How bad have the Mavericks been this decade? Zero winning seasons
since 1989-90. Zero playoff appearances. A winning percentage of
.282, which ranks last in the NBA (expansion teams excluded).
Even owner Ross Perot Jr. would have to admit that the giant
sucking sound in Texas this decade has often emanated from
Relief isn't likely to arrive for Dallas in 1999-2000 either.
After winding up fifth in the Midwest Division last season, the
Mavs needed to improve during the summer. Instead, general
manager-coach Don Nelson, caught in a salary-cap crunch, lost
promising frontcourt player Samaki Walker to free agency, and
neither of his two draft picks will be on the opening-game
roster. As guard Michael Finley says, "The West looks even
tougher this year. It's not getting any easier for us."
The Mavericks can take heart in a few positive signs. Last year
they beat the Spurs, Timberwolves and Rockets down the stretch
and had their first winning season at Reunion (15-10) in nine
years. If point guard Steve Nash can bounce back from a horrid
season and promising second-year player Dirk Nowitzki can build
on his credible late-season play, Dallas might make a run at
respectability, if not the playoffs.
More likely, though, the Mavericks will struggle early as they
hit the road for 13 of their first 19 games. That slow start, in
turn, will cost Don Nelson his job, and a re-re-rebuilding phase
in Big D will begin. Nelson has refrained this year from making
any bold predictions about the Mavs' postseason chances. "I made
that mistake last year," he says. "I'm not going to do it again."
Nelson will point out, though, that for the Mavs to have any
chance, Finley and forward Gary Trent must shoulder the scoring
load. Last year Finley was the only NBA guard to average more
than 20 points and five rebounds, despite a sluggish start. "I
was trying to get other guys involved instead of relying on my
own game," says Finley, who missed part of the preseason with a
right heel injury. "This year I realize that Gary and I have to
be the go-to guys if we're going to beat the good teams."
Like Finley, Trent started slowly--but only because Nelson had him
at the end of the bench. Once he forced himself into the lineup
with his strong play during spot duty, Trent wound up raising his
scoring and rebound averages for the fourth time in his four
seasons. So badly did Nelson want to re-sign Trent, who played in
1998-99 for the $1 million exception, that he sent Trent and five
members of Trent's family on an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii
after the season ("to scratch his belly and let him know we love
him," said Nelson, who went along on the jaunt). The NBA ruled
the gift a violation of the salary cap and fined the Mavericks
$25,000, but they got their man. Trent spurned a reported
three-year, $12 million offer from the Sonics to sign a two-year,
$4.2 million deal with Dallas.
Setting up Finley and Trent (who will miss two to four weeks with
a torn left hamstring) will be Nash, who Dallas hopes can become
the playmaker it envisioned when it acquired him from the Suns
before the 1998-99 season. After receiving a six-year, $33
million contract extension, Nash proceeded to shoot an atrocious
36.3% and was replaced in crunch time by journeyman Robert Pack.
To Nash's credit he refused to use injuries as an excuse, even
though he was bothered early in the season by plantar fasciatis
in his right foot and throughout the year by a lower back strain.
"I just played like a wuss," Nash says. "I didn't take the ball
and do what I wanted with it." Apparently his approach is
changing. Last summer Nash, who grew up in Victoria, B.C., led
the Canadian team to an unexpected second-place finish behind the
U.S. at an Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico, earning
tournament MVP honors and a spot for Canada in Sydney.
If Nash needs any proof that dramatic turnarounds are possible he
need only look at Nowitzki. Hailed as a Rookie of the Year
candidate by Nelson before the preseason last year, the
wunderkind with the slender 6'11" frame and small-forward skills
struggled under the weight of expectations and his inability to
handle the pounding at power forward. Worn out from playing
consecutive seasons without a break for the Wurzburg X-Rays in
his native Germany and the Mavericks, he wound up spending long
stretches on the bench. "I just fell into a hole and didn't know
how to get out," Nowitzki says.
