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A New Sheriff in Big D
March 03, 2008
In hot pursuit of an NBA title, the Mavericks dealt for a new leader in Jason Kidd. But is he too old to tame the wild West?
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March 03, 2008

A New Sheriff In Big D

In hot pursuit of an NBA title, the Mavericks dealt for a new leader in Jason Kidd. But is he too old to tame the wild West?

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THERE'S A kind of reverse age discrimination going on in the NBA these days, which should come as no surprise in a league that allows a player who hasn't suited up in two years to be re-signed and thrown into a trade. Suddenly 35 is the new 25. The Phoenix Suns parted with 29-year-old Shawn Marion to land center Shaquille O'Neal, who turns a creaky 36 on March 6. The Cleveland Cavaliers unloaded a pair of twentysomethings (Larry Hughes, 29, and Drew Gooden, 26) to lay claim to center Ben Wallace, 33, forward Joe Smith, 32, and swingman Wally Szczerbiak, who turns 31 on March 5 (page 32). The San Antonio Spurs hoped to bolster their chances of repeating by acquiring 6'9" forward Kurt Thomas and point guard Damon Stoudamire, 35 and 34, respectively.

But no franchise has put more on the line in this Anti-Youth Movement than the Dallas Mavericks, who, a half-season after achieving the league's best record, are not only entrusting their offense to a new face but also reshaping their identity. In a seven-player swap on Feb. 19 they scraped the mold off all-but-retired forward Keith Van Horn, 32, and sent him to New Jersey with their point guard of the future, 25-year-old Devin Harris, and an energetic shot blocker, 26-year-old DeSagana Diop, to land a player who'll turn 35 before the playoffs. That the senior citizen is Jason Kidd—he of the off-the-charts basketball IQ and 99 career triple doubles—is hardly irrelevant, of course, but it doesn't diminish the stakes for Dallas. Comedy is Van Horn getting $4.3 million essentially for moving to Jersey for a couple of months, a no-show gig that would have delighted even Paulie Walnuts. No one, however, will be laughing in Big D if the trade doesn't deliver a title.

"We're out there on this one, I'll admit that," says Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, now 30 pounds and one building block lighter than he was last year at this time. The weight came off because of rehab for a hip replacement and the aerobic work he did to prepare for Dancing with the Stars; Harris went away because Dallas felt compelled to keep pace with the other dealmaking Western Conference contenders. A 6'3" blur who is a tough cover for the quickest guards, Harris is an avid charge-taker and a recognized stalwart in checking Spurs point guard Tony Parker (who, by the way, says he is overjoyed that Harris bid bon voyage to the West, even if his replacement is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer).

Still, the Mavs (37--19 and fifth in the West through Sunday) felt they needed a more vocal leader and a more seasoned playmaker, so they were willing to place the ball—and their future—in Kidd's battle-tested hands. After watching forwards Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard battle fiercely to get their points, the team wanted to get them easier scoring opportunities, both in the running game (in which Kidd excels) and in a half-court setting (where most playoff games are won and lost). Moreover, Kidd's size (6'4", 210 pounds) and intensity make the team stronger and more versatile on defense, and thus better equipped for switching on the perimeter.

"This is the biggest hit [financially] I've taken on a single trade ever," Cuban said last week. "Nothing even within shouting distance." He rubbed his face with a towel after a one-hour aerobics workout at the team's hotel. "But if I wanted to play it safe," he added with a smile, "I wouldn't be in sports."

INTEGRATING KIDD with two months to go in the regular season is a more delicate matter than, say, integrating O'Neal, a third or fourth option for the Suns whose acquisition had more to do with bolstering their defense. But Kidd has made the transition once before. Drafted by Dallas with the second pick in 1994, he was sent to Phoenix in December '96 in a package for Sam Cassell, Michael Finley and A.C. Green. The Suns were 8--19 when Kidd arrived and went 32--23 thereafter, though they never reached contender status before Kidd was dealt to New Jersey in the summer of 2001.

The Mavs weren't exactly in bad straits before the deal, but they were running in place, and few players have more ways to jump-start a team than Kidd. The hoariest of hoops chestnuts—he doesn't have to score to be effective—seemingly was coined for him. Consider some of the things he did last Friday night in Dallas's 98--83 win over the Grizzlies in Memphis:

• On a routine first-quarter foray up the court, Kidd noticed that Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley Jr. was lollygagging with his dribble. So Kidd rushed to meet him, bodying up on Conley near midcourt and causing an eight-second violation (which, alas, went uncalled).

• In the second quarter Memphis forward Hakim Warrick seemingly had a clear path to the basket, but Kidd suddenly materialized and knocked him off-balance with a hard shot to the arm; Warrick missed both free throws. (Kidd manages to be physical without being considered dirty.)

• Minutes later Kidd noticed backcourt mate Jason Terry streaking to the basket from the right side. He whiplashed a one-bounce pass that never rose more than a foot above the floor and landed directly in Terry's hands for a layup.

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