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SPORTS On a Roller Coaster With the Mavericks

New GM Nelson gives fans another reason to hang on for their lives.
By SKIP BAYLESS |

HEARTS IN THROATS, DALLAS MAVERICKS fans have been stuck on a roller coaster ride of good news/sad news.

Good news: As this season began, rookie general manager Frank Zaccanelli vowed the Three J ’s-emerging stars Jason Kidd, Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn- would lift the Mavs into the playoffs for the first time since 1990. Sad news: Zaccanelli sanctioned several moves-worst of all a Kidd trade that could go down as one of the worst in NBA history-that destroyed progress and hope.

Good news: By February, Zaccanelli realized his limitations and coaxed one of the most respected and feared coaches ever ; into coming out of semi-retirement and tak-ing over the Mavs. Whoa, Nellie: Amateur : Hour was over. Don Nelson, known as “Nellie,” was potentially the most signifi- ’ cant addition in team history-instant national credibility. Here came a straight-talking, 6-foot-6 polar bear of a sandy-haired man’s man who took no guff. Call him Big D.

Sad news: Nelson, 57, immediately and convincingly said he’ll never coach again. As nothing more than GM, all he wants to do is make trades, draft choices and make big-picture decisions.

Good news: Nelson made perhaps the boldest move in NBA history by watching one game and deciding to trade most of the team and start over. It was as if an asteroid hit the locker room. The attitudes of several overpaid, unproductive stars “made me sick,” Nelson said, making many frustrated fans want to “Shout!” along with their ’80s theme song.

And pout: After trading all three J’s, the Mavs were left without one proven or even potential star. They freed virtually no salary-cap money with which to sign a free agent. They added not one draft pick with which to rebuild. Nelson, it appears, decisively went off half-cocked, impatiently taking some of the first offers for Mashburn (six days before the Feb. 20 trade deadline) and Jackson (twodays before the deadline). “Bleepin’ babies” he called “our two famous guys.” GMs around the league were stunned Nelson didn’t at least try to auction off Mashburn and Jackson at the 11th hour-or, better, wait until the summer, when the best trades are made. As unconscionably unhappy as Mashburn and Jackson had become, what besides macho aura did Nelson gain by kicking them out the door to the first bidders?

Nelson’s Mavs are now made up mostly of players who’d make good sixth, seventh and eighth men on good teams. Mavs fans, after paying years of bad-team dues for the Three J’s, are once more being asked to accept another five-year plan-and to hope Nellie sees something no one else does. Four NBA GMs had similar off-the-record reactions: “What is Nellie doing?1’ In this case. Nelson’s reputation as something of an eccentric genius seemed more eccentric than genius.

But, good news: Nelson might get more involved with the coaching if he eventually replaces current coach Jim Cleamons with his son, Donn Nelson, a 34-year-old Phoenix Suns assistant coach. Sources around the league believe that will happen.

Sad news: Many of the same sources say Nelson took the Dallas job mostly because Zaccanelli let him name his price: a guaranteed $8 million for five years (“coach’s money to be GM,” Nelson said privately), two country-club golf memberships, a new Mercedes and even the ability to return to his home in Maui for six weeks following the trade deadline. That kind of security certainly made it a little easier for him to light one of his cigars and melt down the Mavs. In a way. Nelson also bought himself more time by lowering expectations back to ground zero. “This is going to take a while,” Nelson stressed.

Does he remain semi-retired? Instead of wanting six weeks off, wouldn’t a new GM want to evaluate the brand-new team he wrought and to offer a tip or two to Shawn Bradley? The Mavs are now building around the 7-foot-6 Bradley, who does only one thing very well: be tall. Although he occasionally can be a game-changing shot-blocker, the freakishly spindly Bradley too often gels sand kicked in his face by the game’s best centers and power forwards. Worse, he eats up around $7 million a year in cap money. To build around Bradley is to continually rebuild. If only Nelson- who long has been intrigued by Bradley- were coaching him.

But if you really want to suffer, imagine Nelson coaching Kidd.

On his first day at Reunion Arena, Nelson walked into the Mavs offices and said only half-kiddingly, “Whoever traded Jason Kidd ought to be shot.”

During an interview the next day. Nelson’s eyes twinkled when he was asked about coaching point guard Kidd, who as a Cal-Berkeley star occasionally practiced with Nelson’s Golden State team. Nelson is at his instinctive best coaching an uptempo style; Kidd was bom to run. Former Mavs coach Dick Motta dropped Kidd’s reins and watched him fast-break his way to co-Rookie of the Year, then to the All-StarGame in his second season. Kidd is a proven NBA star with superstar potential.

Yet as Nelson subtly notes, “If Jason were still here, I wouldn’t be.” Translation: If Zaccanelli and Company hadn’t blown the Kidd situation, they wouldn’t have felt much urgency to pursue Nelson.

Mayday! Mayday! The latest cycle of Mavs misery started last May I, when Don Carter sold his controlling interest in the team to Ross Perot Jr., a young businessman of considerable integrity and intellect who didn’t know the NBA from an MBA. His right-hand man, troubleshooter and deal-closer-Zaccanelli-happened to be a long-suffering Mavs fan who played some basketball at Potsdam State and was good buddies with former Mavs star Mark Aguirre. So Zaccanelli easily convinced Perot Jr. to let him handle the Mavs, and Zaccanelli asked an elated Aguirre to serve as his advisor.

Yes, the Mavs were being run by a frustrated fan and a former star who once caused more locker-room problems than Kidd, Jackson and Mashburn combined.

