It is 5 p.m., two-and-a-half hours before a Dallas tipoff. Mavs owner Mark Cuban has been answering my battery of questions while at the same time practicing long-range jumpers and free throws. But when he hears my question – “Is this regular season – or at least part of the season – about experimentation? -- it interrupts his rhythm. He clanks a free throw. And he looks at me incredulously.
“Of course!’’ he says. “It’s the start of the regular season! When else would you experiment?’’
Tonight’s Suns-at-Mavs duel will be framed as a “big game.’’ The special late start time accommodates a national-TV audience. TNT’s Charles Barkley will drawl insults at the Mavs – whether he actually watches the game or not. The Dirk Nowitzki/Steve Nash friendship angle will be broached, ad infinitum.
But for your own mental health, let me remind you: The Mavs are just now exiting an experimental period, a quarter-season test tube, a science project mant to pay off four months from now.
The ample playing time given to young Brandon Bass is part of the experiment. The recent elevation of Eddie Jones into the starting lineup at the 2 represents the hopeful end of the part of the experiment at that position. Jason Terry and Jerry Stackhouse being locked into the sixth- and seven-man spots, respectively, needs to be the result of the experiment.
“One of the reasons we failed in the playoffs (last year against Golden State) is a lack of depth,’’ Cuban says, resuming his long-range shooting, with me as a note-taking ball-fetcher. “So let’s develop that now. Let’s learn now. Let’s experiment with it now. Play to learn. Play to learn.’’
Maybe the greatest victim – or beneficiary, because we really don’t know the outcome of the experiment, do we? – is Dirk Nowitzi. Coach Avery Johnson has, on the whole, l downshifted Dirk, morphing him into a player who is less likely to ever win another MVP trophy but more likely to lead the team in assists.
The official word here when I bring up the subject of “Nowitzki as a supplemental player”: Dallas knows what it can get from Dirk. So other weapons are being developed. And eventually, Dirk can climb back up the totem pole. Makes some sense. And whose idea is this?
“Dirk is simply doing what the coach tells him to do,’’ Cuban tells me.
One of things Nowitzki is being told to do, though, is to become Tim Duncan-like. And that’s not blogosphere crap; that term “Duncan-like’’ is actually uttered to me by Del Harris, the Mavs consultant.
Here’s the way history is going to evaluate what’s being done with Dirk Nowitzki: He’s a special perimeter player being told to play more inside. He’s got “no butt and not a strong base,’’ as Del puts it, both requirements for a true post player. He’s a willing passer, but not a great one. He used to take 19 shots a game. Now he takes 16 shots a game. He’s a seven-time All-NBA player and the reigning MVP. … and we’re changing him.
It would be one thing to “add’’ to Dirk’s game. The Mavs coaching staff has always done that. But “changing’’ is different from “adding.’’
Ideally, we’ll get to the stretch run, and the playoffs, and Dirk will be Dirk – with a hint of Duncan thrown in.
The experiment doesn’t necessarily need to pay off in one game, tonight. But for the 2007-08 season? Yeah, this all better work.