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On the Precipice?

The Dallas Mavericks figure to take the court tonight at the American Airlines Center in front of a raucous crowd determined to will Dallas to victory after taking a commanding 2-0 series lead in Los Angeles in their best of seven playoff series against the Lakers. A victory would not only give the Mavs an almost insurmountable 3-0 series lead, but might also give them relief from past playoff failures.

A victory tonight wouldn’t erase the heartache from blowing a 2-0 series lead against Miami in the 2006 NBA Finals, nor would it erase the pain from first round exits three out of the last four years. But it perhaps might be a little redemption on the path of better things to come.

As you’ve no doubt heard countless times this week, the Mavs and Lakers haven’t met in the playoffs since 1988 when the Lakers defeated Dallas four games to three on the way to their second straight title (a feat that hadn’t happened since 1969).

The 1988 Mavericks were a veteran-laden team, comprising promising players in their primes who had enjoyed a bit of playoff success but hadn’t even so much been to the conference finals in their short franchise history.

The foundation of the roster was the first and ninth picks of the 1981 NBA Draft, Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackmon, averaging nearly 44 ppg between the two of them that year. Right behind them was point guard Derek Harper, a defensive specialist who also averaged 17 ppg and 7.7 assists per game.

Also contributing was Sam Perkins (14.2 ppg), Detlef Shrempf (8.5) and the league’s Sixth Man of the Year, Roy Tarpley (13.5 ppg, 11.8 rebs in 28.5 minutes per game).

Reunion Arena was packed. The playoff seasoning was there. First year John MacLeod had been in NBA battles for years. In the first round of the playoffs, they blew through Houston three games to one. In the next round they ousted the division champion Nuggets four games to two.

For the first time in franchise history, the Mavericks had made the Western Conference Finals. There waiting for them? The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

The Lakers were the Mavs’ nemesis (like much of the league at the time), eliminating the Mavs from the playoffs in 1984 and 1986. 1988 would end much the same way.

The first five games of the series trended towards decisive victories. The Lakers defeated the Mavs by fifteen in Game 1 and 22 in Game 2, while Dallas returned the favor in Game 3 and 4, defeating the Lakers by twelve and fourteen points. Game 5 saw the series return to LA, where the Lakers came out on top 119-102.

Game 6 was a close one as Dallas fended off elimination by coming out on top 105-103. The stage was set for an exhilarating Game 7.

The Mavericks held the lead going to the fourth quarter, but in the end, Magic, Worthy and Kareem were not going to be denied their title, and the Lakers pulled away for a 117-102 victory.

After that game, the franchises couldn’t take any more of a different path.

The Lakers would go on to win their second straight title, their fifth of the decade. They would return to the Finals two out of the next three years, losing to Isiah Thomas’s Pistons and Michael Jordan’s Bulls as the torch was passed to future stars. Later came the Shaq/Kobe era, which saw the Lakers win three more titles and then two more once Shaq was shipped off East.

The Mavs, on the other hand, would struggle to even reach the Western Conference Finals again.

That playoff loss was a pivotal moment in Mavs history. Seeing their opportunity missed yet again, choices were made in the favor of one member of the franchise, choices that would go terribly, terribly wrong.

Mark Aguirre was the Mavericks in the 1980’s. The former college player of the year was the first pick in the draft in 1981 and averaged 29 ppg in his third season, good enough for second in the league. But while Aguirre was always a force on the court, off the court he was a thorn in the side of the Mavericks front office, always pouting about money and the direction of the franchise.

By February of 1989, with the Mavericks mired in a slump due to injuries to Tarpley and others, Dallas made the decision to trade Aguirre to the Detroit Pistons. Did Dallas acquire young talent and draft picks in exchange for their franchise player?

Hardly. They received aging scorer Adrian Dantley, who had led the league in scoring twice, but was now 32 years old and on the downside of his career and was being blamed for Detroit’s inability to win a title. Traded from contender Detroit to slumping Dallas, Dantley piddled around in reporting to Dallas, never made a good impression, and was out of the league in a year and a half. The Mavericks did receive a first round pick in that trade, but that pick was parlayed along with their own first round pick the next year to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for another aging semi-star, Fat Lever before the 1990 draft.

Lever would get hurt, miss most of the ’90-‘91 season after knee surgery and be out of the league after two largely ineffective years in Dallas.

