HOW DO YOU TURN A DOORMAT INTO A CONTENDER? HIRE THE GUY IN THE MIDDLE AND LET HIM COOK UP AN ORDER OF NOWITZKI WITH A SIDE OF NASH
Synopsis: On June 24, 1998, Dallas Mavericks’ GM Don Nelson masterminded two trades which converted the team’s 1998 and 1999 first round draft picks into Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash. In one night, the fortunes of the NBA’s perennial doormat started to change. This post examines the rise of the Mavericks from a disfunctional loser (phase 1) to a consistent winner (phase 2) to NBA Champions (phase 3). Both Nowitzki and Nash helped the team escape from phase 1 and enter phase 2 while Nowitzki put the team on his back to take it to phase 3.
NOWITZKI AND A SIDE OF NASH
Despite being the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, John Stockton is rarely gets recognized as the greatest point guard in league history. Instead, he gets overshadowed by Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas, who all won NBA Championships. For example, Stockton had over 5,000 more assists (15,806 vs. 10,141) and almost twice as many steals (3,265 vs. 1,724) than Magic, but had five fewer rings. When determining legends, titles matter the most.
As a parallel, three-time Coach of the Year Don Nelson has won more games than anyone else in NBA history. Still, he never gets mentioned as the NBA’s greatest coach ever because he never won a championship. I’m not about to claim that Nellie should be revered like Red, Pat, Phil, or Pop. However, he deserves more credit than he seems to get. Of note, thought outside the box (e.g. point forward, stretch 4, “Hack-a-Shaq”) in order to maximize his team’s potential.
In addition to having success as a head coach, Nelson had success as an executive. He saw value in aging stars like Bob Lanier and Jack Sikma, budding stars like Terry Cummings and Ricky Pierce, and future stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash when others didn’t. Then again, he broke up Run TMC (Golden State’s exciting trio of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullen) by trading Richmond for Billy Owens, so he had some misses too. With respect to all of Nelson’s deals, the two-stage trade resulting in Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash coming to Dallas might be his finest.
As part of a prearranged trade before the 1998 Draft, Dallas took Robert “Tractor” Traylor with its 6th pick and traded him to Milwaukee for the Bucks’ 9th (Dirk Nowitzki) and 19th (Pat Garrity) picks. Moments later, the Mavericks turned around and traded Garrity and their 1999 1st round pick (along with throw-ins Martin Muursepp and Bubba Wells) to the Phoneix Suns for Steve Nash. The following pictures might help.
Trade 1: Traylor for Nowitzki and Garrity
Trade 2: Garrity, Muursepp, Wells and Dallas’ 1999 First Round Pick (Shawn Marion) for Steve Nash
1999 FIRST ROUND DRAFT PICK
With respect to Muursepp and Wells, neither player ever suited up for the Suns (or any other NBA team for that matter). Clearly, Mavs owner Ross Perot threw them in simply to save some money. Long story short, Nelson converted the Mavericks’ 1998 and 1999 1st round draft picks into Nowitzki and Nash while dumping $1 million in salary. Not a bad day’s work, Don.
HACK-A-RODMAN (THE PRECURSOR TO HACK-A-SHAQ)
While researching the Nowitzki and Nash trades, I came across an interesting side story involving Bubba Wells. Specifically, I learned that Wells holds the dubious record of fouling out of an NBA game in the least amount of time (3 minutes). In a game against the Chicago Bulls in December 1997, Nelson inserted Wells simply to foul Dennis Rodman. As a replacement coach with a 1-11 record for a 5-23 team, Nelson wanted to try something new.
Apparently, the coach theorized that his team would be more effective fouling Rodman (shooting 40% from the line) than letting Jordan have an opportunity to score. Coaches previously had instructed players to foul the weakest free throw shooter on the other team as a way to stop the clock at the end of a close game. However, Nelson became a pioneer by doing it as part of a legitimate defensive strategy in the middle of a game.
Nellie’s strategy didn’t exactly work that night because Rodman shot 9-12 from the line and Jordan got 41 points on 16-29 shooting. The Mavericks only lost by six points to the defending champions, however, so the coach had a reason to feel some validation. Eventually, he found a more cooperative subject for his experiment in Shaquille O’Neal. Ultimately, the strategy proved to be effective enough for other coaches to adopt it and for it to get a nickname: The Hack-a-Shaq.
In fact, the strategy still continues today. In a game last Friday night (January 16, 2015), I watched the Cavs’ Mike Miller foul the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan four times within 80 seconds during the 3rd quarter. Jordan went 5-12 from the line during the game (including 4-8 after the Miller fouls). Given that the Clippers lost by five points, the strategy seemed to work. Get ready DeAndre because you haven’t seen the last of it.
NELLIE AS GM
By the time the Mavericks hired Nelson as GM in February 1997, the team had a lot of problems. Over the prior five years, the organization had drafted a Big 3 consisting of Jimmy Jackson (#4 overall pick in 1992), Jamal Mashburn (#4 overall pick in 1993), and Jason Kidd (#2 overall pick in 1994). Unfortunately, their egos (and Toni Braxton) got in the way.
