Less than three weeks after the Mavericks battered the Heat in Game 6 of the Finals to seal the franchise’s first NBA championship, they had to put their celebration on hold. The lockout had begun. The players and owner Mark Cuban went their separate ways, and the Mavericks’ entertaining story line was replaced by phrases such as “basketball-related income’’ and “mid-level exceptions.’’
The Mavericks’ stirring run past the heavily favored Heat essentially went ignored until the season resumed and the club was forced to scramble to reassemble the core that was so cohesive during the playoffs. The Mavericks were unable to re-sign Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea, and allowed DeShawn Stevenson to walk.
Vince Carter and Lamar Odom were summoned as replacements, and so far the results have been abysmal. The Mavericks lost five of their first eight games, looking old and disheveled. With the shortened season, they are under more pressure to improve in the bizarre Western Conference.
General manager Donnie Nelson is banking that his veterans return to form - that Carter can somehow find a spring of athleticism and Odom can shoot better than 27 percent.
“When you are trying to integrate new faces in key positions, it just takes some time,’’ Nelson said. “We’re going through the growing pains right now. There are some games where it’s clicking and we’ve kind of got the old magic. There’s other times when it’s a little bit more of a roughshod situation. We’re grinding it out and making our way through it.’’
Nelson was in the unenviable position of putting together a roster with limited resources and with his best defensive player (Chandler) an unrestricted free agent. Chandler was moved to the Knicks in a three-team deal with the Wizards for two second-round picks, and Barea signed with the Timberwolves.
With the salary slot created by Chandler’s absence, the Mavericks were able to acquire Odom from the rival Lakers for a trade exception. Carter was added for offensive punch, with the Mavericks hoping a chance to compete for a title would perhaps curtail his decline. Meanwhile, Jason Kidd, who will be 39 in March, is averaging career lows in points, assists, and shooting percentage.
“It’s like anything else, you know the team isn’t going to come back exactly the same,’’ Nelson said. “Given the fact that we want to be free agent players later this summer, it restricted negotiations to a certain extent, but that’s expected. I think for the most part we made the best of a difficult situation.’’
With the salaries of Jason Terry, Kidd, and Odom off the books after this season, the Mavericks will be an estimated $17 million under the salary cap. Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, and Brendan Haywood will be under contract, but the Mavericks will look to get younger.
The Mavericks are in a similar position to the Celtics in trying to capitalize on a shrinking window while progressively getting younger and trying to avoid a two- or three-year draft lottery dip. It’s a difficult endeavor for Nelson, who, like Danny Ainge, likely won’t be aided by high draft picks.
“The trick is to maintain that title-contending team and still keep your options open,’’ Nelson said. “I think we’ve struck a decent balance at that. We have some pretty intriguing pieces we think can make a run for the roses this year and then we’ve built enough flexibility to be free agent players.’’
The drastic difference between the Mavericks and Celtics is their history. Dallas took 31 years to win its first title and spent years getting beaten by the Lakers and Spurs. And when they were favored, they suffered excruciating losses, such as the 2006 NBA Finals against Miami and the 2007 first-round elimination by the eighth-seeded Warriors.
“The one thing we don’t want to do around here is go back to the death-march walk in the desert where you don’t see the playoffs for 10 straight years,’’ said Nelson, son of Celtics great Don Nelson. “When [management] landed here, our fans had been through one of the longest droughts in NBA history.’’
Nelson didn’t expect the Mavericks to struggle so mightily in the beginning this season, especially with the nucleus back. Then again, they are a year older, perhaps still basking in the championship, and are playing in a more balanced Western Conference.
“Candidly, we’ve had players who haven’t played very well,’’ Nelson said. “And that’s really across the board. Even our household names haven’t played their best basketball yet.
“It seems we saved the best for last, but the problem with this season is if you wait too long, it may be too late.’’
Handling of Cousins is key
While watching DeMarcus Cousins dominate the Las Vegas Summer League two years ago, one scout uttered the words, “Kevin McHale.’’ His skills unquestionably are there, but so is an attitude. Cousins has been labeled a hothead since his high school days, and that continued during his one year at Kentucky and now into the NBA.
He denied demanding a trade from the Kings last week, but shortly after he was sent home and voiced his displeasure with coach Paul Westphal, Westphal was fired.
Westphal was a curious choice to coach such a young team, a former All-Star player in his third and likely final coaching stop with a bunch of youngsters who likely have little recollection that he coached Charles Barkley and the Suns to the NBA Finals 19 years ago.
The Kings are a franchise in turmoil, having attempted to move to Anaheim last June before Sacramento mayor and former All-Star Kevin Johnson (who coincidentally was also on that 1993 Suns team) averted the move by promising a new arena that would be privately financed.
There is talent in Sacramento, but as in Washington, the younger players have had a miserable time developing chemistry. And Cousins, according to some close to the team, almost has a sense of entitlement despite his lack of experience. It may be an unfair tag, but some may attach “coach killer’’ to his reputation now that the Kings have made such a stunning move seven games into the season.
Former Warriors coach Keith Smart takes over, and while he didn’t have a lot of success with Golden State, he was able to manage the personalities. The first thing he did in Sacramento was implement a set of new rules, and the Kings proceeded to rally to beat Milwaukee Thursday night.
“Wipe the slate? I’m not even concerned about that,’’ said Cousins. “I’m here to help my teammates win.
“I’m not really concerned on how [the media] feels. I know how my teammates feel about me. My teammates want me here. My coaching staff wants me here. And my organization wants me here. And that’s all that really matters.’’
