Friday, February 29, 2008

As before, it’s Personnel correctly crucified Avery Johnson this morning for absurdly pulling Kidd out of the game with 34.5 seconds left in last night’s loss to the Spurs.

Anyone who has watched the Mavericks over the past few years is surely aware of a few important facts about the team:
  • Dirk can’t get, and make, his own shot in the closing seconds of a game.
  • Jason Terry, with the game on the line, can hit a big shot if he’s set up properly, but he get a lot of turnovers when he’s the one handling the ball.
  • Jerry Stackhouse can get hit game-winners if he’s set up with an open look.
  • And above all: Dallas, before the Kidd trade, didn’t have what it takes to get good shots at the end of games.

The Kidd trade was a clear admission that what the Mavericks lacked was not the right training, but the right personnel, to fix these problems. Avery Johnson has been such a successful coach in so many ways that Mavericks fans have tended to brush aside suggestions that Avery should be held responsible for those late-game failings. After all, if Dirk misses good looks (and he usually gets pretty decent looks at the end of games, especially considering his speciality is the fall-away jumper), Avery can’t be held responsible if he just keeps missing them.

True enough. But when a head coach can’t recognize (or refuses to acknowledge) that his star player is unable to make the big play at the end, that’s an entirely different problem.

Before the trade, you couldn’t blame Avery for going with Dirk anyway, because Dirk was still the Mavericks’ best chance in those situations. Dallas traded for Kidd because they realized that having a certain amount of talent isn't enough. You have to have enough of the right kind of talent. And they lacked players who had a sense of how to close out tight games. Kidd, as everyone except Avery seems to be convinced, will make the Mavericks better in those situations.

But players aren’t the only ones who have to be able to make good decisions in the heat of the moment. The coach has to be able to do it too. What we now know of Avery, as of last night, is that he can’t. In the past, this shortcoming has been masked by the players’ own problems, but with Kidd there’s no longer any excuse. Granted, Avery probably won’t make this particular mistake again (lest he lose his job), but then the Mavericks have found all kinds of ways to lose big games at the end, and Avery is showing that he knows all kinds of ways to contribute to those losses.


I have to admit, rather sheepishly, that I actually didn’t notice Kidd was out of the game at the end. I’ll blame this partly on my distracted efforts to explain NBA jargon to my girlfriend while the game was going (she knows football, but has just never gotten into basketball much...), but mostly I think I’m just so used to the Mavericks’ end-game script that I forgot we have Kidd now. I just expect Dirk to fumble the ball away, or miss the jump-shot (or get it blocked, like at the end of the all-star game this year), or for Terry to dribble the ball off his foot. In other words, when the game is on the line, I’m used to the Mavericks looking like they don’t really know what they’re doing.

But here’s something I did notice last night: A long time before those last 34.5 seconds, back near the end of the third quarter, Kidd faked a behind-the-pack pass before missing a lay-up on one possession, and then the next possession he miss-guessed which way Jerry Stackhouse would break, and threw the ball out of bounds.

Avery Johnson immediately pulled Kidd from the game and put in Jason Terry for the last 2 minutes of the third quarter. And here’s what was really scary: Avery looked angry as Terry ran by him to get into the game. Now granted, Avery always looks a little angry during the game, but I had the distinct impression that he put Terry into the game because he was frustrated with Kidd’s turnover.

This was a manifestly stupid substitution in the first place, because Kidd is a veteran superstar who should rightfully expect not to pulled because of a mistake. Avery could get away with that with Devin Harris, but he simply cannot do the same thing to Kidd. He just can’t, if he wants Kidd to thrive in Dallas, and the fact that he doesn’t realize that he can’t treat Kidd that way is terrifying to witness as a fan.

Perhaps more to the point, this was an obvious example of Johnson making a tactical decision based on emotion. Let me put that another way: the Mavericks have a head coach who makes personnel decisions based on how he feels. Granted, players need to be emotionally involved enough that they can succeed, and the coach needs to show enough emotion to motivate the players. But what happens on the court should not be about Avery, unless he makes it that way. If Johnson doesn’t have the self-control to stick with the appropriate game-plan even when his anger makes him want to do something petty, then he has no business coaching a contender.

One of the most counter-productive parenting strategies is to punish kids out of anger. The reason is, discipline and punishment should reflect what’s best for the kid, and angry punishments typically line up primarily with what the parent wants, not with what’s best for their child. Take that onto a professional basketball team, and you end up with a situation that is decidedly unprofessional.

Off With His Head

So here’s the only logical conclusion that I can see: there is no reason to think the Mavericks can win a championship with Avery as coach. A coach who allows his emotions to dictate his tactical decisions will never allow his team to play at their best in stressful situations, and it is obvious that things will only get more stressful in the playoffs.

