Despite all these travails, the Suns have remained in playoff contention. Through Sunday they were 30-21, in eighth place in the powerful West but only 3� games out of the fourth spot and home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs. They have been aided by the emergence of 6'7" second-year forward Shawn Marion, the team's leading re-bounder, who last week scored career highs of 28 and 38 points in successive games, and by the rapid development of 21-year-old rookie center Jake Tsakalidis, the 25th pick of the first round, who joined Phoenix after a contentious arbitration hearing with his previous club in Greece. Colangelo says the 7'2", 285-pound Tsakalidis could become the first dominating center the Suns have had in their 33 years.
Skiles believes his players deserve credit for what they've done on the court, if not for their behavior off it. "I keep hearing, 'How can Sacramento win games without Chris Webber?' " he says, referring to Webber's recent absence because of a sprained left ankle. "But here we are, doing what we're doing without Penny and Googs, two guys from the Olympic team. I think that people are selling my guys short."
The Mavericks' Coaches
Vindication for Both Nelsons
As of Sunday, Donnie Nelson was scheduled to hand back the keys to his father on Tuesday, proud that he hadn't put so much as a dent in the family car. When 60-year-old Don Nelson left the team on Dec. 30 to undergo surgery for prostate cancer, the Mavericks were 20-12 (.625). At week's end Dallas was 13-8 (.619) under interim coach Donnie Nelson. "I didn't want to make him feel he had to hurry up the healing process and get back to save the ship," says the 38-year-old Nelson.
The proof of Donnie's success is that his players took responsibility for making sure the team stayed on track, an attitude every NBA coach hopes to instill. All-Star forward Michael Finley, in particular, became a leader. When the Mavericks went to the locker room trailing the Hawks 50-36 at halftime on Feb. 5, Finley uncharacteristically excoriated his teammates while Nelson and his staff sat in their office trying to listen through a cement wall. Dallas rallied to win the game.
No one should doubt Donnie's coaching credentials. He created the game plan that Lithuania used to nearly upset the Dream Team in Sydney. His time in charge of the Mavericks has helped remind G.M.'s that Nelson was one of the league's most coveted assistants until January 1998, when he left the Suns' bench to join his father in Dallas with the understanding that he would succeed his dad. The reputations of both Nelsons were tarred as the Mavericks struggled. They were blasted for a pair of trades: one for point guard Steve Nash, who had been backing up Jason Kidd in Phoenix, and the other for forward Dirk Nowitzki, who had been drafted No. 9 by the Bucks in 1998 from a small club in Germany.
"I think back to the first couple of years, when it looked as if Dirk couldn't play—it was to the point where he was thinking about going back to Europe," says Donnie. "Then I think about Steve Nash, being booed by the fans in his own building in Dallas. I'd come out onto the court and I'd see Steve pitching balls to Dirk, helping him work on his shot. With all Steve was going through, he was working to get Dirk's confidence up."
When Mark Cuban bought the team in January 2000, the Nelsons assumed they would be fired before they could see their rebuilding experiment through to the end. "I remember like it was yesterday?' says Donnie. "We were in Denver and we read in the paper that this new guy had bought the team. The coaches all went out to lunch, and it was like the last supper. In all likelihood this guy is going to want to start from scratch, tear it up and do things his way."
Instead, Cuban signed the elder Nelson to a 11-year, $21 million extension last June. With the Mavericks now on the verge of making their first playoff appearance since 1990, Donnie—who serves as director of player personnel as well as assistant coach—says he won't necessarily jump should another team call with an opportunity to be a head coach. "The last two years were the hardest of my career," he says. "We were called every name in the book. After going through all that, I'm not going to leave this situation for another half-million dollars with some other team. I would listen, but it would take a lot for me to leave the Mavericks. The most rewarding thing I could do would be to help my father win a championship."
Toronto's All-Star Center
This Davis Tries Harder