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Mavericks struggling to meet expectations

Jan. 23, 2004

By Matt Richards, reporter

This is supposed to be their year. The Dallas Mavericks would finally dethrone the two colossal powers of the western conference - the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs - to take their place as NBA Champions.

All the chess pieces seem to be in place. Dynamic owner Mark Cuban took over the fledgling franchise in 1999, hired the father-son duo of Don and Donnie Nelson, revamped the roster and made the Mavs playoff contenders. Last year was seemingly the final step toward greatness, as the Mavs lost in six games in the Western Conference Finals to the Spurs.

Furthermore, the Mavs appeared to have fixed their roster woes from last year, dealing for all-star forwards Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison. Now the Mavs have two 6-foot 7-inch plus forwards with rebounding and shooting skills to augment Dirk Nowitzki.

On paper, Dallas should be dominant. But halfway through the season, the Mavs have an average record of 25-16 and sit three games back of conference leader Minnesota. Los Angeles, San Antonio, Minnesota, Sacramento, Calif., Detroit and Indiana all have better records than the Mavs. If the season ended today, Dallas would slide into the fifth spot in the West, which means the Mavs would be on the road for the playoffs.

Last week, Cuban sounded the alarm in Dallas by implying that Nelson's job was in jeopardy. Although he backed off his claim later in the week, there are serious problems in Big D. What's ailing the Dallas Mavericks?

First, forget all that team chemistry 'we're just not gelling' crap. The Lakers don't gel at all, with the Kobegate scandal and the Shaq sob story, but they win. I would agree, however, that the loss of Avery Johnson did hurt the Mavs in the locker room, but that's no excuse.

One thing Dallas lost during the summer was aggression and sheer willpower. This team is weak. Can anybody in the team foul hard? Nobody should drive the lane in the NBA untouched. If a player drives the lane, he should pay for it. It's basketball, not ballet.

This leads into my second point. Irk Nowitzki - that's Dirk without any D - is hurting us. For his size and agility, Nowitzki should be the best and most fearsome defender on the court. Instead, he relegates himself to the perimeter, hoisting up a barrage of three pointers that haven't been falling like they did in the past. It's time Nowitzki goes to the rim and either gets the bucket or draws a foul. No team wants to see a 7-foot German charging the lane.

Antoine Walker also has been the Achilles heal of the team. There's no doubt that Walker has had his most productive season offensively _ averaging more than 16 points and nine rebounds a game. However, Walker's probably the worst defender on the team _ with Nowitzki finishing a close second. For example, against the Sixers a week ago, archaic Glen Robinson dropped 34 on Walker. Against Detroit, Ben Wallace - who has the shot of a middle schooler - scored 17 on Walker. What good is his 16 points a game if he gives up that many or more to the guy he's guarding?

But Nowitzki and Walker can't be totally to blame for the defensive woes of Dallas - which gives up a dismal average of 104 points per game. Defense is a team effort, and thus far, the effort hasn't been there. Other than rookie Josh Howard, the Mavs have failed to hold stagnant offenses like Detroit, Memphis and Phoenix to less than 100. Defense is coaching, and the Nelson duo plus Del Harris have got to make some immediate adjustments to right the ship before it sinks.

Now, with all that said, the Mavs are still my boys. I'm sticking with them to the end, even if it means an early departure in the playoffs or no playoffs at all. But my message to the Nelsons and the big three is that if you want to stay in Dallas next year, you better pick it up - and soon. Cuban doesn't tolerate failure.