Coach's Corner

Mark Cuban has transformed the once-pathetic Dallas Mavericks into an elite NBA squad -- but they're not quite there yet.

The blond-red brick facade of the American Airlines Center sprawls over the seedy industrial area west of downtown Dallas. America's newest arena -- home to the Mavericks and Stars -- is designed in the chic art-deco architecture that says to hang on to your wide ties and double breasted suits. Anything can happen in fashion-famished America.

This contempo/retro look ends at the front door. Once inside, the high tech wizardry of this arena is close to overwhelming. Many of the seats are Internet-connected -- why, I'm not sure. Even high, high up on the seventh-level press box, there's egalitarian cable hook-ups and Internet connections at every seat. There isn't a spare inch of flashing space inside the American Center not devoted to making money. The electronic ring around the arena is a veritable who's-who of the Dow Jones: RCA, Coke, American Airlines, Budweiser, DirecTV, Ford, UPS, and, uh, Sonny Bryan's Barbecue. This isn't counting the octagonal scoreboard and its eight living-room-perfect massive TV screens.

The Dallas Mavericks are the rare sports organization where the owner is the franchise's biggest star. Cuban took over the silent, long-forgotton, eviscerated hulk of a team in the first days of the new century. The dreadful Mavs of the Nineties were a textbook example of a team to forget; most of Dallas did. Cuban's whatever-it-takes attitude, combined with the infectious personality of a natural promoter, had a miraculous effect on the moribund club. Cuban took over a 9-21 team, an outstanding record for Mavs teams of the Nineties. With the same sorry-ass players -- now treated like kings instead of swine -- they posted a 31-19 record the rest of the year -- a flat out miracle by the woeful standards commonplace in Dallas

In a true overnight tale of success, the Mavs have gone from an NBA toilet plunger to almost NBA aristocracy. The operative word is almost. The standings say Dallas, 33-13, is now one of the league's best teams. Today's match-up with the Lakers will provide an excellent test for the credibility of the Texas upstarts. History rings an ominous and cautionary tone: L.A. leads the series with a fairly convincing 75-17 record.

But that, as coaches are wont to comment, is history. January saw Dallas complete their best month ever; winning 12 of 16 games -- without the services of All-Star forward Michael Finley for most of the month. It's a spurt that's squirted Dallas to the top of the Midwest Division, a place they haven't seen this late in the year since the Eighties.

But what makes Dallas such an entertaining team is what, in April, will kill them: they win by pushing every ball up the court as fast as Steve Nash can run, shooting threes with an abandon that would make Tom Penders cringe, and taking an easy lay-up only as a last resort. Defense is what Donald Rumsfeld does. Maverick opponents average 100 points a game. But who cares, Dallas averages 107.

On Super Bowl Sunday, against the league's most lethal team, the Fun-and-Gun Gang get kicked in the teeth. The Mavs shoot a painful, horrific 28 three-pointers, making only four. That's not good. The Laker D isn't close to its playoff Doberman Pinscher intensity; most of the Dallas misses are almost uncontested ... but a miss is a miss. This one-shot-and-out offense results in a massive rebounding edge for L.A., including an eight-rebound deficit on the offensive boards.

The Lakers show what pros and blazing ball movement will do against a Chinese Fire Drill zone defense. Fox, Fisher, Horry, and anyone else loitering on the perimeter, define the expression 'wide open' ... except they're not much better than Dallas, missing almost as badly and almost as often. The difference is, of course, Shaq. The Diesel turns many of those misses into easy dunks. Shawn Bradley and Wang Zhi-zhi don't. Shaq finishes with a quiet 31 points. Nelson likes his zone; it does deny easy interior looks for O'Neal, but on most nights L.A. will kill you with those open threes.

The Mavs play from behind most of the afternoon, but poor Laker shooting keeps the score close. Shaq and Kobe combine on the game's pivotal play when Kobe hits O'Neal with a eye-blinking no-look pass in the middle of the fourth quarter, resulting in a backbreaking thunderous Shaq Dunk. But in reality, it's a relatively effortless road win for L.A. against a team that is, today, a pretender to the throne. Don Nelson acknowledges this as he begins experimenting with a new, more playoff-trusted, bigger line-up. Look for Wang, who Nelson thinks "will be a great player some day," to see more minutes in the second half of the season. Look for long time UT thorn Eduardo Najera to get less.

It's Phil Jackson, not often a source of reason when discussing a potential bitter rival, who puts some perspective on the Dallas Mavericks, pointing out how bad they were just a few years ago, and how far they've come. But the good feelings and intense, upbeat vibe of Mark Cuban will only go so far in the Western Conference. Down the road a few hundred miles are the powerful, tempo-controlling towers of Duncan and Robinson.

A thousand miles to the west, on the edge of the continent, well, that's an evil place too.

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