The Texas Legends are no longer purely conceptual. Beyond the cast of coaches and front office staff that has been in place since last November, there are now actual players populating the roster. Players with strengths, flaws, potential, and limits. Players that will find both success and failure — hopefully more of the former than the latter — under head coach Nancy Lieberman. Between the expansion draft, the D-League draft, and the D’s new allocation rules, the Legends have assembled a promising 15-man roster, and with it, have gained the burden of expectation.
“You can read the press release,” Lieberman said. “I mean seriously, you’re going to put in the press release that we got four former first round picks? I’m like, ‘Dude, I was trying to fly under the radar!’ I mean come on, I’m only a girl. How much can I take?” Lieberman plays the irony perfectly, clearly not overwhelmed by her standing as a pioneer for her gender, her vast responsibilities as a head coach, nor her own anticipation of the season to come.
“Talk about expectations. We have [Antonio] Daniels, Reece Gaines, [Rashad] McCants and Sean Williams,” Lieberman said. “We’re going to get on the court for practice, and we’re going to figure out Sean Williams’ strengths, Reece Gaines’ strengths, Gar Tucker’s strengths. We are smart enough as a staff to start molding the things that we want to do to benefit them.”
That molding, that adjustment, is what the D-League is all about, after all. The D-League is a professional entity in the literal sense, but it’s a stepping stone. It isn’t home to lifers. It’s a landing spot for players with an eye to something bigger, coaches looking for their next opportunity, and general managers looking to try their hand at running an NBA team. The D-League is, by nature, a league of transitions in which coaches like Lieberman, while likely pursuing their own dreams of an NBA job or high-profile college job, adjust in order to best develop and showcase the talent on their roster. “If we’re really who we say we are, we must set our [players] up for success,” Lieberman said. “It really cannot be about us.”
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but we’re going to get better and each guy is going to have a career year. They’re going to learn more about basketball than they’ve ever learned before. We will make our guys better. I promise you, we will make them better individually. And if they’re better individually, they’ll be better in a team concept.”
Of course, this venture isn’t purely altruistic. The Legends don’t only exist as a facilitator of hoop dreams, but also as a competitive franchise in itself, and, perhaps most importantly from an NBA perspective, a valuable resource for the Mavericks. Direct D-League ownership and the hybrid ownership model have reaped benefits for the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets respectively, and while Donnie Nelson’s co-ownership is based on a different model, the Mavs hope for similar gains.
Part of tapping into those gains is creating a clear organizational structure. The interests of both the Mavericks and Legends need to be in line with the hope that, eventually, the lines between the two franchises will be almost non-existent. Dallas will hopefully be able to call up players to fill either temporary or long-term needs, experiment with sets or schemes in a low-pressure environment, and use the Legends to further evaluate and instruct young players already on the Mavs’ roster. The connection between Dallas and Frisco should be seamless, and from Lieberman’s description, that seems to be the case.
“Think of us as one,” Lieberman said. “Donnie, Rick [Carlisle], the Mavericks, the Legends. Everybody decides what is best for the totality of the organization. We love that. We’re honored that the Mavericks care enough about us and enough about the future to help identify the players that we need to be successful. Everything will be collaborative and really, Donnie spearheads it. Donnie’s done every level: he’s played, he’s coached, he’s been a GM, he’s got the bridge to Europe, he’s always willing to make people around him better, and he really has a wonderful gift of bringing people’s interests together. We’re in really great hands.”
Hands that just so happen to steer the good ship Maverick, as well. That congruence is essential if the Legends are going to be a viable long-term resource.
The most obvious potential benefit to come from that resource is the players themselves. The Legends roster was assembled not only with the intent of creating a competitive D-League roster, but also by gathering prospects of interest for the Mavs. Some are relatively familiar faces — McCants, Williams, Daniels — but others, including the Legends’ first round pick, Matt Rogers, are unknowns to those not well-acquainted with Division II college basketball. Still, Rogers went to training camp with the Charlotte Bobcats, and the Legends will expect a lot from him.
