Another big deal in Big D

Mark Cuban and the Mavericks acquired a more talented player in Antoine Walker with a far more palatable contract.

Updated: October 22, 2003, 11:36 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Antoine Walker
Antoine Walker, right, will play point forward in Don Nelson's small-ball offense.
The big surprise in Big D? Sorry, fellas. It's still the Cowboys.

What happened in the wee hours of Monday morning doesn't quite have the shock value to match what the Cowboys are doing, even for someone who loathes the NFL like me, because nobody does player movement like the Dallas Mavericks. In a weird way you almost expect them to assemble a trade as grandiose as Raef LaFrentz (and parts) for Antoine Walker (and Tony Delk), even though there's only a week left before the season starts. You're numb to the unexpected with the Mavericks because this is already the fifth blockbuster trade they've swung in Mark Cuban's three-plus years of ownership. That's right: One for every game Bill Parcells has won.

The shocking part, if any, is that folks out there are asking why the Mavericks did this deal. The better question: Why not? Without touching their Big Three core of Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley, Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson have acquired a more talented player with a far more palatable contract. The next two words that should follow are slam and dunk.

You might remember that this was not the reaction here in August when Nick Van Exel and Antawn Jamison were the principals in the Mavs' summer blockbuster. We called that one "the Mavericks' risky first step in the restructuring of their roster" -- risky because it sacrificed their playoff hero, Van Exel, for two guys (Jamison and Danny Fortson) who have to prove they can fit in and help. That's possible, and maybe even probable, but there is no guarantee.

In Monday's trade, the risk is miniscule. Walker is only under contract for two more seasons. If he can't share the ball with all the other scorers on his new team, or if he can't maintain his new slimmed-down physique, fine. Cuban and Co. will simply move him on or use the resulting financial flexibility to make another headline-grabbing tweak. Losing LaFrentz means the Mavericks have only lost their expensive backup center; Don Nelson had already decided that a new guy, Fortson, would start.

Cuban comments
How Mavericks owner Mark Cuban breaks down the trade, as told to ESPN.com's Marc Stein:

"It's exciting and scary at the same time. We certainly didn't want to give up Raef. He worked his ass off all summer long, and we thought he would shine with Fortson (inside) to help draw attention off the other teams' best rebounders. And with the addition of (Antawn) Jamison, some of the scoring load was off of Raef, so he could do what he does best -- spot up for the 3-pointer. It would not surprise me if Raef made the All-Star team in the Eastern Conference. After Jermaine O'Neal, he is as good as anyone over there on the boards, blocking shots, and he's by far the best shooting center in the conference.

"But when you get a chance to get an All-Star, you have to take it. It really comes down to confidence in Donnie and Nellie (Donnie and Don Nelson). Nellie has always been about having the best possible players, and he has the confidence in his ability to put them in the best position to succeed. That's why guys love playing for him.

"In this case, the deal was attractive because we couldn't continue to follow the same old conventional wisdom. No matter what we do, we aren't going to match up with (Tim) Duncan, Shaq (O'Neal) and (Kevin) Garnett, so we have to find ways to continuously put pressure on all five defenders and make it more difficult for them to match up with us. Whether it's them having to have two guys boxing out Fortson, picking their poison on who they are going to double team or just running the floor even off of made baskets and forcing teams to try to match up in transition, we think we can create incredible matchup problems.

"Antoine gives us the ability to have a point forward initiate the offense, another low-post option who can step out and shoot the 3 and who can rebound. He probably won't average 20 points, but there is a real good chance he could lead the league in triple doubles, which would be just fine with us."

It wasn't supposed to be that way, of course. LaFrentz was actually regarded as the key to Blockbuster No. 3: Juwan Howard to Denver in February 2002 for LaFrentz and Van Exel. Problem was, LaFrentz never took to the Nelson system. He racked up fouls quickly and hesitated to hoist shots from the 3-point line, no matter how many times Nelson urged him to stop thinking and let fly. There was one memorable game last April when LaFrentz was everything the Mavericks had envisioned when they got him, pulling Shaquille O'Neal away from the basket and draining six 3s. LaFrentz finished with 26 points, and the Mavericks nearly avoided their 25th straight road loss to the Lakers. Sadly, it only happened that one time. The idea that two mobile 7-footers (Nowitzki and LaFrentz) could short-circuit the Lakers never really clicked, because LaFrentz was only marginally more successful against L.A. than Shawn Bradley.

Nelson offered a hint of his exasperation last week, when he said that Jamison's arrival meant LaFrentz would now be asked to merely be "the fifth-best player on the team." As for Nelson's demands offensively, he said: "Now I don't need (LaFrentz) to make (the 3-point shot). I just need him to take it."

The biggest issue with all that is that LaFrentz was signed to a seven-year deal worth nearly $70 million before last season. For that kind of money, the coach has a right to demand a little more. Don't buy the suggestion that Walker replacing LaFrentz will cause chemistry problems. If anything, there was tangible frustration in the locker room last season that the stars were getting so little help from $120 million worth of centers: LaFrentz, Bradley and Evan Eschmeyer.

Yet now you credit Cuban. Two-thirds of that trio in the pivot -- $90 million of it -- is gone. Yet again, Cuban has undone a mistake by concocting a follow-up trade. He overpaid Howard Eisley in Blockbuster No. 1 -- a four-team swap that netted Eisley from Utah in the summer of 2000 -- but moved him to New York. He overpaid LaFrentz and then proved, yet again, that there is no such thing as an untradeable contract in Mavsland.

Back on the court, meanwhile, it should be noted that the Mavs didn't just take on Walker to get rid of a bad contract. In the East, Walker is an All-Star who shoots too much. In the West, he'll be a point forward for Nelson and an edgy guy who puts Dallas even more in line with the approach taken by the Lakers and Minnesota. Which is: Get as much talent as you can first ... and then figure out all the roles later.

The Mavericks still haven't addressed their defensive shortcomings. Their ability to rebound better, meanwhile, depends largely on Fortson's ability to stay out of foul trouble. Yet the Mavericks believe the center issue, except for when they're facing O'Neal or Tim Duncan, is a non-issue. Walker figures to help Dallas against those two even less than LaFrentz did, but he'll work nicely against the other 26 teams. With Jamison and Walker, Dallas figures to uphold its status as a regular-season juggernaut, and this time with the load lessened on Nowitzki, Nash and Finley. Which is a good thing, since those three need to save as much for the playoffs as they can if Dallas plans to get past the second round this season.

The Mavericks lost a significant measure of toughness and leadership when Van Exel left, and it's still not clear how they will replace that. As a consolation, with Antawn and Antoine, the Mavericks suddenly have more firepower than they did last season -- on par with the other challengers to San Antonio's throne. The Mavericks are also deeper than they were last season, when a bench shortfall hurt them repeatedly. Fortson, Eduardo Najera, Delk, Bradley, Travis Best, Tariq Abdul-Wahad and impressive rookie Josh Howard (keep an eye on this sleeper) are all useful.

"Antoine appealed to us for a lot of reasons," Donnie Nelson said. "We like a guy who knows what it's like to take big shots in playoff-pressure situations. And let's face it: He's a versatile player, and Nellie's a versatile coach. That's usually a good combination for us."

That means surprises are indeed coming from the Mavericks, but Lil' Nellie meant lineup and matchup surprises. Another big trade? Let's face it: In Dallas, the clock just started on the next one.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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