Michael Finley was born on March 6, 1973, in the Chicago suburb of Melrose Park. Growing up just this side of the citys western borderMichael, his two sisters and his mom lived in Maywoodhe was cultured in the ways of schoolyard basketball from an early age. He began practicing dunks when he was in elementary school, refining his technique on the dirty-clothes hamper in his bedroom.
Michael was a basketball
fanatic. He played every spare moment he could find, knew everyone on
the Chicago playground scene, and followed the exploits of Mark Aguirre
and Isiah Thomas as they transitioned from college to the pros. He was
11 when the Bulls drafted Michael Jordan, and he became an immediate disciple.
Michael watched Jordans Come Fly with Me video hundreds
Michaels mother, Bertha, was a single parent and a secretary and part-time bartender. The family could not afford much in the way of luxuries, but she bought Michael posters of his favorite Bull, and even a motivational tape recorded by Jordan. He used to fall asleep to it at night. Michael still regrets that he did not have enough money to buy basketball cards, and thus never owned a piece of Jordan cardboard. He made up for this by clipping out stories and pictures from magazines and newspapers and taping them all over his walls. Despite a lack of funds, Michael was able to see Jordan up close on occasion. His sister was dating an employee of Chicago Stadium, who got him tickets a few times a season.
Between basketball games, Michael managed to sidestep the dangers of the street. He spent time at home studying and doing homework. He had an inquisitive mind and was driven to improve himself in every way. Michael was sometimes invited to academic banquetsand was often the only black face in attendance and invariably the lone athlete.
As a teenager, Michael improved so rapidly in basketball that he found top competition hard to come by. This led him to the courts at Moody Bible Institute, where top collegians and pros gathered each summer. In pickup games, Michael faced off against the likes of Scottie Pippen, Nick Anderson, and Kenny Normanand didn't embarrass himself. If nothing else, Michael learned there wasn't a player he couldn't compete with. His summer internship also landed him a bit part in the basketball documentary Hoop Dreams.
Michael enrolled at Proviso East High in 1987. Located in the working-class suburb of Maywood, it had a good basketball program that had produced such NBA luminaries as Jim Brewer and Doc Rivers. Until midway through his junior year, Michael had been coach Bill Hitts sixth man. When he moved into the starting lineup, his game began to grow. Ironically, Michael got his chance when boyhood friend Donnie Boyce broke his ankle. He continued to improve in hoops camps the following summer and eventually developed into a Top 100 prospect.
As Michael gained confidence, he also gained size and strength. But despite being a rock-solid 6-7 with a murderously quick dribble-and-drive, the young forward earned only lukewarm attention from college recruiters. They felt Michaels resume was incomplete and that he shied away from physical play at times. Before blossoming as a senior, Michael used to get teased by teammates, who said that he was afraid of contact.
Michael got a little more respect in the hood. He knew the gang members and drug dealers, and they knew him. They didn't mess with Michael or his family.
Most of the recruiters
checking out Chicagos local talent were interested in Michaels
teammates, Boyce and Sherell The Swamp Doctor Ford, or Juwan
Howard, who played at Vocational. During his senior year at Proviso East,
however, Michael became something a celebrity after a local TV station
approached him about setting up a one-on-one game with his idol, Michael
Jordan, as part of a Dreams Come True series. When Phil Jackson
heard about the contest, he requested that the format be changed to HORSE.
The two met at the teams practice facility in Deerfield.
Jordan went first and took a simple layup. Michael easily converted on his attempt, then matched MJ shot-for-shot. When the Bulls star missed, Michael took the ball to the hole, launching himself down the lane and tomahawking the ball through the basket. Though Jordan ultimately won the game with one of his patented gravity-defying dunks, he was impressed by his 18-year-old challenger and rewarded him with a quick game of one-on-one, three baskets wins. Michael hit a pull-up jumper, but otherwise Jordan took the awestruck kid to school, ending the game on a swooping slam dunk. The two exchanged pleasantries afterwards, and Jordan told Michael he expected to see him again, in five years.
