Why has Mavs GM Donnie Nelson never worn his championship ring? 'It's like that pink tuxedo you bought for the Senior Prom,' he tells me. 'It's got a purpose. But it's not day-to-day practical.' All the Mavs' day-to-days have taken us to the midway point of their NBA schedule ... a good time to get Donnie to assess the team, the trade deadline, Dirk, and the 'Plan Powder' future of his Mavs.
Fish: Through the first 35 games, this was the Dallas Mavericks' poorest start since the 1999-2000 season. Same with being under .500 for a time there -- first time that's been the case since 1999-2000, too. You've won five of the last six, so maybe we've got the turnaround. but how easy is it to pinpoint the 'why's' of the bad start?
Donnie: "There is plenty of blame to go around when you aren't winning. All the way to the top, we made decisions to that contribute to this. So it's front office, coaches, players ... We're all at fault here when it comes to losing games -- and we're all feeling the pain, because in the last 13 years or whatever, we haven't experienced anything like we've gone through. And believe me, I hear from Mavs fans who bleed blue who don't like it, either.
"The 'A-scenario' is that every move works and you win substantially more games than you lose. The first half of the season closed better. But being sub-.500 overall, that's obviously not 'A-scenario.'''
Fish: How much of the slow start can simply be attributed to the absence of Dirk Nowitzki?
Donnie: "You mean how much of a kick in the teeth is it when one of the 10 best players in the world is on your team but is in street clothes every night? I don't think it's making excuses to say that when Dirk is on the floor, it opens things up for everyone else, gives us a sense of confidence, puts a scare into the other team and gives us a guy who, when he's right, is going to put up 20-plus points every night ... I don't think it's an excuse to say a team misses that.
"And when we didn't have Dirk, you can bet teams were licking their chops at getting a shot at us not being at full strength. Look at the West. Look at how many teams there are that can take advantage of you when you are down.
"And without Dirk, we were down.''
Fish: One of the problems with "Plan Powder,'' or with what the Mavs have done the last two years, is that players on short-term contracts maybe feel "unloved,'' if you will. How much is that also an issue? That good guys who would normally have chemistry might lack it because they are short-termers?
Donnie: "There's a reality about chemistry when it comes to change, and that reality is, when you've got eight new faces in the room, and one of the faces in the room every day isn't the face of the franchise (Dirk), well, Coach can't just snap his fingers and say, 'Voila! We have chemistry.' Look at the different generations of players around Dirk over the years. It took time. Stevie and Fin ... and then Dirk working with Jet ... and then Dirk with the championship team.
"The good news is that every guy in that locker room is a professional. There aren't any headcases in there. The CBA has created unusual circumstances, no doubt. But this locker room is too good, and the leaders like Dirk and 'Trix and Vince are too good, to have chemistry problems.''
Fish: Every year at this time, the Mavs' front office speaks in two voices. One is that the existing players, the existing roster, deserves a chance to stay together. Two is that you and Cuban will be "opportunistic.'' Which is it this year?
Donnie: "Can't it be both? I think stability is important. Give guys a chance to grow, and to grow together. So the first thing you do is try to discover if the solution to being a playoff team, and the solution maybe even more long-term than that, is inside of our locker room.
"At the same time, when Mark uses the word 'opportunistic' with you, believe me, it's the same word he uses inside Mavs headquarters. As Feb. 21 approaches, I promise you, we will be burning up the phone lines. 'Buyer' or 'seller,' I can't quantify it that way. But we'll be in constant communication with agents and teams to try and get better. Not incrementally so; change for the sake of change won't help. But you know Mark; if it makes us better, he'll make the commitment to do it.
Fish: The "Bank of Cuban'' used to mean "the willingness to toss $3 million sweeteners into trades'' and "the willingness to take on other teams' bad contracts no matter the cost.'' What does it mean now? What does it mean as it regards a player like DeMarcus Cousins or a player like Jose Calderon?
Donnie: "Obviously I can't get into specific names. I can say, though, that the 'Bank of Cuban' means that Mark is willing to use his resources to make moves that make the Mavericks better. What's changed is that the spending no longer happens in a vacuum. It's not just a matter of Mark's checkbook. Now it's a matter of CBA restrictions. But we can be in a position to take on a contract, a player, that does three things:
One, helps us make a playoff run this year.
Two, puts us in strong position for the future.
Three, is fitting in with the thoughts of acquiring a 'big fish.'
"If that deal is out there, we'll make that deal.''
Fish: Finally, can you please put one more nail in the coffin of a dumb concept that is running wild, that Dirk might be traded, that he might ask to be traded, that the way for the Mavs to get ahead is to give up on Dirk?
Donnie: "Nail in the coffin, huh? Dirk is a once-in-a-lifetime player. Give him away and you might never be able to replace him. ... might never be able to replace the talent, the personality, the leadership, the aura. There is simply nothing advantageous I can think of when it comes to the idea of trading Dirk. So, no, Dirk Nowitzki is a Mav for life. There's your nail in the coffin.''