“We targeted Matt Rogers from the first time we saw him at our free agent camp,” Lieberman said. “We were very impressed that, at 6-11, he could shoot, he understood how to play the game, he had good energy. We liked everything about him. We can use him in a lot of different, versatile situations on the court, so we’re excited to have him.”
But Rogers isn’t the only player Lieberman is happy to have in a Legends uniform. “I think in this league, it’s very important to have a veteran point guard,” Lieberman said. “Not that young people can’t excel; there are special players. But that’s why we looked at Antonio Daniels. He’s a veteran. He’s savvy. He’s been around the league. He knows what it takes to win. He’s smart. He’s versatile. That was very important to us, to address the point guard position. We also have Sean Williams, who is 6-11 and very explosive. We wanted to make sure that we covered the inside-out. Then we wanted to make sure we had some slashers, and guys that are combo guards, and guys that want to really defend and are willing to sacrifice and defend, and you put shooters around them. We’re really happy. We’re excited about getting Kelvin Lewis. We’re excited about having Booker Woodfox — the guy is an offensive machine. Some guys are just specialists. Curtis Terry is a lot better than people think.”
I’m not sure the Legends are a “team” in the existential sense until they finally hit the court together as a complete unit, but they have a roster, and by Lieberman’s enthusiasm and description, it seems a rather balanced one. There’s a good mix of youth and experience, bigs and guards, scorers and defenders. No one at this level is a complete player, but the Legends have some intriguing individuals and a notable level of collective talent.
Some of that talent is relatively straightforward in its implementation and utilization; Antonio Daniels is an NBA veteran who could surely benefit from instruction, but has a more established game than some of his fellow Legends. Moussa Seck, on the other hand, needs a fair bit of refinement in his game. Seck, a 7-4 shot-blocker, played for the Mavericks’ Summer League team in Las Vegas both this year and last, and though he’s improved in many respects, his basketball skills are still lacking. But rather than focus on how far Seck has left to go before becoming a fully-functional player, Lieberman sees hope in his progress thus far.
“I’ve known Moussa now for almost a year,” Lieberman said. “Moussa has come so far. He was very raw, but he has something that nobody else has. He has a great heart, he has a wonderful work ethic, he’s learning every day how to be a next level player. That kid was working every day in the spring on his strength, working on his game, working on his power, working on his hands. All you can ask of somebody is to get better.”
“Look at Manute Bol. Look at [Dikembe] Mutombo. Look at the guys who came here and really ended up flourishing. There has to be a level of patience. You almost have to project down the road: What’s Moussa going to look like a year from now? What’s he going to look like two years from now? That becomes our job, to develop him. He has the platform. He has people who care, and we’re going to invest in his development.”
That last statement seems to encapsulate a thematic element of Lieberman’s coaching style, though she’s quick to note her intention to balance that care and that investment with a strong, definite approach.
“We better love our guys because we’re going to work the dog out of our guys,” Lieberman said. “Seriously. All you need to know is my background and where I came from. Again, it’s not about me. I don’t want to make this about me, but they will not roll over me.”
Lieberman is the first female head coach of an NBA-affiliated team, but she’s made a career of destroying that “first female” qualifier. In 1986, Lieberman became the first woman to play in a professional men’s league. When Pat Riley became a coach, Lieberman was his first point guard; she played for the Lakers at Jerry West’s request when L.A. competed in the summer Southern California Pro League. According to Lieberman, Riley tells the story of their shared experience often, and told her: “You taught me how to be fearless. You were never afraid even though you were always overmatched. I never forgot that.”
This is just the kind of thing that Lieberman does.
“This is so normal for me,” Lieberman said. “It’s not normal for you. It’s normal for me. My guys in the office don’t walk around like I’m a chick coaching. We talk like we’re working together, hand-in-hand. We know the judgment. We know the expectation. We know it’s coming.”
It’s almost here. The Legends begin their season on November 18th against the D-League champion Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Lieberman’s D-League coaching debut and the Legends’ commencement are notable for very different reasons, and yet they both represent the actualization of the same plan. At long last, the Texas Legends are ready to tip off. The long-awaited blow of that opening whistle will inaugurate the Legends’ true existence as a basketball franchise and welcome all of the expectations and judgment that come with it.