“Now let the charade end!” – Galactus, Devourer of Worlds
When I first inquired to Rob Mahoney about joining the Two Man Game team, I made a single request. I asked Rob if I could write about Derek Harper at least once a year. In my opinion, Harper hasn’t received the recognition he deserves. It’s the start of a new year, a good time to look back on the Ye Olde Mavericks. As a gift to myself, I’m taking this day to write about no. 12, and I’m leading the charge to get his number retired.
Here’s a secret. You are far more likely to get Mark Cuban to respond to your emails if you’re a season ticket holder. Start the email with an account number (I had a ten-game package, nothing too fancy). Almost a year ago, I wrote to Cuban:
Before Dirk Nowitzki retires and a whole new generation is considered for retired numbers, I believe Derek Harper is one essential member of the early Mavs who deserves the honor. Yes, there is Aguirre and Donaldson, Perkins and Tarpley, but only Derek Harper hits all the reasonable criteria for retired numbers — (1) greatness as a player, (2) long term commitment to the team, (3) long term impact on the franchise. I’m not the type of fan who believes retired numbers should be given out liberally. Once you have Davis, Blackman, and Harper, I think the pre-Nowitzki Mavs have been appropriately represented. Are there any plans to retire #12 before we get to #41?
I then went on to complain about the red t-shirts (see my last column) and tried to defend Lamar Odom. It was still early in the season. Mark Cuban responded:
brilliant minds think alike.
we agree across the board [smiley face]
stay tuned and thank you for your support of our Mavs !!
No privacy footnote included. Here you go, a year-old The Two Man Game exclusive with Mark Cuban.
You have to give Cuban credit. His response was affirming. He answered my questions, and yet he was still vague and noncommittal. If he agrees that those red t-shirts are cursing the team, why launch them into the crowd? If you agree that Derek Harper’s number should be retired, why not retire it? I have a few theories on his “we agree across the board” statement. It could mean:
- Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Get off my back.
- Be patient. The t-shirts will be gone once we run out of t-shirts, and we have a lot. We’ll retire Derek Harper’s number the day before Nowitzki’s.
- I think almost every Mav should have their number retired… but it ain’t gonna happen.
- I didn’t have time to give you a more honest answer.
So, why Derek Harper? A player who never played in an All-Star game, a player who wasn’t even the Mavs’ top draft pick in 1983, and a player who is often remembered for his terrible rookie error in the 1984 playoffs when he dribbled out the clock sending the game against the Lakers into overtime. If this is all you see, you’re missing one of the most important players to shape the culture and legacy of the ‘80s Mavs, one of the most dedicated and proud Mavericks (during a time when being a Maverick wasn’t always a point of pride), and yes, the greatest point guard for this franchise. Let me explain.
From a statistician’s standpoint, it’s difficult to quantify the greatness of a point guard. In part, because a point guard’s most telling number is his assist totals, and assists can be misleading. The NBA’s definition is murky and subjective. An assist is “credited to a player tossing the last pass leading directly to a field goal, only if the player scoring the goal responds by demonstrating immediate reaction to the basket.” Also, an assist depends largely on the ability of your teammates to make the shots. (I don’t mean to take away from Magic Johnson or John Stockton, but they were passing to the no. 1 and no. 2 all-time scorers respectively.)
The assist is about passing, but on another level it represents a player’s ability to make the players around him better, to run the offense, and to help the team be a single unit. Other positions can afford to get a little selfish, but the point guard carries the metaphysical burden of selfless cohesion and vision.
Derek Harper was all these things for a team in the ’80s that performed well beyond all expectations. When many people thought that professional basketball couldn’t thrive in Cowboys land, this Mavericks team offered Dallas what it loves most: winning. I sometimes wonder if the franchise could’ve survived the ’90s, if it didn’t perform so well in its first decade. Would Mark Cuban have bothered with this team if he didn’t have so many fond memories when he was a fan? Perhaps none of it would’ve happened without Derek Harper.
Besides Harper, which other great Mavericks point guards come to mind? Clearly, Steve Nash and Jason Kidd are better point guards than Harper when you look at the entirety of their career. But when you evaluate them simply during their “time served” as a Maverick, No. 12 holds his own. The simple fact is that Nash and Kidd never played their best years in Dallas. Harper did.
Steve Nash in 6 seasons with Dallas Mavericks (taken from Basketball-Reference.com)
PPG 14.6 (playoffs 15.9)
APG 7.2 (playoffs 7.5)
His best teammates: Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley
Worth noting: He led the Mavs to the Western Conference Finals. He also became the league MVP the season after he left the Mavs. As a result, there is a Nash-sized hole in the heart of every Mavs fan who pines for an alternate reality where Nash and Nowitzki stayed together throughout their careers… in Dallas.
Jason Kidd, the 1st, and Jason Kidd, the 2nd, in 3 seasons and 5 seasons with Dallas Mavericks (taken from Basketball-Reference.com)
I’ve mentioned this before but there are two Jason Kidds. You can’t really lump them together.
His best teammates: Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson/Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry
Worth noting: He won NBA Rookie of the Year./He helped deliver a championship to the Dallas Mavericks.
Derek Harper in 12 seasons with Dallas Mavericks (taken from Basketball-Reference.com)
PPG 15 (playoffs 11.8)
APG 6.1 (playoffs 6.2)
**Fourth highest in franchise
His best teammates: Rolando Blackman and Mark Aguirre
Worth noting: He has the 11th most steals and the 17th most assists in NBA history. He helped the Mavs get their first division title and led them to the Western Conference Finals.
In fairness, if you don’t count Harper’s stats for his first three seasons, before he played 30 plus minutes per game, you have…
What can we glean from these stats? From my perspective, it’s not that he’s superior to Mavs-era Nash or Mavs-era Kidd, but that he holds his own. People who immediately assume Nash and Kidd were better, need to look at the numbers. Yes, Kidd clearly had better assist numbers than both Harper and Nash. But Harper was a better scorer than Kidd and equal, if not slightly better during the regular season, to Steve Nash. Harper was also a better man-on-man defender and put up an impressive number of steals.
Harper played with finesse and attitude. There is no doubt he made his team better. Blackman demanded the ball in very specific spots on the court to keep his scoring efficiency so high, and Harper delivered. They were not a team of All Stars per se, but they functioned so well together. If “chemistry” could be statistically measured, that Mavs team had a wealth of it. Credit, in large part, must be given to Harper.
All this looks past a more significant number when you compare point guards. 12. Same as his jersey number, Harper gave 12 years to the team. A number that should be appreciated when you consider how rare it is nowadays for an athlete to spend over a decade with one team.
Brad Davis (no. 15) and Rolando Blackman (no. 22) both have their numbers retired. Davis now works on the Mavs radio broadcast and as a player development coach. Blackman is director of basketball development for the Mavericks. Derek Harper works as the TV game analyst. All three continue to serve the franchise they helped kickstart. When the Mavs won the championship, Davis, Blackman, and Harper were awarded championship rings for their service.
Retiring jerseys is a tricky subject. If the fans had their way, we’d have a hundred jerseys hanging from the rafters. But to represent the pre-Nowitzki era, I think we only need three. Right now, we’re missing one.
David Hopkins is a freelance writer — a regular contributor to D Magazine and Smart Pop Books. David wears a lucky Nowitzki jersey to most of the games. Follow David on Twitter at @davidhopkins.