If the Plethora of Power Forwards Plan fails, the ax will not, needless to say, fall on Cuban, who worked on the deals with both Nelsons (coach Don and son Donn, who is also one of his father's on-the-bench assistants). Will Cuban can Nellie? is a question that never goes away in Dallas, and the answer is, Eventually. In the NBA everyone gets fired except owners, P.A. announcers who scream too much and Phil Jackson. But the more interesting questions are these: How does a 63-year-old brook the meddling of an assertive dotcom billionaire? And has their recent coconspiring brought the Mavs closer to a title?
Theirs is indeed a simmering teapot of a relationship that sometimes boils over. Cuban is an eternal baiter; earlier this season he suggested that Nelson does not emphasize defense enough at practice. Nelson didn't appreciate the remark, but neither did he overreact, for if there's one thing you learn after 40 years in the business, it's who signs the checks. What Cuban and Nelson share is a renegade streak, a compulsion to toss chocolate jimmies onto the poached salmon. You say a team needs complementary parts to succeed? Cuban and Nellie will load up on shoot-first offensive types and win that way. The term Cuban constantly uses when he talks about Nelson is open-minded. What Nellie says about Cuban is, "He keeps me young." Cuban, for his part, helps keep young with Grecian Formula, a mandate from his wife, Tiffany.
The owner and the coach will share a hearty laugh if, come spring, Nellie has reached the Finals simply by opening the offensive spigots at full blast, as he did on Sunday against the Kings, the team with the league's best record. Here's what will have to happen for the Mavs to achieve that:
•Walker will help overcome Dallas's rebounding weaknesses by drawing opposing big men away from the basket with his playmaking, peering over the D. "With Steve in there, I'm going to open spaces for a jumper," says Finley. "But with Antoine, I'm taking chances, looking for lobs and back cuts." Determined to show he's more than a shotaholic, Walker shed 30 pounds with the help of Tim Grover, Michael Jordan's Chicago-based trainer. At 225, the eighth-year pro is finally svelte, and that's got to make him more effective.
•Nash's diminished role as a ball handler will, in Nowitzki's words, "keep Steve in one piece." Walker's forays at point forward will buy precious downtime for a guy whose high-energy style sometimes has him worn out by the postseason.
•Jamison will continue to provide instant offense. A 52.0% shooter from the floor, he's especially effective alongside Dallas's gunners because he cleans up on putbacks and doesn't need plays called for him to score. "Sometimes I think the ball has a nose for him," says Nash of Jamison, who was averaging 15.7 points through Sunday.
•The we'll-show-'em attitude of the Mavs will provide an intangible edge. The veterans have welcomed Walker and Jamison into the fold and desperately want to show that, as with an amateur comedian on open mike night, there's no such thing as being too offensive. "Hopefully the positive feelings that we have for each other will be the key to overcoming the imperfections this team has on paper," says Nash.
Hoping won't make it happen, though, largely for a reason Nash concedes: "It's difficult to make three guys who play the same position fit on the court, especially when they're all at their best with the ball." Walker is without a doubt a gifted passer—"a poor man's Magic Johnson," Nelson calls him, with some exaggeration—but when he's at point forward, he's a guy who pounds the ball with his back to the basket, a shot-clock killer in an offense that has thrived on movement and fluidity.
Then, too, the more the ball is in Walker's hands, the less it is in the grasp of Nowitzki, "a dangerous cat," as Blazers veteran Dale Davis calls him. Forced to play center, Nowitzki doesn't assert himself as he once did. You want that to happen to your most dangerous cat? But that probably won't change because Walker has always been, as one Western Conference coach puts it, "a guy you've got to keep happy."
A major reason Nowitzki's stock had risen so high over the past few seasons was his deadly effectiveness on pick-and-rolls with Nash. If Nash's smaller defender switched, the 7-foot Nowitzki could take him to the hole or shoot over him; if a big man stayed, Nowitzki would beat him with quickness. But as Nowitzki points out, "It doesn't make sense for me to run it with Antoine because we're both the same size." Nash says his pick-and-roll with Nowitzki "will still be our bread and butter" come playoff time, but if they're not running it enough during the season—and they're not now—it's going to be more like an underdone hors d'oeuvre.