Given a second chance late in the season, Nowitzki made the most
of it. Playing mostly small forward, where he could employ his
face-up moves and not have to worry about the banging, he
flourished. In a six-game surge he averaged 16.8 points on 56.1%
shooting with 5.5 rebounds in 38.5 minutes. Now stronger after a
summer of weight training, Nowitzki could thrive as the Mavs'
sixth man, particularly with the league's cracking down on
physical play. "He's like a veteran now," Nelson says. "He knows
what he's doing."
Unfortunately for Dallas fans, the same can't always be said of
Nelson. Last year, in addition to lavishing a huge contract on
the unproven Nash, he signed journeyman center John (Hot Rod)
Williams to a three-year, $5.8 million deal. Williams, 37,
averaged 1.2 points on 33.3% shooting. On draft day in June,
Nelson acquired the No. 29 pick, 6'10" Leon Smith from Martin
Luther King High in Chicago, who stormed out of practice on his
first day of rookie camp and could be headed to the CBA for
seasoning. With a second-round choice Nellie took center Wang
Zhi-Zhi, whom the Chinese basketball association won't release to
play this season in the U.S. For Dallas, the millennium can't
come soon enough.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO High hopes? For Mavs fans, optimism means rooting for Nowitzki to excel as a sixth man.
STARTING FIVE [2 1/2 stars]
BENCH [2 stars]
COACH [2 stars]
FRONT OFFICE [2 stars]
CHEMISTRY [3 stars]
By the Numbers
1998-99 record: 19-31 (11th in Western Conference)
Coach: Don Nelson (third season with Mavericks)
1998-99 PER GAME POINTS FG% REBOUNDS TURNOVERS
AVERAGES (rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)
MAVERICKS 91.6 (15) 43.4 (18) 42.5 (12) 13.8 (4)
OPPONENTS 94.0 (21) 45.0 (22) 43.6 (26) 14.0 (25)
The Mavericks have the longest current playoff drought, having
missed the postseason for nine years. The Clippers hold the
record by failing to make the playoffs in 15 straight seasons,
from 1976-77 to 1990-91.
STARTERS PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS
SF Cedric Ceballos 82 12.5 ppg 6.5 rpg 0.9 apg 42.1 FG%
Missed 37 games last season after breaking both wrists
PF Gary Trent 53 16.0 ppg 7.8 rpg 1.7 apg 47.7 FG%
Shot 47.7% in 1,360 minutes in 1997-98, 47.7% in 1,362 in 1998-99
C Shawn Bradley 95 8.6 ppg 8.0 rpg 48.0 FG% 3.24 bpg
Has averaged at least three blocks per game in each of his six
SG Michael Finley 16 20.2 ppg 5.3 rpg 4.4 apg 44.4 FG%
Fourth Maverick to average 20 points in back-to-back years
PG Steve Nash 128 7.9 ppg 2.9 rpg 5.5 apg 36.3 FG%
Only one of six natives of Africa in NBA last year under 6'8"
BENCH PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS
F Dirk Nowitzki 110 8.2 ppg 3.4 rpg 1.0 apg 40.5 FG%
Mother, Helga, was a star of West Germany's basketball team
G Hubert Davis 164 9.1 ppg 1.7 rpg 1.8 apg 43.8 FG%
Better from beyond arc (45.1%) than from inside it (43.1%) in
G Robert Pack 184 8.9 ppg 1.4 rpg 3.2 apg 43.1 FG%
Hasn't played in as many as 60 games in a season since 1993-94
G Erick Strickland 279 7.5 ppg 2.5 rpg 1.9 apg 40.3 FG%
Hit .263 in 59 games as Florida Marlins farmhand from 1992 to
C Sean Rooks[#] 293 2.7 ppg 2.0 rpg 0.3 apg 40.5 FG%
Second go-around in Dallas comes after trade from Lakers for
[#]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 102)