SI Vault
Ian Thomsen
October 28, 2002
For all the fun in run-and-gun, the Mavs learned that there's no substitute for strong defense. Can these guys get serious about clamping down?
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October 28, 2002

4 Dallas Mavericks

For all the fun in run-and-gun, the Mavs learned that there's no substitute for strong defense. Can these guys get serious about clamping down?

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2001-02 record: 57-25 (second in Midwest)
Points scored: 105-2 (1st)
Points allowed: 101.0 (28th)
Coach: Don Nelson (sixth season with Mavericks)



2001-02 KEY STATS


Dirk Nowitzki


23.4 ppg

9.9 rpg

1.01 bpg

47.7 FG%

39.7 3FG%


Raef LaFrentz


13.5 ppg

7.4 rpg

2.73 bpg

45.8 FG%

38.8 3FG%


Shawn Bradley


4.1 ppg

3.3 rpg

1.21 bpg

47.9 FG%

92.2 FT%


Michael Finley


20.6 ppg

5.2 rpg

3.3 apg

0.94 spg

46.3 FG%


Steve Nash


17.9 ppg

3.1 rpg

77 apg

48.3 FG%

45.5 3FG%



2001-02 KEY STATS


Nick Van Exel


18.4 ppg

3.5 rpg

6.6 apg

40.9 FG%

34.0 3FG%


Adrian Griffin


7.2 ppg

3.9 rpg

1.8 apg

1.29 spg

49.9 FG%


Walt Williams#


9.4 ppg

3.4 rpg

1.4 apg

41.9 FG%

42.6 3FG%


Popeye Jones#


7.0 ppg

7.3 rpg

1.6 apg

0.63 spg

43.7 FG%


Eduardo Najera


6.5 ppg

5.5 rpg

0.6 apg

0.90 spg

50.0 FG%

#New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college season)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 92)

It's easy to forget that Don Nelson, the mad scientist of offensive strategy, began his coaching career with the Bucks emphasizing defense. Milwaukee ranked as the top defensive team in the league from 1980-81 through '85-86, based on opponents' field goal percentage. "Coaches should spend more time on defense than offense," says a born-again Nelson. "On offense you want your players to feel free to play, but on defense you want them to really zero in."

It's back to basics for the 62-year-old Nelson as he enters the final coaching season of his contract. Against the Kings in the second round last spring the high-octane Mavericks came up short because of their failure to produce fourth-quarter defensive stops. So Nelson shelved the offensive playbook for the first week of training camp, a change his players welcomed. "We're not a team of defensive stoppers," says point guard Steve Nash, "but we can be a good defensive team."

That depends mostly on the play of the Dallas big men. One promising sign is the rejuvenation of 7'6" center Shawn Bradley, who was out of shape last season and started just 16 games. He spent the summer working out in Dallas and is in the best condition of his career. His return to the starter's job will allow Nelson to shift 6'11" Raef LaFrentz—who arrived through a trade last February—to power forward. Their shot-blocking prowess should liberate 7-foot small forward Dirk Nowitzki and 6'6" shooting guard Michael Finley to play tighter defense against smaller, quicker scorers. "Our rotations as a team have to be sharper," says Nowitzki. "If my man beats me, then I've got to know my teammate is coming to help me and that somebody else is coming over to help the helper."

It won't be easy to maintain defensive continuity because Nelson likes to juggle his lineup from game to game, taking advantage of the Mavs' depth and versatility. While a number of the subs are skilled defenders, the starters must set the defensive standard if Dallas is to contend for a title.

No one has embraced the new approach more than Finley, 29, who focused on defense this summer while training with the U.S. team and playing pickup games in his hometown of Chicago. "He's not a good defender, but he's working as hard as anybody," says Nelson. Finley hopes to pattern himself after Larry Bird, who wasn't skilled enough to be a stopper but who knew how to play effective team defense. "Bird worked hard at defense, and his team was successful," Finley says. "After the playoffs last season I realized that I had to become a better defender individually and bring that same mind-set to the team."

It won't be easy to change the culture, but the Mavs have no other option. "We need to concentrate on defense over the long haul," says Nash, "and not just be cramming for the final exam." If by mid-season they've reverted to outgunning opponents, you can write them off as challengers to the Lakers, the Kings and the Spurs.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]