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It's been a tough season for Dirk Nowitzki's security blankets. He lost one when Steve Nash left the Mavericks for Phoenix.

Then, on Saturday, the only NBA coach he's ever had called it a career.

That's why Nowitzki was the first player Avery Johnson sought out when he took over for Don Nelson. Johnson knew he had some unfinished business with the Mavericks' most valuable asset.

Nowitzki is the Mavericks' leader, plain and simple. He and Michael Finley may be co-captains, but it is Nowitzki who gives the mental and physical cues to this team. And Johnson wanted to make sure he and Nowitzki were on common ground from their very first step together.

And to bold face that message to the rest of the team, Johnson pulled Nowitzki out of Saturday's game against Charlotte 20 seconds into the third quarter because he botched a defensive assignment against Bobcats center Primoz Brezec.

"I didn't do my job defensively," Nowitzki said. "I let the guy get the ball too close in and he scored.

"It was a message he [Johnson] was sending to me and everybody. We have to believe in Avery and in the system. He wants to treat everybody the same, which we know is not really possible. But he made a nice little stand for me and the team."

Nowitzki was back in the game after 33 seconds on the bench. But when a new coach benches the best player, everybody on the team realizes that nobody is beyond reproach.

That theory was reinforced at a lengthy film and practice session Sunday afternoon. Johnson wants to change some things. Nothing major, he said. But there are things that Nelson did that aren't Johnson's style.

"There's nothing wrong with our system," Johnson said. "But with a new coach, you just want to make some adjustments, subtle changes that we hope can turn out to be big changes for us over the long term."

Getting Nowitzki to be an even more powerful leader than he has been is one of the adjustments. Others will include tweaks in playing time for Shawn Bradley and Jason Terry, who will get more, and Alan Henderson and the backup point guards, who figure to get less.

Nowitzki, whose 33-point night Saturday was his highest-scoring game since Feb. 24, said he believes the Mavericks will be more cohesive now with Johnson as the sole voice after he and Nelson had split the coaching duties in the first 64 games.

"The last couple weeks were a little strange," Nowitzki said. "We never really knew who would show up. Sometimes Nellie was there, sometimes he wasn't. I think it's for the best for everybody now.

Avery Johnson insists changes to the Mavericks will be subtle. 'There's nothing wrong with our system.'

"Obviously, it's a little late in the season for that to happen. It's hard to change our identity this late in the season. So we have to make the best of it. We're well prepared with the right guy."

And Nowitzki took it upon himself Sunday to tell the Mavericks exactly what it is that must happen in the next month before the playoffs begin.

"It's our goal to be able to force our will on people," he said. "We have the personnel to do it once everybody's back. But we don't have a lot of time. We need to get on a little bit of a roll before the playoffs. We can't just coast through the next couple games and then in the middle of April turn it up. That's not how it works in this league."

Dampier improving: Center Erick Dampier, out since before the All-Star break with a stress fracture in his right foot, did some light jogging and was shooting mid-range jump shots Sunday.

It was the first time since the injury that Dampier has been allowed to work on the court with the team, although he was not allowed to scrimmage.

Dampier's return probably is at least a week away. But when he does return, the Mavericks expect him to be a strong contributor.

"I think Damp responds better to Avery," consultant Don Nelson said. "Not that he didn't respond to me. He had a tough start, no matter who was coaching him. He was terrible the first couple months. Then he had a great month for us. It didn't matter who was coaching."
 

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Avery might be able to even get KVH to do something on the defensive end. I'm also glad that the zone defence will be shortened out with AJ. When we get Damp back as well our whole defensive play will be much better and actually look like a genuine defensive side, I hope anyway :angel:. I think AJ's style of play will be great for us in the playoffs as he can get the team to play a consistant defence while we still have our strong offence, HMMMMM, I can smell a championship!!
 

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This is the start of Dirk becoming a great all around player. AJ knows what could happen if Dirk can become a defensive player.
 

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Thats awesome, I really look forward to many things about Avery, the article covered most of them :). The best bit though was when we could have Damp back in a week or so, YAY
 

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By EDDIE SEFKO / Dallas Morning News

Avery Johnson has been enjoying a seamless transition as the new Mavericks coach, with the exception of one detail: a new contract.

He hopes that issue gets resolved this weekend.

Representatives for Johnson have scheduled a visit to meet with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on Friday or Saturday in hopes of reaching agreement on a long-term deal.

Johnson has assumed the coaching duties while operating under the player's contract he signed before this season, which pays him $1.1 million.

Generally, first-time NBA coaches try to negotiate a three- or four-year deal. The average NBA salary for head coaches is slightly more than $2.25 million.

"I can only trust a man for his word, and I have a great relationship with Mark," Johnson said Tuesday. "I'm the coach of the Mavericks, not interim (coach). Interim coaches don't really have stability."

However, until a contract is signed, Johnson acknowledged that he has more in common with the four interim coaches in the league than the 25 coaches who are working under full coaching contracts. He is only bound to the Mavericks until July 1.

Johnson emphasized he is not trying to break Cuban's bank. He understands as a rookie coach he doesn't have the clout of Don Nelson, who was making $5.1 million per season when he stepped down.

Until he signs a deal, Johnson also stays on the radar for other NBA teams that are searching for a coach.

Cuban did not want to comment on Johnson's status, saying, "Contracts aren't something to be discussed by polite people in public."
Good to see that AJ will be here for the long term, he coulld very well be the next big thing in coaching.
 
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