Cousins has elite power forward talent, with the footwork and post moves of a 1980s player such as McHale, but he has always been considered moody and uncoachable. The question is whether Smart can have any positive effect. Cousins is already averaging a double-double in his second NBA season, and while his shooting percentage is atrocious for a big man (39.8 percent), he has the makings of a perennial All-Star, if his mercurial ways don’t prove a hindrance.
Asked if he has made mistakes during this process, Cousins said, “Absolutely. I know I make mistakes, but I’m human - everybody makes mistakes. It just seems like my mistakes are bigger than what they should be.
“But at the same time, I never said I was perfect, and I’ve got a lot of improving to do. I know that. But I’m going to keep working and keep trying to help my teammates win games.’’
Smart was confident that he can forge a bond with Cousins.
“It’s not easier said than done if you know how to do it,’’ he said. “One of my skills is I do understand how to operate and function with people.
“We’ve got to focus on him growing with the basketball team, them getting better. He looked like an NBA pro [Wednesday] and now he needs to be more consistent.’’
Nets hit a snag out of the gate
This was supposed to be the season when the Nets took a major step forward. It is Deron Williams’s first full season in Newark. Brook Lopez has established himself as one of the Eastern Conference’s top centers and a potential trade chip for Dwight Howard. General manager Billy King added temporary help in DeShawn Stevenson, Shawne Williams, and Mehmet Okur to bridge the gap to next summer, when the team will have $22 million in cap space as it moves to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
But any momentum has been derailed by injuries. Lopez is out six weeks with a broken foot, leaving Deron Williams as the lone offensive threat, and he is off to a career-worst start - 36 percent shooting, 28 percent from the 3-point line - in the final year of his contract.
The Nets won their season opener over the putrid Wizards but didn’t win again until Friday night. While they weren’t projected as a playoff team, they expected better than this.
Despite the hope generated by the move to Brooklyn, the Nets lack a legitimate marketable star if Williams leaves. The rest of the roster is a compilation of retreads and temporary fixes.
“Injuries and the schedule have not allowed us to do what we wanted to do, but I think once we get some guys back healthy, we’ll be OK,’’ King said.
King pointed out that Okur, Kris Humphries, Shawne Williams, and Lopez practiced together once before Lopez’s injury.
The Nets have two players older than 30 (Okur and Stevenson) but King does not view his roster as young.
“It’s funny, everybody says we’re young, but we’re young in age but not in years [in the league],’’ King said. “One thing is continuity. With Boston, Ray [Allen] and those guys have been together for a long time.
“Look at Atlanta, how long it took for them to get where they were established. It doesn’t happen overnight. You’ve got keep a core together.’’
Or add a major free agent or two. The Nets plan to be major players in the market next summer, considering their cap space and the need for a franchise cornerstone. Re-signing Williams will be a priority, as will attempting to acquire Howard.
“There are guys you target,’’ said King. “Being in the city will be a big plus for us. We’re taking things step by step so we can be competitive for a long time.’’
Disappearing from Magic?
If the Magic do move Dwight Howard, they also want to move the anchor-like contract of swingman Hedo Turkoglu, who left Orlando after the 2008-09 season and then was reacquired by general manager Otis Smith. The Magic have tried various things to make Howard comfortable, such as bringing in Rashard Lewis and Gilbert Arenas as well as Turkoglu, but they have finally discovered that the most coveted prize in the NBA is salary cap space.
Bell tolling in Utah?
One player who could soon be available is Utah sharpshooter and defender Raja Bell, who is getting lost in the Jazz’s rebuilding plan. Bell entered last night shooting just 26 percent from the field and has questioned his role now that the Jazz have Earl Watson as the primary backup to point guard Devin Harris. Bell was one of the game’s top on-ball defenders in past years but at 35, it’s uncertain how much he has left to offer an interested team.
Things just get worse in Washington, where the Wizards are winless and have lost gritty big man Ronny Turiaf for six weeks with a broken left hand sustained a week ago against the Celtics. Meanwhile, first-round pick Jan Vesely has yet to play because of a sore hip but may be able to make his debut soon. The problem is that there has been no true veteran leader; second-year point guard John Wall is not ready to accept that responsibility. The longest-tenured player, Andray Blatche, is still getting into spats with coach Flip Saunders about his maddening inconsistency and is still annoyed by Kevin Garnett’s mind games. The Wizards held the infamous players-only meeting last week in an attempt to cure their ills. It seems the team has been banking on potential and not addressing the present with established players and solid leaders.
Some intriguing names remain on the free agent market, and many will be snapped up by the All-Star break. Gilbert Arenas is out there after being released by Orlando through its amnesty clause. It’s obvious that Arenas has been crippled by knee surgeries, but he could provide scoring punch off the bench for a contending team. Former Chicago guard Keith Bogans, ex-Celtic James Posey, and centers Joel Przybilla and Kyrylo Fesenko are also out there . . . Former Celtic Michael Finley, 38, wants to return to the NBA, but that may be difficult. When he joined the Celtics for the unsuccessful 2009-10 title run, he was unable to contribute defensively and was merely a perimeter shooter. He did not play in the NBA last season . . . There is growing concern that Stephen Curry’s ankle injuries may be chronic, and that could affect his trade value if the Warriors decide to move him for an All-Star-caliber player. Curry is their most marketable player but has already sprained his ankle twice this season following offseason surgery . . . Sean Williams’s NBA stint lasted two weeks, as the Mavericks sent him to Texas of the NBADL. He played three games for Dallas, averaging 4.7 points. With the signing of Yi Jianlian, the ex-Boston College standout was expendable.