By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
DALLAS — Charlie Villanueva could have packed his sneakers, walked away from the game and lived a happy life with his wife and two young kids wherever they so pleased, and no one might ever have noticed he’d left.
It’s been that long since the 6-foot-11, sweet-shooting, headband-wearing Villanueva — once a No. 7 overall pick and once an ascending player with the Bucks who became the Pistons’ prized, $37-million free-agent acquisition — did much of anything in the league.
What should have been prime years of his career instead wasted away on Detroit’s bench, Villanueva rendered impotent by a toxic mix of various and seemingly unending injuries, a frustrating coaching carousel and a series of organizational missteps. He became the NBA’s forgotten man.
“I think a lot of people forgot about what Charlie Villanueva can do,” he told NBA.com on Monday night, seated in the corner of the Dallas Mavericks’ locker room, awaiting preseason game No. 6 of eight of his hopeful resurrection. “Sometimes you’ve got to take two steps backward to take three steps forward. It’s just what happened in my career. But now I’m trying to change things around. I’m trying to reinvent myself.”
For the last five weeks, Villanueva, 30, has lived out of a couple of suitcases at the Omni Hotel in downtown Dallas, a 1.2-mile walk to the American Airlines Center and Mavs headquarters, leaving behind his family in Michigan. He agreed on Sept. 23 to come to training camp on a non-guaranteed contract.
“I’m not used to this, but everything happens for a reason, so I’m going with the punches,” Villanueva said. “I’ve spent a lot of time by myself. I’m away from my family now, away from the kids, a lot of alone time and a lot of eating meals alone.”
The Clippers were a potential option, but no guaranteed money was being offered there either. He chose Dallas, saying it just felt right, even though it already has the maximum 15 players on guaranteed contracts. If Villanueva is going to make the team, he’s going to have to convince owner Mark Cuban (who is open to being convinced) to trade (Gal Mekel?) or buy out (Bernard James?) a player on a guaranteed deal.
“I had a great conversation with coach [Rick Carlisle] and I just felt there was a serious opportunity here if I do my part,” Villanueva said. “I love the team, I love the city and I felt like every guy complemented each other real well, and this team is real deep as well. I felt why not go for the challenge and see what happens?”
The opportunity is real. The Mavs have long searched for a true stretch-4 to back up Dirk Nowitzki to maintain the offensive flow when he sits. Small forward Shawn Marion, now in Cleveland with LeBron James, was strong enough to move up a weight class when Nowitzki rested. Marion’s replacement, the 6-foot-10 sharpshooter Chandler Parsons, will be asked to play some power forward. The Mavs also acquired Al-Farouq Aminu, who Dallas coaches are taking great care to refine his defensive skills and 3-point shot. Brandan Wright plays more center than power forward because his best offensive skill is rolling to the basket.
The 240-pound, floor-spacing Villanueva seems the fit Dallas has been seeking. The Mavs signed Rashard Lewis in July, but voided the contract after discovering an injury, something that finally isn’t the first thing mentioned when Villanueva’s name comes up.
“Oh, I feel good. I haven’t felt this good in a while, man,” Villanueva said. “Feeling good, in great shape, healthy, just excited about basketball again.”
Within the Mavs’ organization there seems a genuine interest in getting Villanueva on the roster.
“He’s an extremely intelligent basketball player and he knows what he can and can’t do,” Carlisle said. “Those are the kind of guys that you like to have … He’s done a good job. He’s making a strong case.”
His start to the preseason — 32 points, 8-for-16 shooting from beyond the arc and nine rebounds in 35 minutes spread over three games — was more promising than his last three games — 13 points, 2-for-10 on 3s and five rebounds in 25 minutes over three games. He played just six minutes in Monday’s game against Memphis, the type of team with a big front line that would figure to make Villanueva valuable to Dallas. However, one weaknesses so far has been his low-post defense.
“I definitely feel like [I’ve been] given a fair shot,” Villanueva said. “I felt good about my chances, but at the end of the day, until I hear that word, I can’t be comfortable, I can’t get this monkey off my back.”
He’s far removed from 16.7 ppg and 6.7 rpg in 2008-09, the season that convinced Detroit to make him a swift and lucrative offer the ensuing summer. It’s been a long five years since. He essentially disappeared.
His five-year deal with Detroit finally up, having played only limited minutes in just 102 games over the last three seasons, Villanueva could have convinced himself to walk away, to enjoy his family and pursue new interests.
But he couldn’t walk away. It’s been a training camp like none other for Villanueva. Now two preseason games remain. The regular season begins next Tuesday.
“I love playing basketball,” Villanueva said. “I’m feeling good, feeling healthy, so trying to maximize my abilities until they take the basketball away from me.”