Michaels senior season was unforgettable for other reasons. He, Boyce and Ford (dubbed the Three Amigos) formed the core of a great team that won the state AA title. It was also the year the Bulls won their first NBA championship.
Michael also learned a hard lesson during the 1990-91 season: excellent high-school stats dont always translate into a scholarship to a top school. For a while, DePaul was interested, but the Blue Demons backed off after signing another top Illinois prospect, Tom Kleinschmidt. The best offer came from the University of Wisconsin. The school had a putrid program, but it was close to home and the campus up in Madison seemed pretty nice, so Michael signed on the dotted line.
ON THE RISE
Michael arrived at Wisconsin in September of 1991 to discover that some local reporters were already calling him the Next Jordan. His explosive all-around game was not what Badger fans were used to seeing, and the press got overly excited. Indeed, the team hadn't been to the NCAA Tournament since right after World War II, so a player of Michaels caliber was cause for serious celebration. In interviews, Michael downplayed his offense and talked more about his commitment to defense.
Wisconsin finished 9th in the Big 10 during Michaels freshman season, although he and sophomore guard Tracy Websterhis closest friend on campushad good seasons, averaging 30 points a game between them. Part of the problem was coach Steve Yoders grinding halfcourt offense, which did not take advantage of his two stars considerable open-court abilities.
bigger problems were defense and rebounding, which were nonexistent at
times. The fact that Michael led Wisconsin in rebounding as a freshman
guard was proof of this sad fact. So was the teams record. The Badgers
went 9-4 outside the conference, but finished 4-14 in itincluding
a grand total of 0 wins on the road. After the campaign, the 10th in Yoders
disappointing tenure, former Knick coach Stu Jackson was brought in to
shake things up. This he did by installing an aggressive transition attack.
Michael was a sophomore star in a conference that had perhaps the greatest collection of sophomores ever assembled. The starting five of the Michigan Wolverines, fresh off a Final Four appearance, included Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and his old buddy Juwan Howard. Shawn Respert was having a big year at Michigan State, while Voshon Leonard was lighting it up for the Gophers in Minnesota. Alan Henderson was having another solid season at Indiana. And then there was Glenn Robinson, who was tearing it up for Purdue after sitting out his freshman season.
Though Michael and the Badgers showed marked improvement under Jackson, they got almost no recognition. The sophomore used the slight to fuel his own game. He finished the year as Wisconsins leader in scoring, rebounding and three-point shooting, and was second to Webster in assists and steals. Along the way, he also destroyed the schools single-season record for points.
The up-tempo Badgers looked like a Kentucky clone at times, and shattered the Big Ten record for three-pointers. The highlight of the year was a comeback 67-66 win over Michigan State. The Badgers finished 14-14, 7-11 in the Big Ten. A tournament bid seemed within their grasp until they lost four straight to end their season. The Badgers got an NIT bid and lost in a first-round tilt with Rice.
Wisconsins solid start did turn out to be a big help in recruiting. Among the heralded freshmen who signed with coach Jackson was 7-1 Rashard Griffith, who was one of the kids coming up behind Michael on the Chicago playgrounds. Two other big high-school stars to join the team were Jalil Roberts and Darnell Hoskin.
With the infusion of new talent, Jackson retooled the offense, slowing it down when Griffith was on the floor to take advantage of his skills in the post. When the freshman got into foul trouble (which was often), the team went back to its running style. Michael averaged over 20 a game as a junior and became a monster rebounder and more consistent three-point threat. For most opponents, he created match-up nightmares. The Badgers had an outside shot at the Big Ten title until they lost eight of their last 12 regular-season games. Still, an 18-11 record overall was enough to earn a long-awaited NCAA Tournament bid. A 9-seed, they won their open-round battle versus Cincinnati, then lost to Missouri, 109-96.
Michaels senior year started on an unsettling note when Jackson left the school over the summer to take an NBA job, leaving his assistant, Stan Van Gundy, holding the bag. Despite the uneasy coaching transition, the Badgers were rated as the #2 squad in the Big Ten. As for Michael, he was ranked by many as the nations top swingmanright up there with UNCs Jerry Stackhouse and Arkansass Scotty Thurman. His friends thought he was crazy for coming back for his final seasonsome believed he already had the talent to be a first-round NBA pick.
