For Raef LaFrentz, there had already been a lot to deal with: the unexpected news 21 hours earlier that he had been released from the Mile High Penitentiary in Denver and sent to Dallas in a seven-player trade; the foreign language of the Mavericks' playbook, in which he noticed that what the Nuggets called "2-up" was referred to as "fist"; and the irritating realization that he had left his favorite hoops shoes back in Denver. Still, after his first practice at American Airlines Center last Friday afternoon, LaFrentz faced his greatest challenge: the bewildering array of electronic gadgetry staring at him from his oversized cubicle in the Mavericks' supersized locker room. "Man," said LaFrentz, "there's a lot of stuff in there."
Welcome, Raef, to Team Wretched Excess. The Mavericks place a high-definition TV, Sony PlayStation and DVD and VHS decks at every player's fingertips. They provide fluffy white robes for padding around in after games and practices. They have a pool table, catered delicacies and a full workout room a few steps from the high-tech lockers. And since acquiring LaFrentz, Nick Van Exel, Avery Johnson and Tariq Abdul-Wahad for game but limited forward Juwan Howard, game but limited guard Tim Hardaway and just plain limited forward Donnell Harvey, they possess a roster that can safely be described as an embarrassment of riches.
Scorers? Dallas trots out more weapons than a Schwarzenegger movie. Four players ( Van Exel, Michael Finley, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki) were racking up more than 19 points a game at week's end, and another, LaFrentz, averaged 14.5. Point guards? They've got three worthy starters in Nash, Van Exel and Johnson. Big people? They've got five "footers"—7-footers, give or take an inch, in NBA parlance—in LaFrentz, Nowitzki, Evan Eschmeyer, Wang Zhizhi and the Human Windmill, 7'6" Shawn Bradley. Mad bombers? Coach Don Nelson could start a lineup (Nowitzki, Van Exel, Nash, LaFrentz and Finley) that through Sunday had buried a total of 419 threes. Global appeal? Nellie can send out swingman Abdul-Wahad (from France), forward Eduardo Najera ( Mexico), Nash ( Canada), Nowitzki ( Germany) and Wang ( China).
Buzz? While lesser teams such as the New York Knicks could get nothing done by Thursday's trading deadline, Dallas, whose 39-17 record was third best in the NBA at week's end, improved by plundering a putrid team. "The Mavs' management [read: Nelson and owner Mark Cuban] keep coming at you and coming at you," says Boston Celtics general manager Chris Wallace, who was in Dallas last Saturday to watch the new Mavericks whip the league-leading Sacramento Kings 111-97. "What they got done at this point in the season was simply amazing." The swap also got the highly coveted Jerry West Stamp of Approval. Before pulling the trigger, Nelson called the Los Angeles Lakers' former personnel whiz and presented the scenario. West's response: You are a moron of the first order if you don't make this deal.
From the Nuggets, Dallas got 21.4 points and 8.1 assists per game from Van Exel; three-point shooting and an average of three blocked shots from LaFrentz; a locker room leader in the too-good-to-be-true Johnson, 35; and a hard-nosed slasher in the 6'6" Abdul-Wahad. It was also the perfect Cuban trade in that it involved large piles of money. He threw in $1 million (as well as a 2002 first-round draft pick) and—in picking up the bloated contracts of Van Exel (four years remaining at $42.5 million), Abdul-Wahad (five years, $34 million) and Johnson (two years, $10.4 million)—faces a possible payout of $15 million if the luxury tax kicks in. Plus, he has to re-sign LaFrentz, 25, who will be a free agent after this season.
In their drive for the title—or, as Cuban calls it, "the quest for the jewelry"—the Mavericks made a deal that essentially told the rest of the league: We are bold. We are committed to winning. Oh, yes, you'll need to score a ton of points if you want to beat us. That message alone should make the trade a success despite the following question marks:
?Who's on the floor? Many coaches would quiver at the prospect of finding minutes for four players ( Nash, Nowitzki, Finley and Van Exel) who have been All-Stars and another, LaFrentz, who could develop into one. In his 24 years as a coach, however, Nelson has seldom relied on a set rotation, running players in and out based on matchups and hunches and without regard to position. That should keep the stars on their toes and the bench players happy. "This situation would be a disaster for me," says NBC commentator P.J. Carlesimo, a former NBA coach, "but it's perfect for Nellie."
?How will they distribute the wealth? One game doth not a pattern make, but the Mavericks had no problem sharing against the Kings. Van Exel was particularly sacrificial, passing up open looks and raising his arms in triumph whenever Nash (28 points), Nowitzki (26, to go with 21 rebounds) or Finley (15) finished a play. With time running out in the third period, Van Exel had the ball at the point for the final shot when Nellie's directive came from the bench: Give it to Finley for the clear-out. Van Exel did, then applauded with the rest of the team as Finley drove and scored.
?What about a post-up guy? The NBA bible says you've got to have a back-to-the-basket scorer to win a title. To some extent the Mavericks had one in Howard, and they don't have one now. "Raef has maybe this much of a low-post game," says Van Exel, holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. Dallas did not get LaFrentz with the hopes that his post-up game will blossom; it got him to launch shots from the outside, a la the Teutonic Tosser, Nowitzki. The Mavs want more heaving from long range, not less. Is this a fun team or what?
?Dude, where's the defense? Other than Abdul-Wahad, who will get scant minutes, the trade didn't upgrade the Mavericks' D. "We allow a layup line on a consistent basis," says Nelson, who usually opts for matchups mat give his team a scoring edge rather than a defensive one. (The 6'3" Nash, for instance, was checking the 6'9" Peja Stojakovic for stretches of Saturday's game.) "They still can't guard anybody," said Kings playmaker Bobby Jackson, before adding, "Like us." That's the salient point. The Los Angeles Lakers notwithstanding, the West isn't loaded with stoppers, and the most potent offense may stand the best chance of reaching the conference final. Dallas was the league's highest-scoring team, with 104.9 points per game before the trade, and that average will only go up.