Imagine the magic that might have been made if Zaccanelli/Aguirre immediately had hired Nelson, who had just been fired as New York Knicks coach after only 60 games. Yet Nelson had grown weary of dealing with today’s grotesquely wealthy stars, who have lost respect for the game and its elders. Nelson’s lingering bitterness likely contributed to his hasty trading of Jackson and Mashburn, who “just don’t love the game the way I do.” Insider assessments of Nelson’s NY fall ranged from he “gave up” to he “cracked up.” Vowing to take at least a year off, Nelson left for Maui.

While Zaccanelli vowed to conduct a GM search, it soon became clear that he would delay that hire as long as possible- perhaps indefinitely. Zaccanelli was having the time of his life. After conquering the real-estate world with his savvy and charm. Zaccanelli figured outsmarting NBA decision-makers wouldn’t be that hard. “Hey,” he said, “this isn’t brain surgery.”

Aguirre had long admired the way Chicago assistant Cleamons ran practices for Bulls head coach Phil Jackson, and Zaccanelli bragged publicly about how the Mavs were able to “get” permission to talk to an under-contract Cleamons before Chicago played in last June’s NBA Finals. Yet several Chicago sources say Bulls GM Jerry Krause gave the Mavs permission only because he was afraid he might lose head coach Jackson and didn’t want to be pressured to elevate first assistant Cleamons, an African-American who had paid seven years of Bulls dues. As much as Krause liked and admired Cleamons, he had decided Cleamons didn’t have the personality to be a great leader. Zaccanelli solved a big problem for Krause, while creating one for Kidd.

A Mavs source says, “Jim is the kind of guy who would take off his coat and toss it on a puddle so his wife could walk over it. Most of today’s players can’t relate to that.” Zaccanelli says Cleamons “has all the attributes to be a real good coach-character, intelligence, work ethic.”Yet Cleamons isn’t particularly hip or cool. No edge or presence. Players don’t automatically fear, respect or listen to him. While former personnel director Rick Sund readily admits he made “a big mistake” in hiring Quinn Buckner, who lasted only one season (’93-’94). Zaccanelli hired what some Mavs staffers call “a nice Quinn”-another African-American teacher-coach who tried and failed to impose a rigid system on young African-American players.

Incredibly, Kidd wasn’t consulted before Cleamons was hired. Who was more valuable, a franchise point guard or a rookie coach? Kidd and Cleamons predictably clashed because Cleamons wanted the creative, high-rpm Kidd to walk before he ran-to set up a structured half-court offense that sometimes forced Kidd to do what he does worst, which is shoot perimeter shots. While Cleamons and Zaccanelli began to see Kidd as a bad apple and disruptive force-and Zaccanelli was lauded by the media for standing up to his young star-the truth is that Kidd is just, well, a kid who can be much smarter on the court than off it. Nelson could have handled him. Kidd loves the game as much as he does.

But Zaccanelli/Cleamons shipped Kidd to Phoenix (with Tony Dumas and Loren Meyer) for Michael Finley (an excellent athlete who’ll never quite be an All-Star), Sam Cassell (a shoot-first point guard) and an aging, high-salaried A.C. Green. Starting next season, this trade will look worse for Dallas by the game. Kidd had become Cowboy-big in Dallas. You don’t trade him without getting back a star.

Yet the Mavs will at least have another high draft choice this June, right? No, Zaccanelli/Cleamons traded this year’s first-round pick to Boston for Eric Mont-ross without lottery protection! Zaccanelli, figuring his Mavs would easily make the playoffs, didn’t think it was necessary to insist that Boston won’t get the pick until next year if the Mavs fall into the 13-team lottery. Now, if Boston gets lucky, it could hit the lottery and come away with, say, Wake Forest big man Tim Duncan for Montross, who proved to be little more than a 7-foot albatross. “Nice kid. but he can’t play,” says Nelson.

If Zaccanelli wasn’t already the butt of NBA “brain surgery” jokes, word spread that he sometimes suited up and shot baskets at the end of Mavs practices. “Walter Mitty” was what rivals began to call Zaccanelli, who also accompanied Cleamons into the locker room for his pre-game and halftime talks-a no-no for GMs.

But Zaccanelli at least canceled part of his rookie mistakes by landing Nelson, who says, “I initially told Frank, ’If you want to come over here [to Maui] and play some golf, fine, But I’m not interested in the Mavericks.” But we hit it off, and the more we talked, the more I started thinking about it. He’s some kind of salesman.”

Nelson demanded in writing that Zaccanelli (and, in effect, Aguirre) would have nothing more to do with the operation. Zaccanelli remains a minority owner. But Nelson says, “He’s totally out. I’m in charge. That’s exactly what was needed, for his good and the good of the franchise.”

Yet Nelson quickly shocked the world more with the quantity than quality of his trades. For Mashburn, he took three players Miami had peddled for weeks without takers-Kurt Thomas, Sasha Danilovic and Martin Muursepp. Then, in what’s regarded as the largest NBA trade ever, Nelson fire-saled Jim Jackson, Chris Galling, George McCloud, Sam Cassell and Montross to New Jersey for Bradley, point guard Robert Pack (an exciting, erratic gunner who’s been with rive teams in six years), Khalid Reeves (a backup shooting guard) and Ed O’Bannon (an NBA bust).

“We have our two cornerstones,” Nelson said of Bradley and Pack. They do? I hope so. I’ve long been a Nelson admirer, and I miss those magical Mavs playoff nights. But in the end, we in Dallas are left mostly with Nellie, our one proven “star,” left hoping he, like so many Mavs acquisitions, hasn’t lost his fire and touch.