'Little General' commands respect in Dallas

When I played with Mavericks coach Avery Johnson in San Antonio, there was no doubt was the leader of our team was. We called him the "Little General" for a reason. You could see back then that this guy was going to be a coach. I use to love watching Avery get in David Robinson's face and explain in no uncertain terms, "We need you, 5-0." Avery was ornery, but that was because he knew what he wanted and he had a vision of how it needed to be done. I can image that things are no different now.

You want to talk about a desire to succeed; this cat willed himself to be an NBA player. Avery went undrafted and started his career in the USBL in 1988. He then bounced around the NBA in Seattle, San Antonio, Denver, Houston -- the list goes on. He definitely rented everywhere he played, but he would not let the league get the best of him. He eventually won the battle by helping San Antonio win the championship in 1999. I realized just how passionate Avery was about winning when -- on a fast break, mind you -- he stepped in front of Shaq and took a charge. He was risking life and limb for his teammates.

He's already won three Western Conference Coach of the Month awards. In his first full year of coaching, he's clearly a leading candidate for Coach of the Year honors, and set to direct the West squad in Sunday's All-Star Game.

His team is neck-and-neck with San Antonio for the West's best record, using a recent 13-game win streak to boost its mark to 40-11 after Monday's 100-72 win over the Knicks.

As you look at teams out West, it's Johnson's Mavs who seem to be the team that has the best chance of challenging the Spurs for the Western Conference title. I know what you're thinking: "What about Phoenix when they get Amare Stoudemire back?" Do we really know how well Amare will be able to play when he returns? That leads me back to the Mavericks.

We know by looking at the Mavs' roster (Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard, Marquis Daniels and Devin Harris, to name a few) that they can score. This is a team that, over the past six seasons, has finished no worse than fourth in the NBA in scoring. So if they do not have a problem scoring, they obviously need to work on their defense. This is true, but I think Johnson has helped them work on some things that you will not find in the box scores. This team has improved its standing in levels of leadership, desire and belief.

Johnson was the man for this job. Who better to help this team improve important intangible factors than the head coach? I can tell you from personal experience that this guy oozes those qualities from his pores.

Finally, if Avery didn't believe in himself, who would have? He is a perfect example of what can be accomplished if you put your mind to it. I know he helped me become a better player. I think Mark Cuban realized the possibilities when he promoted Avery to head coach toward the end of last season. It's amazing how things go full circle. Avery is looked upon as the "Little General" once again.

ESPN Insider Will Perdue, who is on the call for this weekend's All-Star Game coverage on ESPN Radio, played 13 seasons in the NBA, including four in San Antonio (1995-'99)