Instead of a senior
season that vaulted him to the top of the draft, Michael was plagued by
inconsistent shooting in 1994-95. He barely made a third of his shots
from the field and was dreadful from three-point range. The NCAA is filled
with guys who look great until they start heaving up bricks, and now to
his dismay Michael had joined their ranks. Badger fans knew the truththat
he rarely got a shot without two defenders on him. Since it was his nature
to take command in tight situations, Michael welcomed this the challenge
of double-teams. He knew his final college season was his last chance
to sharpen his skills for the pros. Although his shooting stats did not
show it, he was making good progress in his one-on-one skills.
While a shot-happy Michael ended up setting a new school scoring record, the Badgers finished at 13-14 record and failed to make the post-season. Simply put, Van Gundy was never able to coax the same performances from his players that Jackson had.
The 1995 NBA Draft was impossible to predict. A lot of players were coming out early, including Chicago high schooler Kevin Garnett and Tar Heel star Jerry Stackhouse. After the first half-dozen selections, it was anyones guess who would go where and when. Among those available to teams without lottery selections were Randolph Childress, Shawn Respert, Travis Best, Gary Trent, Bob Sura, Brent Barry, Eric Snow, and Donny Marshallin other words, a serious crapshoot. Michael was lumped in with this group.
The Phoenix Suns had a pair of selections at the end of the first round#21 (acquired form the Lakers) and #27. Thinking best athlete available, they were delighted to find Michael still on the board and grabbed him with the first of their two picks. The Suns held non-mandatory workouts prior to camp, and Michael showed up looking to turn some heads. He knew he had the team made, but wanted to prove he was worthy of quality playing time. Coach Paul Wetsphal and assistants Donnie Nelson and Paul Silas all took notice. The rookie demonstrated explosive speed and leaping ability, played tough defense, and had a great attitude. He also earned him the respect of veterans who could see their new teammate was mature and unselfish.
So pleased with Michael was Phoenixs front office that the team traded one of its most beloved players, swingman Dan Majerle, to the Cavs for Hot Rod Williams. The October deal gave the Suns much-needed scoring punch on the front line. Coming off a 59-win season, Phoenix had a lineup of versatile veterans, including star playmaker Kevin Johnson and all-time great Charles Barkley. No one on the roster, however, could play the small forward position as dynamically as Michael. This worked to his favor right from the start of the year, when injuries opened things up and created extra minutes for him.
Michaels first SportsCenter moment came against the Lakers, when he canned a 15-footer at the buzzer for a dramatic victory. In a February game against the Bulls, he drew the assignment he had been promised five years earlier, guarding Michael Jordan one-on-one. MJ went just 9 for 22 from the floor, and the Suns won. In the locker room afterwards, Barkley warned Michael not to brag about his performance, reminding him that Jordan had hung 60 on the last guy to make that mistake. Across the hall, Jordan sang the rookies praiseseffectively putting him on the NBA map.
Though Michael was
scoring in double figures almost every night, his most important contributions
came on defense. In a season when Phoenix got old all at once, Michael
was a big reason the Suns kept their heads above water. He averaged 15
points a game and was selected to the NBAs All-Rookie First Team.
His 47.6 field goal percentage erased any doubt that he could shoot in
the pros. Phoenix, meanwhile, finished 41-41 and lost to the Spurs in
the first round of the playoffs.
The 1996-97 season saw the Suns get off to a disastrous start. After dealing Barkley to Houston for Mark Bryant, Chucky Brown, Robert Horry and Sam Cassell, the team lost 13 straight to open the schedule. Cotton Fitzsimmons, who had replaced Westphal in January of the previous season, stepped down less three weeks into the campaign, and Danny Ainge was hired in his stead. To complicate matters further, Johnson and Williams missed the first month with injuries. In late December, the Suns pulled the trigger on a monster deal to acquire Jason Kidd. The young point guard came at a high priceCassell, AC Green and Michael went to the Dallas Mavericks.
