By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010; D03
DALLAS -- They were forced to start over together in Dallas, to instantly wash off the distractions and dissension that overtook just about every aspect of the Washington Wizards in the first half of this season. While their former team is focused on recovering from a second consecutive lottery campaign, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson were given a second shot at success with the Mavericks.
But with Dallas down three games to one in its best-of-seven first-round series against in-state rival San Antonio, the opportunity grows more remote to claim the championship that last summer Butler actually thought the Wizards would contend for. "Maybe we were dreaming or thinking too big at the time for the situation that we were in" with Washington, Butler said last week. "But this is an opportunity that's every player's dream -- to have a realistic shot at winning a title."
To keep that dream alive, the Mavericks will have to defeat the Spurs in three consecutive games, beginning on Tuesday at American Airlines Center. The trade on Feb. 13 helped Dallas secure the second seed in the rugged Western Conference, but the honeymoon period -- which included a 13-game winning streak -- has ended. After scoring 22 points in his Mavericks' playoff debut in Game 1, Butler has struggled with his shot and turnovers and was benched for the entire second half of Game 3 in San Antonio. Haywood has received inconsistent minutes backing up Erick Dampier and Stevenson has played just seven seconds this postseason.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and all-star forward Dirk Nowitzki initially said the deal that shipped Josh Howard and three other players to Washington in exchange for three starters from the last Wizards playoff team made Dallas more talented than the team that reached the NBA Finals in 2006. Cuban added recently that he wouldn't be satisfied if this group doesn't have a better finish.
"When I spend $30-, $40 million, I try to have a high expectation. It's not like buying a Yugo," Cuban said. "If we don't win the series everybody is going to say it was a failure. If we don't win a championship everybody's going to say it's a failure, and that's really what it comes down to."
Butler and Haywood both have advanced beyond the first round only once apiece ¿ Butler as a member of the Heat in 2004, Haywood a year later with the Wizards. Stevenson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has never won a playoff series. Haywood made the playoffs in four of his 8 1/2 7seasons in Washington and said he enjoys the pressure and heightened expectations in Dallas.
"In D.C., even when we made it to the playoffs, we were never really taken seriously. Everybody thought, 'They maybe might win a first-round series.' But a lot of people didn't think we'd win that. This is a different animal. At the same time, I wouldn't have it any other way," said Haywood, 30, adding that he's elated just to be back on this stage after sitting out last season. "As you get older, you realize the playoffs aren't a given. Competing for a championship isn't a given. And basketball, it seems like it takes a while, but it's a very short career. I'm just grateful for every playoff game I can play."
Butler and Haywood have neighboring stalls in the Mavericks' locker room. Haywood and Stevenson rent apartments in the same complex, while Butler resides in Warriors and former Mavericks coach Don Nelson's plush penthouse apartment a few blocks from American Airlines Center.
Stevenson and Butler conclude most practices with a three-point shooting contest, which -- if not for the Mavericks' logos on the court -- could easily be mistaken for exchanges the two had for more than three seasons as Wizards teammates at Verizon Center. But with a team that boasts two future Hall of Famers in Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, a former all-star in Shawn Marion and a former sixth man of the year in Jason Terry, Butler said the environment has been much different than the one he left behind. "You've got a great veteran group that does a good job of policing the locker room. Doing a good job of making sure everything is kosher around here," Butler said. "It's a great atmosphere for basketball. Great workplace. No outside distractions. Just coming in and playing basketball."
Butler didn't have to go into detail about the well-chronicled misfortunes in Washington, with the death of owner Abe Pollin and the gun dispute involving Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton highlighting a disastrous season. Butler said Pollin's widow, Irene, called to inform him a week before the trade that the organization planned to move him and Antawn Jamison and would place them in good situations.
"They could've just sent me anywhere, but obviously, Mr. Pollin was still working and it's a blessing. The Pollin family really took care of me. But, you know, Washington was really home for me," said Butler, 30, whose pregnant wife, Andrea, and 6-year-old daughter, Mia, remained in Virginia. "Coming to a new city and having to invent yourself all over again, it's mind-boggling to think about that on the fly, but at the same time I understand the nature of the business. Players get recycled in this game all the time."
Haywood started 19 of his first 22 games with Dallas, but has been used as a reserve since Dampier reclaimed his spot after returning from a dislocated finger. "It's a situation I've been in before in D.C.," Haywood said. "So I've been in situations where I've been a starter. I've been in situations where I have to come off the bench. I feel I can contribute in both aspects. You may like one more than the other, but it doesn't change your approach or how hard you go out there and play."
Butler and Stevenson are signed through next season, but Haywood will be a free agent this summer. Haywood said he is not looking at this postseason as an opportunity to simply showcase his talents for any potential suitors.
"If I have a good first round and we don't get out of the first round, everybody is going to talk about how he played well, but he didn't have an impact," said Haywood, who is averaging 6.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in just 21.8 minutes. "I'm looking at this as a time to do whatever is necessary to win. You'll be amazed at how winning is the most important thing."
Butler is hopeful that the Mavericks can experience the feeling more often. "It's just a special moment, a special time in my life and in my career," he said. "I just want to win, whatever it takes. Whether it's scoring 10 points, two points or being extraordinary and scoring 30. Whatever it takes for this ballclub to win, I'm going to do it. I just want to be successful."