'Tough love' led to dramatic improvement for Darren Collison

DALLAS – The 25-year-old point guard drifted in and out of the starting lineup, often an easy target for frustrated Mavericks fans and media -- not to mention his coach -- during a losing season.

Steve Nash turned out to be a pretty darn good player after that experience.

That’s not necessarily to compare Darren Collison to Nash. It’s simply using one of the best point guards of this generation – and a foundation piece of the Mavs’ rise from longtime laughingstock to legitimate contender – to illustrate how much a point guard can improve in his mid-20s.

However, if you’re curious, Collison’s numbers this season compare extremely favorably to Nash’s in 1990-2000, when the future Hall of Famer was frequently booed during his second season in Dallas.

Collison’s averages this season: 12.9 points on .483 shooting, 5.2 assists, 2.3 turnovers and 1.5 steals.

Nash’s numbers in 1999-00: 8.6 points on .477 shooting, 4.9 assists, 1.8 turnovers and 0.7 steals.

Nash’s numbers took a major leap in the final month of that season, when the perennially miserable Mavs finished strong to end up 40-42, jump-starting the Mark Cuban era. We might be witnessing Collison turning the corner now, when the Mavs still have time to salvage a playoff berth out of what’s been a disappointing season so far.

Collison, who had the challenge of learning a new system while running the offense on a newcomer-loaded roster, has looked like a much more comfortable, confident point guard since regaining his starting job after Derek Fisher returned to his rocking chair and the one-game Dominique Jones experiment ended.

In the last 14 games, Collison’s points (15.5), assists (5.5) and shooting percentages (.530 on field goals and .536 on 3-pointers) are up and his turnovers (1.8) are down.

“He’s gotten better and better,” coach Rick Carlisle said.

Yet Carlisle still won’t commit to using Collison to close games, often turning to a 37-year-old man on a 10-day contract in clutch situations. Mike James helped the Mavs close out wins recently against the Kings and Rockets and was on the floor for the final minutes of regulation and all of overtime in a loss to the Thunder.

The decision on who plays point guard in crunch time will be made on a game-to-game basis, according to Carlisle. The coach appreciates James’ veteran presence and physical defense. Truth be told, Carlisle must have trust issues with Collison, whose struggles have contributed to the Mavs being 8-17 in games that were within three points in the final minute.

The mild-mannered Collison isn’t one to complain – and Carlisle points out that the starting point guard enthusiastically cheers when he’s riding pine in crunch time – but he admits that it bothers him to sit with the game on the line. His approach is to try to prove with his performance that he can help the Mavs win, which is exactly what he did by drilling a clutch corner 3 in the final minute of Sunday’s win in Orlando.

“I’ll fight,” said Collison, who is on his third team in four seasons and will be a restricted free agent this summer. “I’ll keep fighting. I’m very resilient. And I’m understanding. If it’s not my time, or if coach goes in a different direction, then I understand that. I can only play hard for the minutes I get. … I sure believe when I get my opportunity again, I’m going to make sure that I make the most of my chances.”

Added Carlisle: “We were in here Saturday practicing and I talked to him about end-of-the-game stuff and I said this is something that’s going to be on me to decide who finishes. Keep doing the good things you’re doing and you’re going to be in these situations a lot. I just know that. And sure enough, that’s how it turned out on Sunday.”

While Carlisle’s commitment to Collison as a starter has wavered, the coach deserves credit for Collison’s development this season.

Carlisle has invested countless hours in working individually with Collison, as well as his 25-year-old backcourt partner O.J. Mayo. The guards spend most mornings getting grilled by Carlisle in film sessions or on the floor shooting with him.

Dirk Nowitzki has made a point several times to mention that he's proud of the way the young guards have responded to Carlisle's hard coaching. As Collison said, players with thick skin prosper under Carlisle.

“We’ve had a lot of tough love from coach,” Collison said. “Coach has been in our face from Day 1. It’s all about a learning experience. He just wants us to get better. He just wants us to continue to improve. Rick is going to tell us like it is. He’s going to be honest with us. It’s the reason why we’re improving every day.”

How much better can Collison get? A certain Maverick from the recent past proved it can be tough to predict a point guard's ceiling sometimes.