It was November 10, 2000. I was seven years old, wide-eyed and filled with wonderment in Reunion Arena at my first Dallas Mavericks game. I might have watched one or two Mavericks games before that, but I had no idea who anybody was on the roster. Little did I know that game would change my life.
With four seconds left, after the Spurs missed two easy shots and snatched two offensive rebounds, Avery Johnson canned a three-point shot to tie the game at 77.
I don’t remember if I was nervous or anxious during the timeout, I only remember what happened after.
The ball was inbounded to Finley who started his movement at center court with the old “M” logo. He took three dribbles to the left wing, about two feet inside the arc. Finley stepped back, created separation, and launched the jumper over the defender’s outstretched arm.
The arena erupted, and as a seven-year-old, I was absolutely hooked.
It’s not a stretch to say my slight obsession with the Mavericks started that night thanks to Finley. But as Mavs Moneyball produced the “Starters Tournament” pieces, I realized how much I brushed Finley’s accomplishments as a Maverick under the rug. Part of that is because some of Finley’s best years were toiled away on bad Mavericks teams, but the dude could ball, and he carried quite a load for Dallas.
Finley, the 21st pick in the 1995 draft, was acquired by Dallas in a mid-season trade in 1996 in which the Mavericks traded away Jason Kidd for Finley, Sam Cassell and A.C Green. As Dallas shipped out a disgruntled future Hall of Fame point guard, Finley was brought to a team looking at a 20-62 season.
The first piece of the “Big Three” quickly made his mark on the Mavericks franchise. In his first full season in Dallas, Finley averaged 21.5 points, five rebounds and five assists in 41 minutes per game. He led the team in points, assists, minutes and free-throw attempts per game.
The amount of run Dallas gave Finley alone is astonishing. From 1997-2001, Finley played every single game logging 41 minutes or more per game. In that four season stretch, Finley played the most minutes of any player in the NBA, which was also 530 minutes more than Gary Payton, who played the second most minutes during that stretch.
Finley in his prime did not have many flaws. He was a threat to score anywhere on offense. For his career, he was a 37 percent three-point shooter and eclipsed the 40 percent mark in five different seasons. If smaller shooting guards checked Finley, he could post them up with his imposing 6’7’’ frame. If bigger small forwards pressed Finley on the perimeter, he could get by with a quick first step. And make no mistake. Finley wouldn’t try to just draw contact at the rim, he wanted to throw down on shot blockers.
In 1999-00 Finley earned his first all-star appearance. He averaged 22 points, six rebounds and five assists. He shot 40 percent from deep and played 42 minutes per game every game of the season. Finley followed that up with a second all-star appearance in 2000-01. He averaged 21 points, five rebounds and 4 assists. He again played 42 minutes per game every single game of the season.
While Finley’s playoff averages of 18 points, five rebounds and three assists in five playoff appearances in Dallas are a notch below his regular season averages, Finley came up big in a few post-season moments. Take the 2002 playoffs for example. It was nothing out of the ordinary, other than Finley averaging 25 points, six rebounds and 2 assists per night while playing 47 MINUTES PER GAME. In the closeout game of the opening round against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Finley all but put the literal nail in the coffin when he scored 30 points, canned four of his six three point attempts, and pulled down 9 rebounds.
Finley almost propelled Dallas to the 2003 NBA Finals after Dirk went down with a knee injury in Game 3 against the San Antonio Spurs. Finley averaged 23 points shooting 50 percent from the field, 42 percent from three, and made all 32 of his free throw attempts. That’s a cool 50/42/100 shooting line on a team coached by arguably the greatest NBA coach of all time.
Finley’s strong play, durability and consistency landed a seven-year, $102.3 million contract extension with Dallas in July of 2001. But as Finley’s salary increased each year, his level of production slipped. Two things probably contributed to this: Dirk Nowitzki was becoming a superstar and Finley’s mileage was starting to show. After all, Finley logged seven straight seasons of 38 minutes per game or more from 1997-2003.
Finley was ultimately waived in 2005, leaving Dirk as the last member of the “Big Three”. Though it was frustrating to see the player who surfaced my Mavs fandom sign with the San Antonio Spurs, looking back now, I can find solace that a player of Finley’s caliber won a championship in 2006-07.
It’s no coincidence that Finley’s rise as an all-star, in conjunction with Dirk coming on to the scene, coincided with the Mavericks’ rise. From 1998 to 2002, the Mavs recorded season win totals of 19, 40, 53, 57 and 60. Finley wasn’t a flashy player, and he probably wasn’t elite at any one thing, but he was durable, reliable and good at just about everything. He was never the star Dirk ultimately became, but he was an original cornerstone to a franchise searching for a new foundation.
Now, all that is left to do is get that No. 4 jersey up in the rafters.