Michael didn't know quite what to make of the trade. The Mavs were awful, but how much worse could they be than the 96-97 Suns? The answer was significantly. While the Suns righted themselves and finished 40-42, Dallas went 25-57 and missed the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.
The silver lining in this dark cloud was that Michael became the teams go-to guy. He was the only Mav capable of creating his own shots, which meant he often found himself with the ball in his hands as the 24-second clock was ticking down. Despite spending the seasons first 27 games on another team, he led the Mavs in field goals, points, and three-pointers.
MAKING HIS MARK
Michaels first full year in Dallas was a great onefor him. Seeing a lot of time at forward, he led the league in minutes played and boosted his scoring average to 21.5. The Mavs won just 20 times, however, in what can only be described as a gruesome season.
Things began to look up in 1998-99. Or rather, 1999. The Mavs finished the lockout-shortened season 19-31. For the third straight year, Michael led the team in points. He logged 41 minutes per contest, the third-highest mark in the NBA, and was only of only 10 players to score 1,000 points in the 50-game season. Michael was also the only guard in the league to average more than 20 points and five rebounds a night.
Though disappointed in Dallass showing, Michael was encouraged by the teams home record, a solid 15-10. The club also had its first winning month in four years. Another positive sign for the franchise was the arrival of rookie Dirk Nowitzki. The German-born seven-footer had the raw ability of a shooting forward, and adjusted to the rigors of the NBA by the seasons final month. Steve Nash, a former Suns teammate, also looked like he knew what he was doing. Picked up in a trade right before the lockout, he flashed skills that had his detractors revisiting their opinion of him as a first-string point guard. It was no coincidence that these changes occurred on the watch of new coach Don Nelson, in his first year at the Maverick helm.
The Mavs continued
to trend upward in 1999-2000, coming within one win of a .500 season.
Once again, they had a plus record at homethis despite losing more
player games to injury than any other NBA team. The Mavs won 16 of 21
down the stretch and 14 of their last 22 away games, although it wasn't
enough to earn a playoff berth, which meant Dallas went home for the post-season
for the 10th time in a row.
Michael led the team with 22.6 ppg and made the West All-Stars. Frustrated at times by the teams lousy defense and reboundingand his own occasional ballhandling miscueshe nonetheless felt the team was headed in the right direction.
Nowitzki continued to improve, raising his scoring average to 17.5, although he contributed little on defense. Veteran Cedric Ceballos, a solid frontcourt player, chipped in nearly 17 points a night and led the Mavs in rebounding. And Nash had another solid season.
The biggest news in Big D, however, was the January purchase of the club by dot.com billionaire Mark Cuban. The new Mavs owner boasted that his club would be a playoff contender by the following season, and vowed to make whatever changes and improvements were necessary to ensure that this happened. Everyone, including the coach himself, assumed this meant that Nelsons days were numbered. But Cuban gave him three more years and all the money he needed to buy players and hire assistants.
As it turned out, Cuban and Nelson were a surprisingly effective duo, and Dallas had an astounding season in 2000-01. Michael continued to refine his game and became the Mavs undisputed leader. Nowitzki took another step forward, scoring better than 20 points a night by improving his inside game. And Nash broke through as a big-time point guard after honing his skills during a summer of international competition for the Canadian national team.
The Mavs finished 53-29 despite a season that saw more than its fair share of distractions. Chief among those was Cuban, who seemed to delight in breaking the rules the NBA imposes on its owners. Fines obviously had no impact on the boy billionaire, who was quick to criticize the league and all too eager to make a spectacle of himself at games.
Distraction number two occurred when it was learned that Nelson had prostate cancer. He left the team for several weeks while recovering from surgery, but returned in time to guide Dallas to a first-round win in the playoffs against the heavily favored Utah Jazz. The Mavs fell in the next round to the Spurs, however, as Shawn Bradley and Juwan Howard (acquired at mid-season from Washington) could not contend with San Antonios Twin Towers, and Nashs tank ran empty.