General manager Norm Sonju managed to turn his franchise player into two guys that were out of the league within two years. Aguirre, meanwhile, was the last piece of the championship puzzle for the Detroit Pistons, who won two straight titles themselves.

If ESPN Page 2 existed back then, Bill Simmons would have had a running joke about Sonju.

And he wasn’t done.

Though Tarpley wasn’t healthy again in 1990, he did manage to give the Mavs enough that they made the playoffs again…where they promptly were swept by Portland in three games.

That playoff series would be the last time the Mavs sniffed the playoffs until 2001.

Sam Perkins was allowed to leave via free agency in August of 1990. Five games into the ’90-’91 season, Tarpley tore his ACL. Thirty-seven year old Alex English was signed to replace the scoring drought left by the departure of Aguirre, but he predictably played like a 37 year old. New coach Richie Adubato was in over his head. The Mavs went 28-54 that year and missed the playoffs for the second time in three years.

If the wheels were coming loose in 1990, they fell completely off in 1991.

With Aguirre gone and the roster aging, Mavs owner Donald Carter and general manager Sonju made the decision to build their franchise around Tarpley, which made good sense basketball-wise. Tarpley was a force inside who played post and rebounded like a center but could get away from the basketball and nail shots like a small forward. But inner demons were always Tarpley’s downfall, and the decision to build the franchise around him set back the Mavericks for years.

Tarpley is without a doubt the most tragic figure in Mavs history. He missed a game in that ’88 season due to being in rehab and was arrested in 1989 for DWI and resisting arrest. He ran afoul of the league’s substance abuse policy several times.

Before the ’91 season, Tarpley refused a drug test and was banned from the league (the refusal was counted as a negative test and Tarpley already had two strikes). Tarpley left the NBA for Greece, where he dominated competition (Alex English, Fat Lever and Adrian Dantley could have dominated Greece). In 1994, Tarpley applied for reinstatement into the league. Commissioner David Stern allowed Tarpley to come back, and in the ‘94/’95 season a now 30 year old Tarpley picked up right where he left off, averaging 12.6 ppg and 8.2 rebounds for a Mavericks squad that featured the Rookie of the Year Jason Kidd and other promising young talent such as Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn. The Mavericks finished 36-46 that year, a promising record for a team with young talent.

But unfortunately, Tarpley picked up right where he left off off the court as well. In a period of insanity, Mavs owner Donald Carter gave Tarpley a 6 year, $20 million contract and he was promptly banned from the league again after testing positive for alcohol in December of 1995.

Tarpley might have been the biggest error of Sonju’s career, but it wasn’t the only one.

As the Mavericks trended downward in the early nineties, he made the correct decision to trade aging stars Harper and Blackmon. Blackmon was shipped to the Knicks in June of 1992 for a first round pick in 1995, which turned into the great Loren Meyer. Harper was shipped to the Knicks in 1994 for Tony Campbell and a first round pick that they eventually traded to Toronto for Jimmy King, Ansu Sesay and Gordon Giricek.

Aguirre, Harper and Blackmon turned into Adrian Dantley, Fat Lever, Loren Meyer and Jimmy King.

The Norm Sonju era, ladies and gentlemen.

Where does this turn down Mavericks history lane tell us? Success in the NBA is fleeting. I would argue that it is the hardest championship to win in professional sports. With the parity in the NFL, you have a different team winning a championship nearly every year. In baseball you have teams like Florida and Arizona winning early in their franchise history. But in the NBA, since the modern era began with the Bird/Magic era, eight different teams have won 31 championships…quite the exclusive club.

Beating the Lakers to go up 2-0 should be enjoyed, but there is still a ton of work to be done in this series. But, and this is a big but when you are trying to dispose of the two-time defending NBA champions, get past them and you have unseasoned Memphis or Oklahoma City in the next round, and if you should be so lucky to get past them, you have an Eastern Conference foe that probably isn’t as good as the teams you have already disposed, or a team that you have had success against this year.

I wasn’t sold on the Mavericks coming into this post-season run, but they have shown a moxie and an "it" factor that their younger and maybe even more talented teams earlier in this run didn’t have. And much like that 1988 team, I feel like they are right on the edge of greatness, but also right on the edge of slipping into mediocrity for several years. Win, and we die happily. Lose, and we’ll always wonder where this era could have gone as the Roddy Beaubois (yikes)/Tyson Chandler (perhaps) era begins.

But know this, no matter the perceived shortcomings of the current group, at least Norm Sonju isn’t making these decisions.