidd knowshe has some work to do before he's fully up to speed. During timeouts he andassistant coach Joe Prunty often conference, with Kidd retracing the X's andO's of a second or third option he's still unfamiliar with. Even on the courtKidd defers when the situation demands it. Last Friday he signaled forward JoshHoward to utilize a back pick he set, but Howard, aware that the action wastaking place on the weak side where Nowitzki was isolated, waved him off."We're playing catch-up here," Kidd says, "and there's not muchtime. I'm asking questions constantly, trying to get in all the guys' heads,listening to all the coaches, trying to learn on the fly."

Hey, it's one bighappy family. It usually is during the honeymoon period after a trade.(Szczerbiak would probably detail LeBron James's Hummer if asked, though oneday soon Wally World will wake up and realize that he's not getting any of thebig shots.) But a crucial aspect of the deal is how much autonomy coach AveryJohnson will give to Kidd. There is little doubt that the LittleGeneral—himself a former point guard, who won a championship with the Spurs in1999—was, to put it mildly, in Harris's ear. "Avery might've been good forDevin in the beginning," says an opposing coach who asked for anonymity,"but the kid had to get away from Dallas to really grow."

Johnson promisessome accommodation for Kidd, who is, after all, already in the pantheon of NBAquarterbacks. "I'm going to help him get through this [early] period,"says Johnson, "but I don't think I'll be screaming at him every play. Thereason we got Jason is because he knows what to do."

But this is aheadstrong point guard playing for a headstrong coach. "There aretimes," says Johnson, "I'm going to need him to manage this particularteam different than what he did in New Jersey.

"We thinkJason can actually get better," Johnson adds. "More than anything, hecan be a little more selfish on the offensive end, find his spots on the floorto score, post up now and then. And we're going to help him get to thatpoint."

At this stage inhis career Kidd is probably thinking, I'm pretty happy with the way I play,thank you very much. Scoring has always been third, fourth or fifth on histo-do list, and that was the case through his first three games as a Maverickwhen he took only 19 shots. Kidd's reluctance to shoot coupled with anuncertain perimeter touch (his 36.6% accuracy from the field might partlyexplain his reluctance to hoist) have resulted in some peculiar stat lines overthe years. His triple double totals are often all right around 10. And on ateam with scorers such as Nowitzki, Howard, Terry and Stackhouse, but withoutthe willing rebounding of Diop, Kidd could have a lot of four-point,11-rebound, 17-assist evenings. (He averaged 7.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 12.3assists in his first week with Dallas.)

Yet for all hisskills, Kidd comes with more than a little baggage. He has a rep for being aclubhouse lawyer: Myriad sources confirm that he chased coach Byron Scott outof New Jersey despite the Nets' making consecutive Finals appearances in 2002and '03. This season Kidd publicly asked to be traded in late January, neverexactly criticizing coach Lawrence Frank but never gathering him to his bosomeither. And that's not even touching on his off-court troubles: The Sunsunloaded Kidd six months after his arrest on a misdemeanor domestic abusecharge against his wife, Joumana. (Kidd pleaded guilty to spousal abuse, wasfined $200 and ordered to take anger management training.) Last summer the twowent through a very public and messy divorce, with allegations of spousal abusefrom both sides. And in December, Kidd was sued by a 23-year-old woman forallegedly groping and threatening her at a New York City nightclub. (The caseis pending.)

FOR NOW, though,the Mavs are only concerned with his comportment on the court. It wascompletely natural to see Kidd, in his first game for Dallas, stride tomidcourt for the captains' pregame meeting. Leading is second nature to him,which it is not for Nowitzki, the other co-captain by virtue of his being thetenured superstar. According to Peter Vecsey of the New York Post, Johnsonasked management to trade Nowitzki because he was dissatisfied with thereigning MVP's leadership, and the Kidd deal was more about finding a new teamleader than a new point guard. Various Mavs have issued denials, none morevociferously than Cuban. "Avery has never, ever come to me and asked me totrade a player," says Cuban. "And there has never been a discussionabout trading Dirk."

Still, the Poststory stung Nowitzki, who concedes that it isn't easy for an internationalplayer to become a team leader, saying, "There are little barriers you haveto deal with—cultural barriers, language barriers." (Asked if teammateshave bothered to learn any German, Nowitzki says, "Nothing beyondgesundheit.") "I've been trying to find my own way of leading," headds. "I don't give speeches. I say things when I feel them. But I try tolead by example. And two years ago that brought us all the way to the Finals,so it can't be too bad."

Not everyone inMavericks Nation feels that way, as Nowitzki knows. He took a lot of the blamefor Dallas's collapse in 2006 (when it led the Miami Heat two games to none andthen lost four straight in the Finals) and almost all the blame for lastseason's first-round loss to the eighth-seeded Warriors, the biggest playoffupset in NBA history. Should the Mavericks not reach the Finals this spring,the backlash from dealing Harris will be enormous and the team's window ofopportunity reduced to the size of a mail slot. Would the Mavs consider Kidd'sleadership reason enough to give him an extension on top of the $21.4 millionthat he's due next season in the final year of his contract? (The Nets said noto an extension last fall, leading to Kidd's ballyhooed one-game"strike" on Dec. 5.) And even if he gets a new deal, would Kidd andNowitzki, 29, be able to keep Dallas ahead of up-and-coming, younger titlehopefuls like the Los Angeles Lakers and the New Orleans Hornets?

But those areworries for the future. The one-man cavalry that has arrived at Nowitzki's doorfor this season's stretch run comes none too soon, for the competition hasnever been more intense. The Mavs hope it will be Kidd's play that gets them tothe Finals, but it sure won't be kid's play, not in the Western Conference,where at week's end the top nine teams were bunched within 5 1/2 games. So lookto Dallas, and to Phoenix, too, to see if those who are long in the tooth canlead the way, or if the West is indeed no country for old men.

"This is the BIGGEST HIT [financially] I've takenon a trade," says Cuban (left). "Nothing within shoutingdistance."
"The reason we got Jason," says Johnson(left), a former point guard, "is because he KNOWS WHAT TO DO."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Greg NelsonCATCH HIM IF YOU CAN Even if his teammates can't keep up when he pushes the ball, Kidd (2) is a master of creating opportunities on the secondary break.PHOTOBOB ROSATOTAKE OFFENSE Dallas believes that Kidd is capable of scoring more than he has and wants him to take more shots.PHOTOBOB ROSATO[See caption above]PHOTOBOB ROSATOFOLLOW ME Though a newcomer, Kidd (right) is ready to shoulder the leadership load with his co-captain, Nowitzki (41).PHOTOGREG NELSON[See caption above]