Michael, a free agent, had spent the season listening to how Cuban intended to keep the core of the team in tact. After the playoffs, the owner stuck to his word and offered the most lucrative deal possibleseven years at $100 million. Michael agreed to the offer and remained in Dallas.
With the development of his teammates, Michael was no longer under pressure to do everything for the Mavs. As the 2001-02 season approached, he and Nelson discussed the ways in which he could make the greatest contribution. Nelson did not have a simple answer. Michael had become one of the best streak shooters in the league, so the coach advised him to keep firing when he was hot. That said, Michael was most effective when slashing to the basket and getting fouled, or pulling up for short jumpers. In fact, opponents breathed easiest when he settled for long-range jumpers. That provided a bit of a dilemma, however, because in a half-court game Michael was the teams most dependable shooter.
While refining his role in the Maverick offense, Michael also put more effort into becoming a defensive stopper in 2001-02. He was rewarded for these contributions by being left off the All-Star team. He was happy that Nash and Nowitzki made it, but it hurt that he didnt.
His hamstring, meanwhile, gave him pain of a different sort. After an NBA-high 490 straight games, Michael was forced to sit out in the second half of the season. In all, he missed 13 games. Even in street clothes, however, he was a vocal leader. Fully mended by April, Michael led the team to a franchise-record 57 wins and the extra rest left him fresh for the playoffs.
As Cuban had promised,
the Mavs were constantly improving. In a February blockbuster with the
Nuggets they had picked up big man Raef LaFrentz and Nick Van Exel, a
clutch player who could sub at both guard positions. Heading into the
post-season, the club was firing on all cylinders and destroyed Kevin
Garnett and the T-Wolves in the first round. In the second round, after
splitting their first two with the Sacramento Kings, they were manhandled
by Chris Webber and company, and lost the next three straight.
Looking back on this record-setting seasonin which Dallas led the league in points scoredMichael saw one disturbing number: the Mavs gave up more than 100 points a game. In todays NBA, thats unacceptable. Nash may have come into his own as a point guard, and Nowitzki may have joined the leagues elite scorers, but the only guy doing the little things on the Mavs was Michael.
When training camp opened in 2002, Michael let it be known that this was the year his teammates would have to play good team defense and go after rebounds like they cared. The coaching staff echoed this sentiment. Dallas was three deep at every position except center, and had three go-to guysthe key to consistent scoring. Defense, however, would ultimately define the club.
Thanks to the teamwide commitment to tough D sparked by Michael, the Mavs are off to a roaring start in 2002-03. The troika of LaFrentz, Bradley and Evan Eschmayer is holding its own inside, while Dallass big three are killing opponents at both ends. Nowitzkionce called irk (No D) behind his backis putting his considerable skills to work on the defensive end. Nash, too, is doing a good job containing opponents. And of course Michael is doing a number on his men, while becoming the teams on-court defensive coordinator.
On offense, the same old formula is working better than ever. Nash and Nowitzki are magic in the open court, while the point guard and Michael have a great rhythm going, too. Nashs improved long-range shooting also means teams can no longer put two bodies on Michael or Nowitzki. And as always, when the 24-second clock is winding down, Michael is the guy the Mavs look for first.
Case in point was the Mavs 13th win in a row to open the campaign. In the 115-105 triumph over Seattle, Michael went wild. He scored 29 points, including several clutch shots in the waning minutes, and led Dallas with 11 rebounds. In the teams next game, against the Cavaliers, Michael hit for a career-high 42 points.
The end of the undefeated streak came a few nights later in Indiana, where the Pacers pounded the ball inside and wore the Mavs out, 110-98. The 14-game streak was one shy of the NBA record. Michael, Nash and Nowitzki were named co-Western Conference Players of the Month for November—a nice gesture and an accurate reflection of the teamwork that characterized Dallas's great early season run.
From there, the Mavs spent most of the campaign trying to provethey were the real deal. Critics questioned their commitment on defense, and wondered whether they would wilt come the postseason when play typically slows to a grind-it-out, halfcourt style. Dallas ended the year at 60-22, good for the third seed in the West playoff bracket. Nowitzki led the team in scoring and rebounding, Nash was the top assist man, and Van Exel was among the league's best off the bench.
