Updated: November 16, 11:48 AM ET
Shawn Bradley went to the weight room all summer, five days a week. He ran the track harder than ever before. He even stretched and twisted and folded the longest basketball limbs this side of that guy from Shanghai. To try yoga.
So, yes. You read right.
Which qualifies as progress, after the tallest player in the league reached the height of underachievement last season. Bradley became utterly unplayable for the elite team in greatest need of an interior presence.
It was the first year of a new seven-year, $30.5 million contract, and Bradley -- in the words of coach Don Nelson -- was "a no-show." The suspicions were loud, in Dallas and everywhere else: Bradley had stopped trying altogether after, at age 30, having scored the second long-term deal of his career.
Then the summer came, and Bradley, suddenly, started showing up. He was at the Mavericks' practice facility more than any other player in the offseason, and looked different from the first two exhibition games, when he totaled 35 points and 15 rebounds. It's momentum Bradley has maintained for a month now, which has the Mavs cautiously believing -- imagine fingers crossed with Superglue -- that this will be the last time they have to talk about a new Shawn Bradley.
They're hoping (OK, praying) that Bradley simply stays where he is at present. That's at nine points, nine boards and two-plus blocks a night, much like his 10-point, five-rebound, five-block night Friday as the unbeaten Mavs improved to 9-0 by passing their toughest test to date -- beating the Celtics in Boston.
"Most Improved Player in the league -- definitely," said Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks' MVP candidate. "We're proud of him."
That's compared to just a few short months ago, when most Mavericks could barely look at Bradley. Coaches and teammates were furious that, after standing up to Karl Malone in the 2001 playoffs to help the Mavericks stun the Jazz from down 2-0, the 7-foot-6 enigma disappeared. And you can't print what fans were saying.
Which explains why celebrations were likewise withheld throughout the summer months, as word spread of Bradley's constant presence in the company of new strength coach Robert Hackett. No matter that Hackett, a longtime Michael Finley associate who had helped bulk up Pau Gasol in Memphis, was said to be making progress. Nelson, apprised of the developments, offered a reserved response. "We'll see," he said.
That's because it's a story anyone who has followed the Mavericks of recent vintage has heard before. Bradley, for example, added nearly 30 pounds of bulk before the 1997-98 season, and Dallas still went 20-62 after all the optimism. Nelson, especially, wanted more proof.
So Bradley posted 14 points and 13 rebounds and four blocks in a Nov. 6 win at Toronto, after grabbing 10 rebounds just once in 53 games last season.
Bradley followed that showing with eight points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks in Chicago two nights later. Then came the biggest gem, at home to Portland on Monday night: 10 points, 18 boards and three blocks against the physical Trail Blazers.
"I'm just trying to be a contributing factor, trying to be a real part of this team," Bradley said.
He's trying to the point that, even when it looks like Bradley got tattooed, some good still comes out of it. Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas outscored Bradley 34-6 on Wednesday night, except that Bradley wasn't guarding Big Z straight up at the start, when Ilgauskas rolled to a 14-point first quarter. Bradley was instead deployed early in one of Nellie's favorite schemes, as a second man in to help Nowitzki on Ilgauskas as a trapper. By the time Bradley switched onto Ilgauskas himself, Z had the jumper working -- and Bradley still managed to serve up a game-turning block on a Tyrone Hill layup. The swat led to the Steve Nash layin at the other end that put Dallas ahead 93-91, and the Mavericks didn't trail again in scoring victory No. 8.
Now for the disclaimers. Yes, it's early in the season. Yes, the majority of Dallas' foes so far this season probably won't make the playoffs. Yes, the Mavericks know as well as anyone that getting too giddy about a nine-game stretch against mostly non-playoff foes sets them up for the umpteenth Bradley letdown.
Then again, they don't have much choice. Raef LaFrentz, the Mavericks' only other recognized deterrant at the rim, is out for at least two more weeks with a turned ankle. Popeye Jones and Evan Eschmeyer have also been largely unavailable. For all of Nowitzki's progress on defense, Bradley is the only conceivable defensive anchor for a team that relies on zones as much as Dallas.
"Probably the biggest thing I feel pressure about, if I feel any pressure, is that I've got to go out and keep doing what I'm doing with less fouls," Bradley said. "I need to be more careful, because we have no backup right now."
Bradley fouled out against the Cavaliers for his second disqualification of the season, but no one's complaining too loudly. About the injuries, yes, since sixth man Nick Van Exel has also been lost for three to six weeks to knee surgery. Also about the fact that media gnats keep bringing up the unbeaten streak, when the superstitious Mavs would prefer to pretend it didn't exist.
Nelson and his players and coaches -- and his owner, Mark Cuban -- insist that Dallas is actually playing so-so no matter what the standings say. "We're not playing well," Bradley said. "We haven't won games like we've wanted to."
About Bradley, though, the talk is pretty positive. The 9-0 launch is certainly welcome, but Dallas is arguably proudest of its defensive improvement to date, at just 89 points per game allowed. Bradley has to get a good chunk of credit for his role there, having handled the yoga -- "110 degrees in a heated room," he said -- and re-establishing himself now as an inside nuisance.
"He's really been giving us quality minutes," said assistant coach Donnie Nelson, who doubles as president of basketball operations. "If you throw out last year, Shawn Bradley has been pretty stinkin' good for the Dallas Mavericks."
Said Bradley, who's winning back some of the Dallas public as well: "I'm not going to lie to you, it's a lot nicer to have cheers rather than boos. I guess I play a lot better when my confidence is high, and when you get people cheering for you it helps your confidence.
"Other players here have gone through very similar situations and they're out of that now. Mark and I have talked about that. If I can continue to work like I'm working, it's going to happen."
With Bradley more than most, "if" can be a huge word. At least lately, the more Bradley tries, the less iffy it gets.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.