Mark Cuban has been talkative lately, from criticizing Jason Kidd for the manner of his departure to sounding wishy-washy on the radio about whether the Mavericks actually wanted Deron Williams (via ESPN Dallas):
“I don’t want to pick on Deron Williams because he’s a great, great, great player, and so it’s not necessarily him, per se,” Cuban said. “The conversation we had going back and forth — and obviously the decision was to go for him — but the conversation was, ‘OK, once you add $17.1 million in salary to what we’d have with Dirk (Nowitzki) and Trix (Shawn Marion), then what do you do?’ That’s your squad. And it’s not just your squad for this year. It’s your squad for next year other than the $3.3 million mini midlevel.
“So that was a challenge that we had because we want to win, and everybody talks about Dirk’s window. Well, not only would it have been difficult to add players, then it also would have been difficult to trade players, and in reality that was the same problem that Deron had. Because he looked and saw the same thing and said, ‘OK, now what are you going to do?’”
To understate things a bit, folks in Dallas aren’t exactly buying Cuban’s story. Here is Jean-Jacques Taylor of ESPN Dallas reacting to Cuban’s remarks on the Williams non-deal:
We don’t have to like what happened this summer with the Mavs, but it’s better to admit you swung and missed than to come up with this silly cover story about not really wanting Williams.
That’s a lie at worst and disingenuous at best.
Cuban is so much better than that.
Building a successful NBA team is extraordinarily difficult, with each move and non-move creating ripple effects — often in unintended directions — for several seasons. Believe me: For every trade and free-agent signing that a team consummates, there are a dozen other scenarios (at least) that the team discussed internally. There is an even smaller but still significant number of would-be moves that the team actually broached with a rival GM or a player agent.
And Cuban isn’t exactly wrong about what he said on the radio, even if the the Mavs obviously wanted Williams to the point of offering him the maximum allowable four-year deal with an annual starting salary just shy of $17.2 million. Had the Mavericks inked Williams at that level and filled the rest of the 2012-13 roster with one-year contracts, they would’ve had about $55.5 million committed to six players (five active players and one draft pick) upon the start of free agency next summer. Add in charges for empty roster spots, and Dallas would have been either right at the cap or just over it — a powerless space in which a team only has the mid-level exception with which to add a meaningful veteran contributor. The space between the cap and the luxury tax is a place you want to be when you already have three or four core players under contract, not just two.
It’s true that Williams and Nowitzki are two of the top dozen or so players in the league, and they would have complemented each other in powerful ways. It’s also true that Shawn Marion is still on the books for 2013-14, and in this scenario, he would have provided his usual combination of defense, positional versatility, smarts and ugly/pretty floaters. But Marion and Nowitzki are in various stages of age-related decline, and filling out a championship roster around this core would have been very difficult in the short-term. Things would have lightened up in the summer of 2014, when Marion’s contract comes off the books, and you can bet that Dallas had plans to use cap space on one star or two solid veterans to form a proper championship roster.
Operating under the cap is tricky and places teams (to some degree) at whims of free agents, the best of whom can make a few million more and nab an extra year of security by sticking with their original teams. Cap room is useful in plenty of other ways, but its results are inherently unpredictable. It is something for bad teams, not good ones. That’s why Dallas hasn’t had any of it for a decade. The best way to win in the NBA is to acquire good players however you can, keep them via Larry Bird Rights, stay over the cap and wheel-and-deal using one expensive salary slot to trade for a more useful player earning a lot of money. The Thunder are entering a simpler version of this stage in which they can stay over the cap, retain their young four-man core (if they can afford it) and tweak the roster with the available cap exceptions.
This is essentially how Dallas has operated under Cuban: staying over the cap and making opportunistic trades. In a very basic sense, this is how they landed Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler and lots of other core players. It is remarkable, really, how long Dallas was able to sustain this strategy — a testament to both the creativity of their front-office personnel (especially Donnie Nelson, the team’s GM, and Cuban himself) and to Nowitzki’s greatness and ability to mesh with a variety of player types.
But eventually those players get old, and it becomes harder to flip them on the open market — to generate that constant churning of lesser for greater (and equally expensive/burdensome) quality. And if you’ll forgive something of a “duh” moment, this is why it’s so important to draft or acquire a young centerpiece player somewhere along the way. Depending on the timing of a team’s planned free agency strikes, that player becomes either a cap-friendly cheap third/fourth wheel or the kind of productive rising star a team re-signs for big money — staying over the cap, where it can continue that churn with some young legs locked up.
Look at all of the creative spending that Boston has done during the offseason to remain on the fringes of the title picture: the Terry signing, the Courtney Lee sign-and-trade, the splurging on Jeff Green, etc. None of it is really possible if the Celtics don’t strike gold with Rajon Rondo — the transitional centerpiece — late in the draft (with a huge assist from the Suns). The Spurs, of course, nailed two such draft picks to keep the Tim Duncan era afloat: Tony Parker late in the first round, and Manu Ginobili toward the end of the second round, the latter of which may constitute the best bang-for-the-buck pick in NBA history. The Lakers had one lottery pick in the Kobe Bryant era, and they nailed it by selecting Andrew Bynum at No. 10. Look what that hath wrought today.
This is where Dallas has failed, through no real fault of its own. When you’re picking in the 20s, the high-end expectation is to find role players. You pray you get a game-changer in there somewhere. The Mavericks appeared to have found two such second/third banana types in the late 20s in Roddy Beaubois and Josh Howard, but neither lived up to the billing of a transitional franchise stabilizer. (The Mavs eventually flipped Howard’s expiring deal to the Wizards for DeShawn Stevenson, Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler, all of whom played roles in the team’s title run).
The Mavs took a stab at the lottery by striking a draft-night deal for Devin Harris, but his game plateaued, and Dallas eventually flipped his $10 million contract for Jason Kidd’s pricey deal — a move that helped engineer that same 2011 title run. The Mavs gave up two late first-round picks in that deal with the Nets, and those picks became Jordan Crawford and Ryan Anderson — the latter of whom is the kind of now-expensive young piece that can sustain a franchise in constant churn. Dallas has since taken shots on failed lottery picks, including Yi Jianlian, Brandan Wright and Gerald Green.
You can’t celebrate the construction of a 2011 champion and denigrate a trade like the Kidd/Harris swap, especially when the prime young piece (Anderson) is redundant with the far superior Nowitzki. That’s life. You take a shot at the ring, particularly over a prolonged period, and you lose some draft picks along the way. The Lakers have surrendered a bundle of their future first-round picks, and that will come to roost at some point.
All of this stuff placed the Mavs in a very difficult team-building position both last and this summer, and things haven’t gone as planned either time. Cuban is obviously doing a bit of public spin in the wake of Williams’ return to Brooklyn, but he’s not wrong in his assessment of the Mavs’ current difficulties or the reasons behind Williams’ decision to spurn Dallas.