During halftime of a recent Mavericks-Rockets exhibition game
at Reunion Arena, two teams of mascots from local businesses
played a brief full-court game. As costumed characters such as
Chuck E. Cheese, the Chick Fil-A chicken and the Acme Brick Boy
blindly stumbled around the court crashing into each other,
Dallas fans doubled over in laughter. But, as one observer
pointed out, it wasn't as if they were seeing anything new.

After all, the Mavs are the longest-running laugh riot in the
NBA. In the 1990s their record for futility and turmoil is
unmatched: In the last seven seasons, five coaches and 69
players have put together a dismal 160-414 mark in Dallas. Last
year the Mavs set a standard for chaos. Mostly because general
manager Don Nelson arrived in midseason like a hurricane, Dallas
went through three directors of basketball operations, 27
players and 18 starters. Small wonder the Mavs won 24 games and
set a franchise low in scoring. Though Dallas now has a new cast
of characters--most of them young and inexperienced--and despite
Nelson's declaration that the Mavericks can contend for a
playoff spot, their prospects are familiarly bleak.

Amazingly, players are nonetheless happy to be in Dallas.
Forward (and three-point specialist) Dennis Scott, for one, was
"elated" when he heard in late September that he was being
shipped from the Magic to the Mavs. After a summer of
uncharacteristically unpleasant headlines about him--at a
basketball camp in July, he surprised preteen campers with an
impromptu speech on "the rage" inside him, and in September two
of the 1,000 people attending his 29th birthday bash in
Washington, D.C., were shot--Scott seems eager for a new start.
Since arriving in Dallas he has been the embodiment of goodwill,
an upbeat, joking presence on the court and off. "Playing with
two Dream Teamers [Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O'Neal] in
Orlando, I got complacent," he says. "Now I have that zest for
the game again." He should have more zip for the game too. By
going cold turkey on alcohol and mayonnaise, he dropped 30
pounds over the summer. "I can dunk again!" says 3-D, who is so
pleased with his new dimensions that he is planning to improve
on his sorry 3.1 rebounds a game. "I know it's not my strong
suit, but someway I've got to stick my nose in there."

Scott, who will be eligible for free agency next summer, may not
stick around Dallas for long, but there are others whose plans
to dig in bode well for the future of the franchise. Third-year
swingman Michael Finley, a future All-Star who was acquired in
the deal that sent guard Jason Kidd to Phoenix last December,
signed a five-year pact worth $42 million. "The organization
seems to be going in the right direction," he says. "I decided
I'd like to help build a new tradition here."

Shawn Bradley, the 7'6" perpetual work-in-progress who struggled
for the better part of four years with the 76ers and the Nets
before coming to Dallas in February, feels the same way. A
frequent target of fan and media ridicule on the East Coast,
Bradley fell in love with Dallas last March when fans gave him a
standing ovation after he was ejected from a game in which he
had made a club-record 10 blocks.

For the first time in his pro career, Bradley, who led the NBA
with 3.4 blocks a game last year, has become stronger over the
off-season. Much to his surprise, the 35 pounds he gained hasn't
melted away with running drills. But it's doubtful that the
presence of Bradley, Finley and Scott are going to translate
into numerous wins for the Mavs. As he demonstrated last year
with his flurry of personnel changes, Nelson wields a quick ax.
Most observers think his next target is second-year coach Jim
Cleamons, whom Nelson may have set up for a fall by larding
Dallas with green players and then pronouncing the team capable
of making the playoffs.

"We have a lot of question marks on this team," says Cleamons.
"I have to be patient with the players, and they have to be
patient with themselves." It goes without saying that the front
office has to be patient with him too. Don't bet on it. --K.A.