When the Mavericks remodeled their locker room after last season, walls were erected to take the weight room and exercise equipment completely out of view in a quest for greater privacy for the players. Members of the news media, who for years could request permission to enter a theoretically off-limits zone and huddle around Cuban as he worked out, can’t even see that area anymore.
“I really didn’t even realize it until we were a couple games into the season,” Cuban said in a recent interview. “I figured no one wanted to talk to me because we were losing.”
After countless press briefings and headline-making proclamations atop his mechanical lectern, over nearly two decades, Cuban should have known that he remains in great demand among basketball writers, whether his team is winning or losing. It has always been true when the Mavericks have encountered the Knicks; last season’s game in Dallas featured Cuban taking jabs from the StairMaster at Knicks president Phil Jackson and responding with expletives when asked if he would be O.K. with the Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki tutoring the Knicks’ young forward Kristaps Porzingis in the off-season.
And that is certainly the case now, as well, with Ntilikina and Smith about to engage in their first N.B.A. showdown since they were selected with the eighth and ninth overall picks, respectively, in last June’s draft.
Even before LeBron James publicly chided the Knicks this fall for not drafting Smith at No. 8, Ntilikina and Smith were unavoidably linked. It all started back in May, when the Mavericks made a public show of their interest in Ntilikina, a French teenager, and were thus widely expected to select him at No. 9.
The team did little to mask the troop of scouts it sent in to see Ntilikina play for his French club (SIG Strasbourg) in May. The delegation featured Donnie Nelson, the president of basketball operations, and his top aide, Tony Ronzone. Cuban then traveled to Italy to have breakfast with Ntilikina in June at a pre-draft camp in Treviso and posed with the lanky guard for a photograph that quickly circulated.
When it subsequently emerged that the Mavericks had arranged for Vincent Collet, Ntilikina’s club coach at Strasbourg and the coach of the France national team, to become the head coach of their summer-league squad in Las Vegas in July, Dallas appeared to be going to extremes to welcome Ntilikina to North Texas.
It was all something of a ruse. That whole time Dallas was growing infatuated with Smith, a 6-foot-3 North Carolina State freshman, despite well-publicized concerns about a knee injury he had suffered in high school and whispers of selfishness and moodiness when the Wolfpack struggled. With Nowitzki, the future Hall of Fame big man, heading into his 20th season and the Mavericks openly desperate for new players to build around, Smith became the preference because of a perceived higher ceiling.
So when Jackson, in the last major move of his rocky three-year tenure as the Knicks’ president, leaned on his long-held fondness for big guards and took Ntilikina with the eighth pick, Cuban and his staff celebrated in the Dallas draft room at a pitch unrivaled since the Mavericks’ championship season of 2010-11.
The club seems even giddier about its draft pick after having him for a half-season. The Mavericks market Smith, 20, and his uber-athleticism as aggressively as they promote Nowitzki, with confidence that Smith’s recent triple-double against New Orleans was merely a glimpse of the future.
“This kid is talented, man. His explosiveness, he can elevate,” said Harper, who is now the color analyst on the Mavericks’ TV broadcasts. “He has a lot of game,” Harper added. “Game I wish I would have had.”
Collet, for the record, never made it to the summer league, citing an overload of coaching and family commitments in France. The Mavericks instead wound up hiring Mark Gottfried, Smith’s college coach, as a regional scout after he was fired by N.C. State.
“We all liked Frank,” Nelson said in a phone interview. “This is no knock on Frank or anyone else, but we drafted Dennis because we think he has star potential.”
After watching his rookie amass 21 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds against the Pelicans, Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle went further and said Smith had been drafted because the club believed he could become “one of the best players ever to play in a Mavericks uniform.”
James created the biggest Smith-related stir on Nov. 11, when he asserted in an interview after a Cleveland win in Dallas that the Knicks had “passed on a really good one.” Yet there is undeniable danger in drawing conclusions at such an early stage, especially with point guards, no matter who is doing the talking. James indeed has firsthand knowledge of Smith’s skills, having tutored him in a few off-season workouts, but the reality is that Smith will have to establish consistency and prove his durability over time.
It’s likewise too soon to know exactly what sort of ceiling Ntilikina has, or if either rookie can catch up to the success that the 13th overall pick, Donovan Mitchell, has quickly found in Utah. The post-Jackson Knicks, though, are generally pleased with the 6-foot-5 Ntilikina’s transition to the N.B.A. game, focusing more on his 7-foot wingspan and defensive promise than on his glaring lack of a polished perimeter stroke and occasional reluctance to look for his shot.
In a recent phone interview, displaying some of the maturity that has also excited the Knicks, Ntilikina insisted that he wasn’t rattled by a player of James’s stature declaring that Smith “should be a Knick” — or by the knowledge that he and Smith are destined to be compared for the rest of their careers.
”No, no, no — I wasn’t mad,” Ntilikina said. “In life people can think whatever they want, but it’s not going to affect me.
”I don’t want to waste my time thinking that much about this comparison, because I have a lot of things to focus on.”
Ntilikina won’t be able to avoid it Sunday, but his clash with Smith is really just one of the juicy subplots expected on a rather busy evening.
Harper, a vital contributor to the Knicks’ squad that fell one win short of a championship in 1994, is about to become just the third Maverick to have his jersey number retired. In extended halftime proceedings, his No. 12 will join those of his Dallas teammates Brad Davis (15) and Rolando Blackman (22) in the rafters. Their 86-year-old coach, Dick Motta, is also scheduled to attend.
And don’t forget the news media’s inevitable search party for Cuban.
The Knicks’ beat writers have consistently swarmed him since at least 2002, when Cuban memorably explained his hands-on style by telling the visitors gathered around his StairMaster: “If you’re an uninvolved owner, you are an idiot.”
Instinct tells you, of course, that they’ll find him somewhere in the building this time, too. Whether it’s in Dallas or a courtside scrum at Madison Square Garden, they usually do.