Michael enjoyed an exceptional season too, averaging 19 points and just under six rebounds. He also solidified his role as the club's emotional leader. Whether it was taking a clutch shot in crunch time or diving for a loose ball, the Mavs looked to Michael when they needed a lift.
Dallas drew the Trailblazers to start the postseason, and looked unbeatable after winning the first three games of the series. Michael was steady, though hardly spectacular in the victories. His jumper was flat, and he seemed to lack his normal explosiveness to the hoop. When Portland stormed back to force a Game Seven, Michael and his teammates faced the uncomfortable prospect of blowing the series and giving credence to their detractors. But thanks to Nowitzki and Van Exel, who combined for 57 points, the Mavs escaped with a 107-95 victory.
In the next round, against Sacramento, Dallas got a break when Chris Webber hurt his knee in Game Two. The Kings, favored to emerge from the West and claim the NBA crown, were a different team without their star forward. The Mavs took advantage, capitalizing on their offensive depth by turning each contest into a track meet. Van Exel caught fire from the outside, and Nowitzki controlled the boards. Michael, meanwhile, struggled to find his scoring touch. Again Dallas was pushed to a decisive Game Seven, and again Nowitzki delivered a win, as the Mavs advanced to the conference finals versus the Spurs.
time around Dallas was the team bitten by the injury bug. With the series
knotted at a game apiece, Nowitzki suffered a sprained right knee and
was sidelined indefinitely. San Antonio won the next two, going to league
MVP Tim Duncan possession after possession to exploit the Mavs' lack of
size upfront. But Michael would not let his team go out quietly. With
Dallas trailing by 17 points in the third quarter of Game Five, he led
a stunning comeback that shocked the Spurs and their raucous crowd in
the Alamo Dome. Behind Michael's gutty 31-point performance, the Mavs
extended the series with a 103-91 victory. Amazingly, however, San Antonio
turned the tables with a nearly identical rally two nights later to close
Given the team's gutty effort against the Spurs, Cuban chose to keep Nelson around, renewing his contract for an additional three years. The coach then started wheeling and dealing to bring in reinforcements. In a nine-player trade that sent Nick Van Exel, Avery Johnson, Evan Eschmeyer, Popeye Jones and Antoine Rigaudeau to Golden State, the Mavs got Antawn Jamison, the Warriors’ highest scorer for the past four seasons. The acquisition of Jamison allowed Michael to operate almost exclusively at shooting guard.
Fans felt that all Dallas needed to secure a championship was a center who could serve as defensive anchor. Instead the club went after more scorers, adding All-Star Antoine Walker, guards Travis Best and Tony Delk, and forward Danny Fortson. In the draft, the Mavs picked up Josh Howard, the ACC Player of the Year out of Wake Forest.
With his age beginning to show, Michael worked hard to get ready for the 2003-04 campign. Again, he was a regular at Tim Grover’s Chicago gym, but that didn't prevent him from missing the season’s first three exhibition games with a strained right quadriceps.
The Mavs started the regular season 10-0 at home, but only 2-6 on the road. Nelson struggled to get the team running on all cylinders. A rousing 97-72 win against the Washington Wizards in December saw bursts of brilliance from the "Big Five"—Michael, Nowitzki, Jamison, Nash and Walker. Two days later, however, Dallas ran up against Shaq and Company, and suffered their first home loss of the year, 114-103.
The Mavs continued their up-and-down play in December. They lost to the Clippers, despite 38 points from Michael, then bounced back by beating the Lakers in L.A. for the first time in thirteen years. Ironically, they did so without Michael, who was out with a sprained a toe. A few weeks later, Nelson moved into second place on the NBA’s career wins list. Michael again watched from the sidelines.
When Michael returned, Dallas finally began to find its groove. The team embarked on a nine-game winning streak, including a thrilling double-OT game against the 76ers. Michael pumped in 32 points in the 125-122 victory.