Eleven years ago, the Mavericks allowed their head coach, Jim Cleamons, to push through a trade that sent Jason Kidd to Phoenix for Sam Cassell, Michael Finley, and A.C. Green. The coach and the player apparently had irreconcilable differences in style, and while the team was probably right to conclude that a personnel change was the only solution to the problem, they sent away the wrong person -- a conclusion that was confirmed when they fired Cleamons only a couple of weeks later. The Mavericks made that mistake once, and it will be difficult for the franchise to ever win back its fans if it makes the same mistake again.

As I said, this year‘s Kidd trade was the Mavericks’ admission that the team’s ultimate problem was one of personnel. I submit that Avery’s coaching performance last night was proof that it still is.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


You hate to pin too much on three games, but since Kidd got to Dallas, Dirk is averaging 29 points on 64% shooting, and Kidd is averaging 12.3 assists. Howard is still trying to get into form, but this could be very good.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Whether I Believe it or Not, it’s a Great Show

Although I’m still too gun-shy from the spate of Dallas sports disappointments to feel all that confident that Jason Kidd can get the Mavericks a championship, I love this deal.

If anyone has been keeping up with this blog, you know that I have suffered from apathy this entire season. I still check box scores, and I’m still happy when Dallas is up in the standings. I watched a good chunk of the All-Star game, and I probably would have watched Dallas-Phoenix last Thursday if it hadn’t been Valentine’s Day. But I’ve written infrequently, and mostly written about generalities, because I just haven’t cared much about what was happening on the court.

I know a lot of Texans have experienced the same feelings. Mark Stein wrote this morning that Mark Cuban “spoke repeatedly Tuesday of a growing ‘malaise’ in Big D,” so I assume it’s not just because I’m out of range for watching local telecasts that I haven’t really cared.

I had a post before the season started where I pushed for Kobe, even if it meant giving up Howard, Harris, and Dampier. The point was not that Kobe would guarantee a winner, but that he would make it worthwhile to watch the regular season again:
Here’s the real issue: if we don’t trade for Kobe, we’re facing 82 games of the most meaningless basketball any of us can imagine. It’ll be like watching the pre-season out there. And I know we all said the same thing going into last year, but this time it’ll be for real.

Going back to where I started: basketball is supposed to be entertainment. I’m sure there will be exciting individual games, but the real fun of an NBA season comes with arguing with your friends about whether the team has what it takes to win it all, or whether your best player has a shot at MVP. If ever there have been two moot points, they are these two questions for this squad.
What I anticipated has matched reality, at least in my experience. In fact, the last post that I was particularly excited about was all the way back in November, and it was about Jason Kidd. Last year, I admit I was pretty committed to Dirk, even though I knew his flaws pretty well. I still think he earned his MVP, and I still think he’ll always be remembered as a great player. But one truly great regular season is still just one season, and disappointment can stifle a guy’s feelings.

My admiration for Jason Kidd, on the other hand, runs deep -- all the way back to my sophomore year of high school, when my brother had the good sense to suggest that we get tickets for the Mavericks’ opening game of 1994. It was evident by the end of the game that Kidd was the best thing that had happened to the Mavericks in a long time.

The decision to trade him two years later was just one in a long string of absurdities that culminated in the Mavericks having traded 10 of their 12 players by the end of that season. Faced with locker room conflicts early that year, the Mavericks lost their mind just long enough to allow Jim Cleamons to push through a trade of Kidd for Michael Finley, and only a few games later (if memory serves), they brought in Don Nelson, who then traded, basically, the rest of the team. If management had had any foresight at all, they surely would have kept Kidd and traded everyone else, but those were not years in which Mavericks’ management was known for doing things sensibly.

On the bright side, the monumental mismanagement of the team in the mid-90’s may have contributed to Mark Cuban becoming frustrated enough as a fan that he just decided to buy the franchise. He had a great quote a few years ago (again, if I’m remembering correctly) that ran something like, “I was looking at how the Mavericks were being run, thinking, ‘Man, I could do better than that.’ And then I realized: ‘Hey, I can afford that team.”

So it’s good to have Kidd back, mostly because I’ve missed being excited about my team.

But here’s another point that it’s fun to think about: with nine Western Conference teams on pace to win 50 games, and only 4 1/2 games between first and ninth, plus the trades for Gasol, Shaq, and Kidd, could this be shaping up as the coolest finish to a regular season of my lifetime so far? I’m thinking these playoffs might even top out 2006, which folks said might have had the best first two rounds ever, with its first-round duels of Nash-Kobe and LeBron-Arenas, and the second-round match-up between Dallas and San Antonio. One way or the other, this regular season is on its way to becoming historic, and the Mavericks just became a serious part of it.