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MIDWEST: 13 DALLAS Mavericks
Marty Burns
November 01, 1999
Little talent, no draft help. So it goes in Big D, where the rebuilding is perpetual
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November 01, 1999

Midwest: 13 Dallas Mavericks

Little talent, no draft help. So it goes in Big D, where the rebuilding is perpetual

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By the Numbers

1998-99 record: 19-31 (11th in Western Conference) Coach: Don Nelson (third season with Mavericks)

1998-99 PER GAME AVERAGES

POINT (rank)

FG% (rank)

REBOUNDS (rank)

TURNOVERS (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)

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 Reunion Arena.

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 W�rzburg 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.

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