February was a big month for Dallas, as the Mavs went on a 17-4 tear. Michael averaged 24 a night during the run. A month later—as Devin Harris broke his his single-season scoring record at Wisconsin—Michael was felled by back spasms. With rookie Marquis Daniels filling in admirably, the Mavs maintained their post-season positioning and looked forward to the playoffs.
Dallas, however, ran into a buzzsaw in the form of Sacramento. The Mavs were eliminated in five games. Michael shot a dismal 8-for-25 early in the series, and never really recovered. After posting nearly 19 a game in the regular season, his playoff average dropped to 13 points, and he shot less than 30% from beyond the arc.
Trade rumors immediately began swirling in Dallas, with Nelson said to be looking for a big man again. He finally settled on free-agent Erick Dampier, who figured to give the Mavs a more complete presence in the paint. The move that generated the most serious headlines, however, was the departure of Nash, who was allowed to walk to Phoenix. In his place, the team acquired point guard Jason Terry, more of a scorer, but less of a passer than his predecessor. Other new faces in town included forward Keith Van Horn, plus Harris, who was picked up in the draft.
Dallas broke from the gate strong in 2004-05, as did Michael, until a gimpy left ankle forced him from the action. He returned to the team after a month layoff, and helped the Mavs to a 19-10 record heading into the New Year. His injury, however, continued to bother him. With Terry taking on more of the scoring load and Howard inserted in the starting lineup for his defensive work, the club was able to withstand a drop in production from Michael.
As usual, the Mavs endured a bombshell before the campaign ended—this time it was Nelson delivering the news that he was stepping down as head coach. He tabbed Avery Johnson to replace him, and Dallas responded by winning 16 of 18 down the stretch. The team headed into the playoffs with a lot of momentum, only to lose the first two at home in its first-round tilt against the Rockets. But in the Houston, the Mavs reversed their fortunes, evening things up with a pair of impressive victories. Michael came up big in both contests, including 6-of-12 shooting from beyond the arc. The series went the distance, and Dallas shocked many by coasting in Game 7, romping in a 116-76 laugher.
Next up for the Mavs were Nash and the Suns. Dallas tried to match Phoenix's run-and-gun style, and ultimately paid the price. With Nash doing it all, the Suns took the series in six games. Both teams topped the 100-point mark in every contest.
Where does this leave Michael? His future in Dallas is uncertain at best. His scoring and shooting sagged this year, although partly because of his ankle. Indeed, by the end of the post-season, the injury was clearly hampering him—he simply didn't have the same explosion going to the hoop or releasing his jumper. In June, he had surgery to repair the damage. Meanwhile, the new collective bargaining agreement reached by the players and owners enables the Mavs to relieve themselves of a big contract. Michael stands to make $51 million over the next three years, money that Cuban might prefer to lavish on someone else. There has been talk that Michael will be waived.
If that happens, Michael's career isn't necessarily over. With the NBA becoming a more balanced league, there are plenty of teams in the market for a veteran to put them over the top. Michael could be that type of player. Remember, he's a guy who—despite his villainous appearance—likes to play the role of hero.
In his first few NBA seasons, Michael expanded his skills each year while gaining consistency in every facet of the game. Over the last couple of years, as his supporting cast has matured, he has begun to master the art of winning. Ironically, this means doing many of the things that first helped him make a splash as a rookieessentially, he must read the game, and either plug a hole or exploit an opportunity.
As far as pure basketball talent goes, Michael is right at his apex. In the open floor, there is no one in the league who can contain him. In the halfcourt offense, he is still the best on the Mavs at creating his own shot. An aggressive rebounder and solid passer, he looks to make an impact in some way every trip down the court. This approach has established him as the unquestioned leader of the leagues most improved team.
Ultimately, it is Michaels defense that will enable him to take the next big step in his career. More and more, he will find himself in situations where he has to make big stops at big moments in big games. With the other Dallas players feeding off his intensity, they have the ingredients to ambush the Lakers and Kings in the post-season. If they do, Michaels basketball legacy will be complete.
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