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Friday, March 9, 2007
Mavs just can't win my love

By Eric Neel
Page 2

The Dallas Mavericks are a great team. Fifty-one out of their last 56, a point differential of 8-plus a night, a 16-game win streak -- even without rings on their fingers (yet), I'm calling them great. Straight out. The regular season they're putting together ranks with some of the best we've ever seen. Barring a crippling injury or a brush with a norovirus, they're going to belong at the table with the 1996 Bulls, the 1986 Celtics, the 1983 Sixers and the 1972 Lakers as architects of a truly dominant 82-game run.

I just wish I cared. I wish they inspired me even a little. I have tremendous respect, but I wish I felt any kind of genuine enthusiasm for them at all. I wish I felt the love. I know this sounds petty (particularly if you're a Dallas diehard) but I can't shake the feeling. Or lack thereof. Those other elite clubs had strong identities, some juice, some compelling lightning something about them. Jordan made 72 a mission, a dare, and Rodman made every day an adventure in self-loathing rebounding genius. Bird defended the home turf like a frothing dog. Moses was Moses and Doc was Doc. The Lakers, with Wilt holding the block and West sniping from every kind of angle, over every kind of defender, looked supernatural. You didn't have to love them but you had to pay attention. In fact, you couldn't turn away.

The Mavs vs. the Greats

2007 Mavericks
Record: On pace for 70-12
Key players: Dirk Nowitzki (25.3 ppg, 9.6 rpg), Josh Howard (19.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg), Jason Terry (16.3 ppg, 5.4 apg), Jerry Stackhouse (11.1 ppg)
Average points: 100.4
Points allowed: 92.2
Differential: +8.2

1996 Bulls
Record: 72-10
Key players: Michael Jordan (30.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg), Scottie Pippen (19.4 ppg, 5.9 apg), Toni Kukoc (13.1 ppg), Dennis Rodman (14.9 rpg)
Average points: 105.2
Points allowed: 92.9
Differential: +12.3

1986 Celtics
Record: 67-15
Key players: Larry Bird (25.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg), Kevin McHale (21.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg), Robert Parish (16.1 ppg, 9.5 rpg), Dennis Johnson (15.6 ppg, 5.8 apg)
Average points: 114.1
Points allowed: 104.7
Differential: +9.4

1983 76ers
Record: 65-17
Key players: Moses Malone (24.5 ppg, 15.3 rpg), Julius Erving (21.4 ppg), Andrew Toney (19.7 ppg), Maurice Cheeks (12.5 ppg, 6.9 apg)
Average points: 112.1
Points allowed: 104.4
Differential: +7.7

1972 Lakers
Record: 69-13
Key players: Gail Goodrich (25.9 ppg), Jerry West (25.8 ppg, 9.7 apg), Jim McMillian (18.8 ppg), Wilt Chamberlain (14.8 ppg, 19.2 rpg), Happy Hairston (13.1 ppg, 13.1 rpg)
Average points: 121.0
Points allowed: 108.7
Diffential: +12.3

The other day a friend said to me, "Hey, check out the Mavs," as if they were underdogs on a little hot streak, as if they were a penny on the sidewalk or a roadside attraction spotted through a car window, as if they weren't actually running roughshod over the league night in and night out. We should be trained on them, geeked, obsessed, awed, but we aren't. The Suns -- Steve's boys, the fuel-injected fun ball gang, a brotherhood forged in dedication to a philosophy, a dream -- are captivating. The Pistons -- a gangly, tough, scrap-heap collective straight out of "Kelly's Heroes," a bunch, even with a title in the bag, who are absolutely certain you don't believe in them -- inspire. The Mavs don't compete historically and they don't compete now.

Mark Cuban's part of the problem. He's smart, funny and insightful. He speaks truth to power and sometimes goes on entertaining, ridiculous rants (see the Dwyane Wade smackdown a couple weeks back) for all the world to see. I love him. But there's no denying that he overshadows the team on the floor. He's the maverick Maverick, the face of the franchise. Entertaining as he is, he's no pathway to connecting with the team or the game they play. I don't root for him. I don't root for them because of him. He's ownership. I want to give a damn about labor.

And even if I look past Cuban, all I see is Nowitzki. Which means all I see is accurate, somewhat wooden jump shots and hard-to-guard head-fake finishes. The guy is a superstar, probably the league MVP given what the team is doing. He gets banged on nightly and he wears the mantle of being The Man with seeming ease and determination. He's a fantastic player. I admire the hell out of him. But he's also, I'm sorry, boring to watch. No signature move. No defining moment (as of yet). No edge, no magic. Think of him next to the other top-tier players in the league right now. Play word association. Nash is Miraculous, Wade is Relentless, James is Terrifying, Arenas is Nutty and Garnett is Fierce. Nowitzki is, I don't know, Proficient?

Ditto the rest of the club, a collection of almost perfectly calibrated role players. Josh Howard is a formidable talent, but his skill set, spread out across the pallet like it is, and the fact that he must defer to Dirk in key moments, makes him near invisible. After him it's Terry, Stackhouse, Buckner, Harris, Dampier, Diop, John and Doe. Nothing to hang your hat or your heart on. And it's not just personnel, it's approach, too. Once upon a time the Mavs were a fairly freestyling bunch, practitioners of a kind of lyrical ball movement. Now, under Avery Johnson's able direction and bulldog disposition, they're prone to win at a slower pace, with more isolations and jump shots. They have a method, but no style, nothing I can get behind, nothing that stands out.

And this is just the way they want it, I'm sure. They no doubt love the relative anonymity. It's good for team unity, and more importantly it fits with the shape-shifting, come-at-you-from-all-angles way they like to play, sometimes speeding it up to tax a team like the Spurs, and sometimes dialing it back to flummox a team like the Suns. Dirk, Avery, Josh, they're more than comfortable with their relative blandness, I'm sure. Couldn't care less. Never give it a thought. It's about wins and losses for them. (Actually, it's pretty much just about wins.) What they're doing, who they are, their super-smooth blend of talents, their always-flexible approach to style and strategy, it all works for them. They win with it. They win nine nights out of 10 with it. They win enough games to be in the All-Time Great conversation with it.

So what else do I want? Why aren't I satisfied? What's my problem? Why can't I get with the lunch-pail, measure-and-cut genius of this club? Why is it so hard for me to see, like my grandfather would have seen, that this team is so damned appealing precisely because there's nothing special, nothing flashy, about them?

I'm just selfish is what it is. It ain't right, I know, but I want more than the wins. I want to feel about them the way I felt about the Bulls, the Celtics, the Sixers, and (though I was quite young then) the Lakers, the way I feel about the Suns and Pistons now. Passionate. Mesmerized. I want talk of great teams to be animated by the inimitable and intriguing character of their core groups and their superstars, not just compelled by the gaudy evidence of their records. We're talking about the Mavs, when we remember to talk about them at all, because they've won a big ol' boatload of basketball games. End of story. Yes, they're a great team, but greatness isn't everything. The Bulls, the Celtics, the Sixers, the Lakers, they had magic, too, they had something that vibrates even now, something that captures my imagination even in recollection. The Suns make me want to find a run. The Pistons make me think defense is some sort of higher calling.

And maybe that's my strongest feeling for the Mavs. Maybe the way they make me appreciate those other teams all over again, and more intensely, is what excites me the most about them.

That's not bad, actually. That's pretty special. Heck, I could almost love them for that.

Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com. Sound off to Page 2 here.