The knock of opportunity

Little-known players getting chance with last year's NBA finalists

By Truman Reed

Norris Cole

The former Cleveland State University standout got his foot in Miami's door with a 21-point, four-assist performance in the Heat's annual Red & Black Scrimmage, was rewarded with a roster spot and paid the team back quickly.

Judging by what has transpired since the Dallas Mavericks defeated the Miami Heat, 105-95, in Game 6 of the 2011 National Basketball Association Finals to win their first league title, championship chemistry and continuity appear to be things of the past.

Last year's NBA runners-up entered the shortened 2011-12 NBA season as the consensus favorites to win the 2012 title while the reigning champions had the fifth-best odds.

If either or both of those teams get back to the Finals, they will do so with different casts of characters than they put on the floor last June.

Some of the personnel changes have been inventive ways to follow the luxury-tax rules that came with the new collective bargaining agreement. Some teams are creating salary cap space for next summer by signing multiple players to single-year contracts.

Some of the players who have been brought aboard by last year's NBA finalists need no introductions.

Miami, the consensus favorite to win the 2011-12 championship, added veteran forward Shane Battier to provide defense and an additional 3-point shooting option. His addition should help ease the loss of Mike Bibby and Eddie House, who bolstered the team's veteran nucleus during last season's drive to the finals.

Second-year post player Dexter Pittman, a 6-foot-11-inch, 308-pound University of Texas product, is back with Miami after spending most of his rookie season with the National Basketball Development League's Sioux Falls Skyforce, playing just two games for the Heat.

Miami also signed former Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks center Eddy Curry as a free agent. Health issues have kept Curry out of the league since the 2009-10 season.

Pittman and Curry won't likely fill the shoes of Erick Dampier, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Jamaal Magloire, who went elsewhere after helping the Heat reach the 2011 Finals, but they at least give Miami two backup post options.

Three other players who made the Heat roster are less familiar to NBA fans, so introductions are in order.

Mickell Gladness, who could make the NBA's all-name team if nothing else, is a 6-11, 220 post who led collegiate basketball in blocked shots with an average of 6.3 per game as a junior at Alabama A & M University in 2006-07. Undrafted by the NBA, Gladness' professional basketball experience has come with Matrixx Magic Nijmegen of the Dutch Basketball League. He played in the 2010 NBA Summer League with Miami.

Terrel Harris, a 6-5, 190 guard, was named to the all-Big 12 Conference Defensive Team as a senior at Oklahoma State University in 2008-09. Also undrafted by the NBA, Harris has since played for the Maine Red Claws and Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBDL and for EnBW Ludwigsburg of the Basketball Bundesliga in Germany. Miami signed Harris as a free agent in December and he made the team's roster.

Another addition to Miami's cast, 6-2, 175 point guard Norris Cole, didn't receive a lot of attention despite being chosen with the 28th pick in the first round of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls. Cole's draft rights were traded on draft night to Minnesota and then to Miami.

The former Cleveland State University standout got his foot in Miami's door with a 21-point, four-assist performance in the Heat's annual Red & Black Scrimmage, was rewarded with a roster spot and paid the team back quickly.

He scored 14 points in the fourth quarter of Miami's season-opening victory over the Boston Celtics and finished his first NBA game with 20 points, four assists, four rebounds and three steals. He was averaging 9.8 points and 3.3 assists through his first 12 pro contests.

Reigning NBA champion Dallas lost Tyson Chandler, JJ Barea, Caron Butler, DeShawn Stevenson, Peja Stojakovic and Corey Brewer off its title-winning contingent of last season.

The Mavericks did acquire two high-profile players in Vince Carter and Lamar Odom, who bring with them 13 and 12 seasons of NBA experience, respectively, and also added seven-year NBA veteran Delonte West to their backcourt.

Dallas also extended opportunities to five less accomplished young players , two of whom were on the Mavericks roster last season, but saw limited action during the championship run.

The newcomers include 7-0, 250 forward Yi Jianlian, who entered the NBA as the sixth overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. Yi showed some flashes of promise before having his rookie season shortened by 16 games due to injury. He was traded to New Jersey, where he spent  two seasons before being dealt to Washington. He became a free agent after one season with the Wizards and signed with Dallas in January of this year. He played two games with the Texas Legends, the Mavs' D-League affiliate totaling 46 points and 24 rebounds to earn an NBA call-up.

Also in their first season with the Mavericks are Sean Williams, a 6-10, 235 center who signed a free-agent contract in December of 2011. Williams was selected 17th in the 2007 NBA Draft by New Jersey and split time between the Nets and the Colorado 14ers of the D-League. He was released by the Nets in January of 2010 and played professionally in Puerto Rico and China before joining the Texas Legends of the D-League and making the 2011 NBDL All-Star Game. He averaged 14.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks for the Legends.

Dallas' other December 2011 free-agent signee was Brandan Wright, a 6-10, 210 forward who played one season at the University of North Carolina before being taken with the eighth overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft by Charlotte, then had his draft rights dealt to Golden State on draft night. He played three seasons with the Warriors before being traded to New Jersey in February of last year. Each of his  four NBA seasons have been shortened by injuries. He carries career averages of 5.4 points and 3 rebounds per game, but has never appeared in more than 39 games in a single season.

Two players who were on the Mavericks' 2010-11 roster, but saw limited action last season – guard Dominique Jones and post player Ian Mahinmi -- are back for 2011-12.

Jones, a 6-5, 215 guard who led the Big East Conference in scoring in his junior and final season at the University of South Florida in 2009-10, was selected by Memphis with the 25th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. His draft rights were traded to Dallas, but he spent most of his rookie season with Texas of the D-League, averaging 18.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5 assists. He played 18 games for the Mavericks last season.

Mahinmi, a 6-11, 230 post who was born and raised in France, was the 28th player taken in the 2005 NBA Draft by the San Antonio Spurs.  He has gained most of his pro experience playing in France and in the D-League.

Mahinmi signed as a free agent with Dallas in July of 2010 and did see some action with the Mavs last season, recording a 12-point, 10-rebound double-doubel against Golden State and a 17-point outing against Memphis. He averaged 3.4 points and 2.1 rebounds in 8.7 minutes per game during the regular season and played in six of Dallas' playoff games, averaging 2.5 ppg and 1 rpg in 5.5 mpg.

Mahinmi has seized his expanded opportunity in Dallas this season, averaging 7.7 ppg and 5 rpg in 19.6 mpg. He scored in double figures in three of his first 10 contests.

Thus far, Cole and Mahinmi have been the most valuable diamonds-in-the-rough for last year's NBA finalists. Time will tell if they and other little-known players around the league will step into major roles once playoff time rolls around.


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