No self-respecting team wants to lose to the Mavericks, who bring a 6-59 record to the Capital Centre tonight to play the Washington Bullets.
Until their recent signing of recalcitrant first-round draft choice Jim Jackson and consecutive victories last week over Orlando and Philadelphia -- their first road win of the year -- the Mavericks appeared a safe bet to replace the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers (9-73) as the worst team in NBA history.
Veteran guard Derek Harper, the only holdover from the 1987-88 Dallas team that forced the Los Angeles Lakers to seven games in the conference finals, said living through this season is like having a perpetual black cloud overhead.
"It's there when you wake up in the morning, and it's there when you go to bed," said Harper, currently nursing a hamstring pull.
The Mavericks were averaging only a victory a month. Night show hosts made them the butt of jokes.
After a Jan. 11 loss to Charlotte cost coach Richie Adubato his job, Hornets forward Kenny Gattison said of the Mavericks: "They're bad on paper, and worse on the floor. They need to clean out everything, top to bottom. They've got to build a starting five and a bench. They're at least four years away."
But the addition of Jackson, who finally agreed to a six-year, $19 million pact, and the simultaneous signing of Quinn Buckner to a five-year coaching contract beginning next season have the Mavericks brass believing the worst is over.
"I don't intend to take the full five years to build a winner," said Buckner. "I'm not somebody who is going to be patient. There is a big task at hand, and we have to approach it with a sense of urgency."
The Mavericks' cause is not quite as hopeless as it now appears. There is the possibility that former team centerpiece Roy Tarpley, the 7-foot all-purpose forward who has missed the past two seasons for drug abuse, will return for Dallas next year.
If, in fact, Tarpley redeems himself, the Mavericks will have a kick-start back to respectability. They already are guaranteed no worse than the fourth pick in the 1993 draft.
And general manager Norm Sonju says his present roster includes a number of useful future pros in front-liners Terry Davis, Doug Smith and rookie forward Sean Rooks, who is averaging 12.9 points and 6.9 rebounds.
The Mavericks' past is replete with disastrous trades and unfortunate draft picks. Bill Wennington, Uwe Blab and Jim Farmer immediately spring to mind as draft failures.
Lost via trade or free agency were All-Stars such as Sam Perkins, Rolando Blackman and Detlef Schrempf. In return, the Mavericks got fading former stars like Alex English or crippled ones like Fat Lever, who is still on the injured list after operations on both knees.
"By mistakes and breaks of the game, we earned the right to go through all this pain," owner Donald Carter said.
Jackson and Buckner are part of the cure. But full recovery still could be a long way down the road.