Boston Celtic Jason Terry faces his former Dallas Mavericks teammates Wednesday in Boston, and you'll hear nothing but good vibes and effusive heaps of respect coming from either side as the two teams line up. Both squads were once championship contenders, currently attempting to round back into form; and both feature movers of paramount influence in Terry and Mavs owner Mark Cuban that were once thought too unorthodox to lead an NBA team to a title. Both Cuban and Terry proved the doubters wrong in 2011 when the Mavs won the championship, so both carry a bond that should last for years. Mix that with the fact that both love to go on record in front of the assembled media, and you come out with stories like this.
Months into Terry's first year with the Mavericks in 2004-05, then-Mavs coach Don Nelson was unsatisfied with his point guard. According to Cuban, the owner had to talk his coach and personnel boss away from dealing Terry to the Utah Jazz for Raul Lopez. If you're wondering who Raul Lopez is, we'll tell you in a second. First, the news from Mark, via Dwain Price of the Star-Telegram:
Nelson apparently was so disenchanted that he already had a deal done to ship Terry to the Utah Jazz. But owner Mark Cuban pulled the plug on the trade.
"I remember having to tell Nellie that, 'No, we're not trading him to Utah for Raul Lopez,' '' Cuban said." Because Nellie told me the deal was done.
"The point being that Jet went through some tough times when he first got here. And he got better and he grew with the team.''
Everything that Mark Cuban has to say about Don Nelson, in retrospect of their five-year relationship with the Dallas Mavericks between 2000 and 2005, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Though Mark appreciates Nellie's work and still trusts Nelson's son to currently run the Mavs, he often butted heads with the iconoclastic former coach. So much so that Cuban didn't mind going on record under threat of perjury in 2009 to detail Nellie's sometimes-dodgy decisions as Mavericks coach and personnel boss. And their irreparably fractured relationship.
Things came to a head during the 2004-05 season. Cuban had declined to match Phoenix's six-year, $66 million offer for the 30-year-old Nash, a move for the Mavs that made sense in every conceivable NBA way. Point guards usually shouldn't be paid eight figures until they're 36, and Nash had by that point turned as many All-Star seasons as he did injury-plagued runs. Nobody, and certainly not Suns GM Bryan Colangelo (desperate to win his fans back, dealing with a new owner in Robert Sarver that wanted to spend like a madman out of the gate), thought that Nash would still be carrying teams six years later, much less being relied upon as the linchpin of a Los Angeles Lakers team in 2012.
This didn't bother Nelson. It wasn't his money to spend, and it probably wouldn't have been his team to coach six years later if Nash had acted like just about every other point guard in NBA history and turned into a millstone by age 36. He wanted Nash now, in his prime, at age 30 in 2004-05. Even if he routinely took the ball out of Nash's hands the season before while the Mavs attempted to re-create Nellie's glory days with Paul Pressey by adding Antoine Walker to the team at point forward.
So Nellie entered 2004-05 sullen, and dispirited. And Terry entered that season with a lot to prove.
He was drafted to lead a young Atlanta Hawks squad five years earlier but failed to balance his scoring point guard instincts on a team with too many ball-stopping mouths to feed. Terry's reputation was in the dirt in 2004 to everyone but the Mavs, who were ahead of the curve in noticing how efficient a scorer Terry was, and that a team built around JET as a pick and roll scorer instead of a Stockton-styled distributor could do some damage.
"Everyone but the Mavs," save for Don Nelson. Who didn't notice Terry's white hot work from the floor in his first season with Dallas (50 percent shooting, 42 percent from long range, 84 percent from the free-throw line) while pining for a player in Nash that he traded for all the way back in 1998. Smitten with the Stockton-styled distributors, Nellie (according to Cuban, today) set up a deal for Raul Lopez — the man Utah drafted to replace John Stockton.
The Stockton comparisons around Lopez were in place weeks before the Jazz actually selected him in the 2001 draft, so the pairing of Lopez and Stockton's current team (which had just been downed by the Mavericks in that year's playoffs) set those comparisons into overdrive. Lopez worked one more year in Real Madrid before tearing his ACL in the summer of 2002, just months before signing with the Jazz. He missed the 2002-03 season before hitting Utah in 2003 and putting up a perfectly respectable 82-game rookie season at age 23, in Stockton's first year away from the NBA. He was contributing more of the same in 2004-05, backing up 2004 Olympics hero Carlos Arroyo in Utah, when he suffered another torn ACL. Traded to Memphis the next summer, Lopez was cut soon after and has been a workable pro with several international teams in the years since.
A good, if not spectacular, pass-first point guard that Nellie wanted to replace Steve Nash in the same way the Jazz wanted Lopez to replace Stockton. Even if Nash and Stockton's per-minute and advanced stats — to no fault of Lopez's — far out-paced Raul's at the same age.
Nellie didn't care about that, we're left to assume. He cared about how things looked, and he preferred someone darting around to drop dimes instead of rising up for what was one of the most on-target strokes in the game at that point. Dispirited by Nash's absence and Phoenix's rising to the point of earning the best record in the NBA, Nellie stepped aside after 66 games to hand the team to Avery Johnson.
Johnson finished the season on a 16-2 clip, and his team (working with a rookie head coach in his first few months on the job) nearly downed Nash's Suns in the playoffs. A year later, the Mavs made the Finals; with Jason Terry happily acting as "not Steve Nash" all along the way.
Years later, this is still what people don't get. Despite his love and admiration for Steve Nash, Don Nelson held Nash back by not letting him dominate the ball once Steve got healthy in time for the 2000-01 season. A season that, it should be noted, Mark Cuban signed Howard Eisley prior to and talked up a training camp battle for the starting point guard slot. There's a reason that Nash's play and statistics shot up when he returned to Phoenix, despite his entrance into his early and mid-30s.
Steve Nash and Steve Nash-led teams need Steve Nash dominating the ball to be effective. And despite his longtime friendship with Dirk Nowitzki, Dirk Nowitzki-led teams need someone to play off the ball and hit the occasional dagger. That's what Jason Terry does, and that's why Jason Terry was so successful as a member of the Dallas Mavericks.
It's a throwaway comment from Cuban in advance of a random Wednesday night game, a game that won't even take place in Terry's old Dallas stomping grounds. It still clicks all the right buttons, though.
Mark Cuban may have been burned by Steve Nash's unprecedented post-30 rise to MVP-winning brilliance, but Jason Terry was no consolation prize. Luckily for Dallas, Mark Cuban knew that all along.