DALLAS – They have worked so close together over the years that Donnie Nelson has all the confidence in the world that Michael Finley is going to bring home the top prize for the Dallas Mavericks when the NBA holds its annual Draft Lottery on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. CT from the Palmer House Hilton hotel in Chicago.
Nelson is the president of basketball operations for the Mavs, and he has been grooming Finley – the Mavs’ vice-president of basketball operations – to one day take his place. For now, though, since Finley will be representing the Mavs at the Draft Lottery, Nelson will be at home cheering on his protégé to win the league’s annual extravagant ping-pong event for the first time in franchise history.
After all, part of the reason Finley was chosen to represent the Mavs is because he grew up in Maywood, IL – it’s located near Chicago. The Mavs are depending on some hometown magic working in their favor on Tuesday.
“And (Finley is) going to bring his mom, Bertha,” Nelson said. “And they’re going to bring every good luck charm known to man, and we are going to do this.
“Hopefully his luck is a lot better than mine. At least I didn’t move backwards. I held serve.”
Nelson was referring to 2013 when he represented the Mavs at the Draft Lottery. The Mavs didn’t move up or down from their pre-lottery projected slot that year and ended up using the No. 13 overall pick to draft Kelly Olynyk, who they immediately traded to Boston so they could move down to the No. 18 slot and select Shane Larkin.
Meanwhile, Finley and Nelson have a close friendship that spans more than two decades.
Nelson was an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns from 1995-’98, and the Suns used the No. 21 pick on the first round in 1995 to draft Finley. During their time together in the Suns’ organization, Nelson recalls the many conversations he had with Finley as he passed along his thoughts on how to become successful in the NBA.
Fast-forward some 23 years later, Nelson and Finley are again working side-by-side. But those memories from their days with the Suns never fade.
“I just can’t say enough about Michael Finley and (how I had) just the complete joy to not only be able to shag balls for him when he and I were in Phoenix together, but to be part of developing him as a young player,” Nelson said. “But to see him come into his own as an executive, it’s just incredible.”
In his first season with the Suns, Finley played all 82 games, averaged 15 points and 4.6 rebounds and was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team. But on Dec. 26, 1996 in a blockbuster trade that involved six players and a draft pick, Finley was traded to the Mavs in a deal which also sent Jason Kidd to the Suns.
Nelson then became an assistant general manager for the Mavs in 1998 and rekindled his friendship with Finley.
Ultimately, Finley blossomed into an All-Star small forward with the Mavs in 2000 and ’01, and won an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs in 2007 before finishing his career with the Boston Celtics in 2010.
Finley returned to the Mavs in what he refers to as an internship position in 2014 and was promoted to the vice-president of basketball operations role in 2016. Now 45 years old, Finley has enjoyed a prominent position with the Mavs on draft day and is now smack in the middle of the Mavs’ chase to win the Draft Lottery.
“Since he’s joined us he’s had an increasingly more dominant role,” Nelson said. “And that is something that has been critical to the success that we’ve had – not this year, but before.
“And it’ll be critical to the success we’ll have in the future.”
That “future” starts Tuesday at the Draft Lottery — with Finley in the hot seat. But the Mavs are banking on those pressure-packed situations Finley has been involved in many times as a player paying off.
“Being a player that has been there done that, and to be able to put your arms around some of our younger guys that need that kind of guidance is just critical,” Nelson said. “So to have him represent us in his hometown with mom Bertha and the family that will hopefully be there for that moment, it’s going to be pretty special.”