TONI BRAXTON – THE POWER TO BRING DOWN AN NBA TEAM
Even after Dallas traded Kidd in December 1996, team chemistry remained an issue. Within two weeks of accepting the new job, Nelson got rid of both Mashburn and Jackson. I have to say “got rid of” because of the players picked up in return. In particular, the only notable players received by the Mavericks included suspected bust Shawn Bradley and actual bust Ed O’Bannon. After the trades, the only decent player on the roster was Michael Finley.
Without a deep team, Dallas plodded through the 1997-98 season. However, Nelson made a big splash after the season by masterminding the Nowitzki and Nash trades at the 1998 Draft. With Finley, Nowitzki and Nash as the nucleus of a revamped team, Nellie had set the stage for an impressive turnaround.
- 1997-98: Nelson takes over as head coach after 20 games (and a 4-16 record). The Mavs won 20 games (24% winning percentage) during the entire season and missed the playoffs by 21 games.
- 1998-99: In a strike-shortened season (Nowitzki and Nash’s first with the team), Dallas won 19 games (38% winning percentage) and missed the playoffs by six games.
- 1999-2000: 40 wins (49% winning percentage). Missed the playoffs by four games.
- 2000-01: 53 wins (65% winning percentage). Tied for 4th best record in Western Conference. Lost in conference semi-finals to San Antonio.
- 2001-02: 57 wins (70% winning percentage). 4th best record in Western Conference. Lost in conference semi-finals to Sacramento.
- 2002-03: 60 wins (73% winning percentage). Tied for best record in Western Conference. Lost in conference finals to Spurs, the eventual NBA Champion.
Based on this trajectory, the Mavericks seemingly had a year to go before a Finals appearance as the Western Conference representative. However, the team actually regressed and lost to the Kings in the 1st round of the 2004 playoffs after winning 52 wins (5th place) during the regular season. As a result of this regression, Dallas let Nash go via free agency and retooled by trading for Jason Terry.
NOWITZKI, BUT NO MORE NASH
At first, Nellie’s decision seemed short-sighted given that Nash experienced his most success after returning to the Suns. In his first year back in Phoenix, Nash won the league MVP and led the team to the conference finals (after beating the Mavericks in the semi-finals). Perhaps due to his decision to let Nash go, Nelson resigned during the 2004-05 season. In turn, Dallas replaced him with Avery Johnson on the bench and with Donnie Nelson (his son) as GM.
In his second year, Nash repeated as league MVP. Unlike the prior year, Dallas beat Phoenix in the playoffs. This time, they met in the Western Conference finals. In their first trip to the NBA Finals, the Mavericks lost to Shaq and the Miami Heat. Since much of Nash’s success came with the Suns, his time in Dallas gets overlooked. As such, the second piece of Nelson’s 1998 draft night trade is often forgotten.
On the other hand, Nowitzki continued to reach new heights with the Mavericks. He won the MVP award for the 2006-07 season after leading the team to a league-best 67 wins (including a 52-5 stretch at one point). Unfortunately, that team lost in the first round to the Golden State Warriors in one of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history.
Do you want to guess who guided Golden State to the upset? Wait for it. That’s right, Don Nelson. As you probably know, the Mavericks stuck it out and eventually won an NBA Championship in 2011. That team beat the Heat and Miami’s newly formed Big 3 of Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
With all due credit to Nowitzki, the title wouldn’t have been possible without valuable contributions from other players. Interestingly, many of them had historical ties to the team.
- Jason Kidd had returned for a second tour of duty with the Mavericks. After being traded during the 1997-98 season, Kidd became the Suns’ starting point guard so Nash became expendable. As previously described, Nash ended up in Dallas, but not directly in a trade for Kidd. While away from Dallas, Kidd led the New Jersey Nets to two appearances in the NBA Finals. Despite two losses (Lakers in 2002 and Spurs in 2003), Kidd gained valuable playoff experience that helped secure a title for the team that originally drafted him.
- In the 1999 Draft, Phoenix used the pick it received from Dallas in the Nash trade to select Shawn Marion. Of note, Marion proved to be very productive as a 9th overall pick (4x All Star, 2x 3rd Team All-NBA). Despite his success with the Suns, Marion ultimately became trade bait to bring “Hack-a-Shaq” O’Neal to Phoenix. Marion had short stints in Miami and Toronto before getting trading to Dallas before the 2009-10 season. No longer a 20 point / 10 rebound per game player, he contributed 12 points and six rebounds per game during the Mavs’ run to the 2011 Championship.
- With Kidd at the point, Jason Terry (who came to Dallas to play point guard after Nash left in free agency) moved to shooting guard and blossomed as an outside threat. In the 2011 playoffs, Terry shot 50% on his 2-point shots and 44% from beyond the arc to average over 17 points per game.
Over the years, the lopsided nature of the Traylor-for-Nowitzki trade has led some people to consider Traylor an all-time bust. While the former Michigan player earned an Honorable Mention, I don’t agree. Regardless, as Nowitzki continues to reach impressive milestones, that claim seems to get more and more attention.
In contrast, Nelson’s trade for Nash on the same night often gets forgotten. Perhaps, the oversight can be understood given that Nash achieved greater individual success away from Dallas. Furthermore, the unknown second piece of the trade (Shawn Marion) had an All-star caliber career of his own. Regardless, Nellie’s moves during the 1998 Draft help set the stage for one of the NBA’s great turnaround stories.