Renegades trying more conventional approach

Updated: October 17, 2004, 12:38 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

DALLAS -- This is the season the snickering should finally stop.

Should stop.

Will it, though?

"Well," says Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson, laughing at the question before he even starts answering, "you can't stop people from talking."

THE HOT SPOTS
  • ESPN.com takes you to 10 "Hot Spots" during NBA training camp:
    Oct. 11: Los Angeles Lakers
    • Stein: Loss of pressure
    • Inside Lakers camp
    Oct. 12: Charlotte Bobcats
    • Ford: Who are these 'Cats?
    • Inside Bobcats camp
    Oct. 13: Cleveland Cavaliers
    • Stein: Playoffs or bust
    • Inside Cavaliers camp
    Oct. 14: Detroit Pistons
    • Ford: Firing on all cylinders
    • Inside Pistons camp
    Oct. 15: Dallas Mavericks
    • Stein: Nellie's best defense
    • Inside Mavericks camp
    Oct. 18: Utah Jazz
    • Ford: A different tune in Utah
    • Inside Jazz camp
    Oct. 19: Houston Rockets
    • Bucher: Van Gundy's kind of team
    • Inside Rockets camp
    Oct. 20: Orlando Magic
    • Ford: The IceMan Buildeth
    • Inside Magic camp
    Oct. 21: Miami Heat
    • Ford: The Big Copernicus
    • Inside Heat camp
    Oct. 22: San Antonio Spurs
    • Stein: Expecting the best
    • Inside Spurs camp
  • Nellie knows by now that, for the Mavericks, hushing folks can only happen one way.

    Some significant stops in the playoffs.

    "You know that's a part of the deal when you haven't won a championship -- people are going to talk about you," said Avery Johnson, Nelson's newest assistant and likely successor.

    "Even when we won a championship in San Antonio (in 1999), people said, 'It's a short season.' Well, it wasn't a short playoffs. It was still four rounds.

    "We believe that we can play defense here in Dallas, but we won't get the respect until we consistently do it. It's kind of like my jump shot. Nobody ever respected my jump shot until I played well in the playoffs."

    Nelson
    Nelson
    Slamming the Mavericks has been a popular sub-sport in the NBA for years now.

    No elite team gets bashed more regularly, in part because of their perpetually out-there owner Mark Cuban ... but mainly because there isn't an elite team in the league that has regularly played less (or worse) defense than the Mavs.

    Yet for the first time in the Nellieball era, strange as it sounds, offense is a much bigger concern for the Mavericks than defense. Which means they're not nearly as slammable as they've been ... but no lock to be successful, either.

    Traditional is the word they use down here now. Or conventional, depending on the day.

    Of course, no one's quite sure how Nelson, Cuban and the Mavs can fare with a traditional, conventional approach. Mainly because they've never tried it together.

    "When I was in Milwaukee for 11 years, we led the league in defense for about half of those seasons," Nelson said.

    "So I know how to do it. I know what's supposed to be done. It helps when you have good defenders on the team, and we have more of those than we've ever had."

    He's right there, on a couple counts.

    It helps when you have a Sidney Moncrief to anchor the defense, and these Mavericks still have no one in Moncrief's class defensively. But Nelson wasn't kidding about the Mavs' defensive potential. They're never been more equipped to stop people in the Nellie Era.

    Chris Andersen (left), Erick Dampier
    With Dampier (right) in the lowpost, the Mavs have their first legitimate center in ages.
    Dallas now sports perhaps its longest, deepest center rotation ever -- and potentially the best in team history -- with Erick Dampier as the starter and shot-blocker Calvin Booth back to relegate Shawn Bradley to third string.

    Rookie project D.J. Mbenga isn't ready to play in the NBA yet, but he's a definite specimen for the future, whether or not first-round pick Pavel Podkolzine ever develops.

    Dallas also shouldn't be so vulnerable on the perimeter, with new point guards Jason Terry and Devin Harris theoretically capable of pressuring the ball and disrupting flow better than the departed Steve Nash. If Nash had a failing as a Mav, it was his defensive limitations.

    Ever since the Mavericks responded to Nash's free-agent defection to Phoenix by acquiring Terry and Dampier, Cuban has been calling the current squad his best-ever collection of talent.

    Yes, he believes it's better than the 2003 team that went to the Western Conference finals. As he ticks off each of the five positions on the floor, Cuban contends that only the Nash-Nick Van Exel backcourt had an edge over the new Mavs.

    "Balance, athleticism, power," Cuban says. "Balance -- we have strength at every position. Athleticism -- we are long and athletic, and we used to have big problems against teams that were longer and quicker than us. Power -- something we didn't know how to spell before.

    Balance -- we have strength at every position. Athleticism -- we are long and athletic, and we used to have big problems against teams that were longer and quicker than us. Power -- something we didn't know how to spell before. All unique features for us that we haven't had before.
    Mavericks owner Mark Cuban
    "All unique features for us that we haven't had before."

    You can legitimately expect the Mavericks to be better defensively, for reasons beyond the personnel.

    For starters, Nelson has promised Cuban he will be more Milwaukee-like, after an off-season sitdown in which Nelson -- in danger of being dismissed following last spring's first-round exit -- was informed by the boss that he'd be required to spearhead an organizational commitment to defense.

    Another reason: Johnson, a self-proclaimed "defensive guy" from the Gregg Popovich school, was finally hired to serve as Nelson's understudy and is getting as much input as any assistant in the league. The Lil' General is running significant portions of Dallas' practices every day.

    That said ...

    The state of the Mavericks' offense, sans Nash, generates a new set of uncertainties that Nelson and Cuban have never had to deal with.

    Which is why Dallas sits only 10th in ESPN.com's first batch of NBA Power Rankings.

    You can't call this an elite team until the Mavericks' new-look defense proves it's good enough to compensate for the expected dip in offensive efficiency.

    Steve Nash, Mark Cuban
    Nash (left), now a Sun, leaves Cuban and his Mavericks without a proven point guard.
    For three seasons running, no team has committed fewer turnovers than the Mavericks. Cynics will say that's because Dallas so often shoots the ball after one pass, but there's no denying Nash knew exactly how to run Nelson's intricate offense while also protecting the ball.

    Dampier and Terry, the primary newcomers along with sixth man Jerry Stackhouse, are both very turnover-prone. Early reports out of camp indicate that Dampier is struggling to pick up the offensive nuances, and that Terry is receiving earfuls from Nelson about his struggles so far.

    There is surely time for improvement, but realistically it's a season-long project.

    Dallas still has a variety of scoring options -- as many as anyone, really -- but lacks a proven trigger man to get the ball to the right places. Nowitzki, Michael Finley, Stackhouse, Dampier, Terry, Marquis Daniels, Josh Howard ... passing doesn't come to mind as a specialty for any of them.

    Which is why, just two weeks into the season, Nash is already missed.

    "We gave up a very big part of what we were doing," Nowitzki said.

    "Steve was, to me, our energy point. He always got us going every night. He got our running game going. He was a very good team leader, even though he was not very vocal."

    Said Finley: "Steve and Dirk's relationship off the court was tremendous, and it kind of translated on the court. When things weren't going well for us, they had like an unspoken relationship -- they just knew where each other would be on the court, and it worked to our advantage."

    After seeing his club amass 23 turnovers in Wednesday's exhibition opener at New Orleans, Nelson suggested that these Mavs will eventually be "a low-turnover team ... or I'll be dead before the season is over."

    If not, Nelson is well aware that the pundits will be waiting with their knives, even if it's tougher now to recycle the well-worn line about the Allas Mavericks having no D.

    Much as he wants to poke back at his critics -- "Maybe you weren't born yet," Nelson says when someone brings up his defensive success with the Bucks -- the 64-year-old is well aware that this is a now business.

    "My job is to find a way to win or I'm out, let's face it," Nelson concedes. "I have to make this thing work."

    Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send 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