When Dirk Nowitzki began his NBA career, nobody thought the seven-foot German with long blonde hair would become the league’s sixth-highest scorer all-time and redefine the stretch forward position – least of all, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
Cuban spoke with members of the media courtside before his Mavericks faced the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. In that huddle, I asked him what were his first impressions of a young Nowitzki.
“I came in right after him and I beat him one-on-one, and I’m like this guy’s a burger,” Cuban replied with a smile.
Cuban claimed there was video footage of him beating the future Hall of Fame forward, 2-0. However, Cuban took a more reflective tone when asked if Nowitzki is synonymous to the Mavericks in the same breath as Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls and Tim Duncan with the San Antonio Spurs.
“Dirk is everything for the Mavericks,” Cuban said. “We are who he is. We’re the house that Dirk built. You can’t play down everything he’s been to this organization. We’ll see it for another 10 years and we’ll see how he does.”
Nowitzki is Dallas’ all-time leader in games played, minutes played, overall field goals, three-point field goals, free throws, points, offensive win shares, offensive rebounds and PER. On the defense, he leads the Mavericks in defensive rebounds, total rebounds and defensive win shares.
“Dirk, I think, deserves credit for defining what a stretch four can do,” Cuban said. “Not just shooting threes but being able to be physical, rebound, pass and shoot. For Dirk it’s not even about the threes, it’s about how well he shoots the ball from anywhere on the court. That ability to draw a double-team away from the basket is what was unique. You really didn’t see guys on the elbow drawing a double-team before Dirk.”
Nowitzki, 38, is nearing the twilight of his career. Cuban knows he’ll need to find a new face of the franchise to carry Dallas for the future.
“That happens to every franchise,” Cuban said. “Father Time is undefeated and we’ll have to deal with it. I think Harrison [Barnes] is showing a lot of signs that he can be that person. Not to try to put too much pressure on him, but it’s a job he wants and he’s willing to work for it. Hopefully, we’ll be able to add other pieces that are on the same plane.”
Barnes replacing Nowitzki – a former league MVP and 13-time All-Star – is a tough act to follow. However, Barnes has shown the offensive firepower that made him the top high school recruit in 2010.
“Harrison definitely has that quality,” Cuban said. “He has that gene. He’s focused, he’s intense, he works hard. He works as hard as Dirk. I think in the system he’s played in, though, he’s played to the system and now he’s got to be the system in a lot of respects. That will be his challenge. Does he have that ‘f— you’ [attitude] in him?”
Barnes is averaging a career-high 22.3 points per game on a career-high 49 percent shooting from the field.
“We felt like he was a system player that when you gave him the opportunity to be himself, he could be much bigger and much better,” Cuban added. “If you look at his first year and his first playoff run as a rookie against Denver I think it was, he was dominating. He was their best player. We thought that was still there, we just had to take the opportunity to bring it out of him.”
While Nowitzki has been out with a sore right Achilles, he’s had a seat on the bench to watch Barnes’ exponential growth in Dallas.
“He’s been phenomenal for us,” Nowitzki said. “We isolate him some and we post him some. He’s been shooting the ball well. He’s been the real deal for us, and he’s only 24. He’s a workhorse. We’ve got to lock him out of the gym, at times, he’s in there so much. He just works it all the time and it’s paying off for him. On top [of that], he’s a nice guy, wants to get better, wants to help the team. We’re all happy for him and we’re happy with his play, obviously, and he’s got to keep it going, obviously, especially now.”
The Mavericks are in a transition period with Nowitzki in the twilight of his career and fellow starters Deron Williams, Andrew Bogut and Wesley Mathews all over 30 years old. There has been a more concerted effort to play young talent such as Justin Anderson, Dwight Powell and Seth Curry while continuing to try and win. Granted, some of that is out of necessity due to injuries to Nowitzki, Williams and Bogut.
“I think we’re still not all the way there in having an identity as a team,” Cuban said. “Three of our top guys are hurt, but it’s given a lot of time to our young guys, which will hopefully pay off dividends over the course of the season. There’s a long way to go. The last couple years, we started fast and then faded a little bit. Now hopefully we’ll do the opposite and have more momentum going into the playoffs.”
At 2-7, Dallas is currently second to last in the Western Conference ahead of only the equally underwhelming New Orleans Pelicans.
“If you fall behind too early in the West, it’s going to be tough to recover,” Nowitzki acknowledged.
Despite the sluggish start, Nowitzki believes his eventual return will lead to better offensive production for the Mavericks.
“We go through stretches where we just make some mistakes and I feel like we’re stagnate a little bit, we can’t score enough,” Nowitzki said. “Obviously, that’s the one thing I can still sort of do. I might not be good at many other things anymore, but I can still score a little bit and help the team spread the floor and just help offensively as much as I can, so it’s tough. It’s tough to sit over there and watch us go through stretches where just nothing really goes.”
The Mavericks appear to be headed for the lottery due to the aging roster, as I noted in a previous Basketball Insiders video. With that in mind, the Mavericks have a $25 million team option on Nowitzki for next season when he’ll be 39.
Last summer, Miami Heat franchise star Dwyane Wade left to join the Chicago Bulls in free agency over a disagreement regarding his value. Would Cuban be willing to pay a 39-year-old $25 million?
“Did you see what I paid him this year?” Cuban said. “He got maxed out except for one contract and then he opted out of that contract and more than made up for it. He is the franchise. Any money I didn’t give to him, I put in my pocket so I was fine with giving it to him.”
I asked Cuban if there was any doubt in his mind whether Nowitzki would ultimately retire in a Mavericks uniform?
“No,” Cuban replied. “I don’t see why it would be any other way. He’s had plenty of opportunities to leave and he’s chosen not to.”
“I have all kinds of pictures and dirt on him that would probably be very uncomfortable if he did [leave]. And vice-versa,” he joked.
Cuban believes Nowitzki should be held in the same regard as a long-time in-state rival when he retires.
“I think he and Tim Duncan are very similar in a lot of respects,” Cuban said. “We had such a great rivalry over all those years. Steve Nash, same thing. Michael Finley. Those are guys that stop to take pictures and realize the value of nice. They aren’t self-promoters and they don’t have to be. They let their game speak for itself. I think more guys are like that now. When you walk on the court, it’s scoreboard. When you walk off and have the satisfaction of winning and playing the way you feel you should have played, what more is there? Being appreciated by your teammates and your fans. Dirk never tried to get big endorsements or be a big make-money-off-the-court type of guy. He just wanted to play, win, enjoy himself and just be Dirk. He did it on his terms and that was more important than anything.”
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN