NEW YORK – For the longest time, there's been a superstar savior on the cusp of coming to save the Mavericks from themselves. Kevin Garnett. Kobe Bryant. This time, it's Jason Kidd. Around basketball, there's always suspicion that it's merely a matter of time until Mark Cuban concludes that the championship chase has come and gone for his franchise.
In the aftermaths of the Miami and Golden State disasters, the Mavericks are forever fighting a belief that those Shakespearean basketball tragedies have crushed the franchise's psyche. Another sluggish month, maybe two, and burgeoning star Josh Howard thinks about the fact that he's employed by an owner with a fearless history of making that monumental move.
Howard still believes these Mavericks are destined to win a title together, but confesses to a level of unease about the possibility of his bosses blowing up Dirk Nowitzki's supporting cast should they look like they're losing ground on the contenders.
"It's in the back of your mind," Howard confessed Monday night in a private moment at Madison Square Garden.
Garnett is gone, Bryant temporarily untouchable and so, this time, it's the disgruntled Kidd being branded the missing link for the Mavs. Dallas has had no discussions with New Jersey, nor Kidd's agent, Jeff Schwartz, several sources said. So far, it's a waste of time. Nets president Rod Thorn isn't inclined to move Kidd now.
"He understands that if he trades him, he's probably got to blow it up and trade them all," one rival executive said.
As angry as sources say Thorn is with Kidd these days, as livid as he's become over the Nets putrid play, that isn't happening now.
For a franchise that reached the NBA Finals two years ago, that just won 67 games, the Mavericks have been a spotty 14-8 to start the season. They lost three straight in November, including to Indiana and Milwaukee. Within the week, they lost to the Duncan-less Spurs and let Denver humiliate them in Dallas.
No, this isn't the end of the run, these Mavs insist, but the beginning of introspection into how they'll reinvent themselves on the climb back to the NBA Finals.
Before the Mavericks beat the Knicks 99-89 on Monday night, before Avery Johnson blistered his team's late defensive lapses so loudly that his voice boomed in the corridors, the coach made the same stroll he does on every trip to Madison Square Garden. Near the visitor's bench, he took a pre-game walk on the floor. He stopped some 16 feet short of the rim, took a long, sweeping look of the arena and remembered his shot in the 1999 NBA Finals that clinched a title for the Spurs.
Later, he sighed, "I want to get our guys to know what it feels like to be part of an NBA championship team."
To make that final leap, he has taken a step back this season. Johnson has stopped ruling in such an autocratic, audacious way. He has delivered a bigger burden of ownership onto his team. He lets young point guard Devin Harris call the plays. Johnson lived with it until Denver crushed the Mavs, 122-109, on Thursday and that was that. The Little General was calling the plays again, calling the shots.
"He's trying to let us internally show leadership," Jason Terry said. "He kind of let us do it on our own in the locker room, in timeouts, in practice…and it wasn't working. So he's back to his old self."
His old, blustery, ballistic self. Through the steel doors of the visiting locker room at the Garden, Johnson's voice boomed all the way to April and May and maybe June. Johnson has tinkered with lineups and rotations and defensive sets. They've been willing to suffer some short-term losses for some long-term gains.
"No one's ever won a championship in December, but a few have lost them here," Cuban said.
As much as Nowitzki is one of the league's most self-motivated stars, as much as Howard has blossomed into one of the most complete small forwards in the sport, there will always be a call for a Kobe, a KG, a Kidd, to come and bring his big talent and bigger persona.
In the Mavs' worst moments of these past two years, leadership has always been the issue that raises uncertainty. This goes back to the big spots in NBA Finals against the Heat, back to Dirk's MVP season crumbling against the Warriors.
"We have enough confidence in our team that we can win a championship that we want to learn about ourselves," Cuban said. "The hardest thing for a team to do is try to experiment and see what works and what doesn't work because there's usually a price to pay. And that can be with losses (early).
"It's better we learn about it now, than find out later like last year."
Once, Cuban constructed a reputation as a ruthless trader. The bigger the splash, the better. Yet, few owners have proven as fiercely loyal to their stars as him. When the world was tearing into Nowitzki a year ago, Cuban backed him in much stronger ways than his own coach.
In so many ways, the Mavericks made stars out of Nowitzki and Howard. Some believe that Johnson would unflinchingly cobble together the package necessary for delivering a stone-cold basketball assassin like Bryant and Kidd, but Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson are far more pragmatic.
"When's the last big deal we've done?" Cuban wondered. "Antoine Walker for Jason Terry? But, we're opportunistic. If there's something that makes sense…"
Yes, Howard knows the rest. If something makes sense, everyone knows the Mavericks have the young talent teams want and an owner willing to absorb the richest of contracts and luxury taxes.
Howard insists that people need to do something that's so rare in sports now: Be patient with the growing talents of him and Devin Harris, with the greatness of Dirk. "We're just two years removed from the NBA Finals and the guys who put us in the Finals are still here. Right now, I know some people think we're just going to roll over, fold up and give up. They think we've made our run."
These Mavericks are still too deep, too talented, too thick with players who care desperately about winning and losing. That's been the Cuban culture, a relentlessness fortified with Johnson's relentless will. Nevertheless, Kidd lingers out there, and Howard isn't naive enough to think that trade isn't possible if Cuban and Nelson start to believe the gulf between the Spurs and Suns grows this season.
"I understand it's a business, and I guess I can understand where they're coming from if they think we're going to tank the season," Howard said. "But I don't think that's what we're going to do, because it's not in our character."
Howard smiled, and said, "We're back in the position we were when we got to the Finals: Nobody expected anything of us. Nobody expects it again now.
"We've got 'em right where we want 'em."
Beyond the Heat and Warriors, there's still this brilliant opportunity for the Mavericks. They're still young, still together and still on trial in the championship chase. There's always some superstar out there promising to link with Dirk Nowitzki, to make the Mavs right, but Dallas still swears that salvation is waiting within.