The NBA free-agent season was five days away, but the back of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's jersey signaled that he was once again on the make: Instead of a number under his name, there was a dollar sign. As Cuban stood along the first base line after being introduced at the Reebok Heroes celebrity baseball game last Saturday night in Dallas, he was approached by Kenyon Martin, the New Jersey Nets' power forward and his teammate for the evening, who, as a restricted free agent, was not yet allowed to talk to prospective suitors. Martin made a public show of raising his left hand to prevent eye contact with Cuban—while sticking out his right hand to shake. It might not be the last time the two grip and grin in Big D.
Cuban is back in business, dealing for draft picks, stockpiling talent and angling for the NBA's biggest catch: Shaquille O'Neal, who has demanded that the Los Angeles Lakers trade him. Having put together a roster of overpriced Antoines and Antawns that flamed out against the Sacramento Kings in the first round of the playoffs, Cuban might have chosen to recover in solitude. Instead, on the morning after the Mavs' last defeat, he began taping of his reality TV show, The Benefactor. For three weeks, 12 hours a day, he weighed which of 16 contestants would get $1 million according to rules he made up as the game went along. It went so well that ABC shifted its release from this summer to the fall, when the nine episodes will air in the prized hour before Monday Night Football.
"One time I told the contestants, 'I'll give you $1,000 if you can tell me in 15 minutes why you are special,' " says Cuban. That's an offer he may be posing to prospective acquisitions before the free-agent signing date of July 14—albeit with an extra three or four zeros tacked on to the offer.
Cuban followed up that act by pushing his way to center stage at Madison Square Garden last Thursday. On the eve of a draft in which he had no first-round choice, Cuban acquired the No. 5 pick from the Washington Wizards, along with guard Jerry Stack-house and forward Christian Laettner, for Sixth Man Award winner Antawn Jamison. Then he and the Nellies—coach Don Nelson and his son, president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson-spent the next 24 hours making multiple calls to every team (all, ultimately, in vain) offering myriad packages including Stack-house, forward Antoine Walker and their newly acquired lottery pick. "Everything they're doing," said a Western Conference executive who had spoken repeatedly with Dallas, "is aimed at making a run at Shaq."
That run seemed all the more likely when Dallas drafted Wisconsin junior point guard Devin Harris, then sent a future first-round pick to the Utah Jazz for the No. 21 selection, 7'5" Russian center Pavel Podkolzine. One or both could be sent on to Los Angeles as part of a deal for O'Neal; or Dallas could re-sign free-agent point guard Steve Nash, include him in the package going to LA and hand the Mavs' quarterbacking duties to Harris. After making the trade with Washington, Cuban sent his team psychologist (a full-time position on the Mavs) to test the top picks for the personality traits most associated with NBA success. Harris ranked at the top. Cuban was especially impressed that Harris made a smooth transition to college after having his spleen removed between his junior and senior seasons at Wauwatosa ( Wis.) East High.
Harris may succeed without his spleen, but the Mavs aren't going anywhere without improving a defense that ranked 28th in points allowed (100.8 per game) and 27th in opponents' field goal percentage (45.9). That's just one reason the trade for a shot blocker like Shaq makes sense. One rumored deal included Nash and All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki, who, while vacationing in Europe, received a reassuring e-mail from his boss. "I told Dirk we are not trading him," Cuban says. Under no circumstances? "Absolutely, positively," he says, "we are not trading Dirk Nowitzki."
Cuban and the Nellies agree that a deal involving Nowitzki and Nash would still leave them short: If the Lakers couldn't overcome the Detroit Pistons with O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, why should Dallas believe it could prevail with O'Neal and Michael Finley? At this point Cuban has to wait for LA to make the first move, anyway. The Lakers will try to hire Rudy Tomjanovich as their coach and hope he can repair the rifts between 1) Shaq and Kobe and 2) Shaq and management, which has refused to give O'Neal a two-year, $60 million extension past 2005-06, when he will be making $30.6 million as a 34-year-old. If peace can be made, then Shaq will be off the table; if it can't and Shaq forces a trade, then the Lakers must come to the Mavericks and other teams seeking offers. Cuban clearly believes he could handle the issue of Shaq's extension. "I can't name names," he says, "but if I had one of the top two or three players in the league, I certainly would want to keep him a Maverick for as long as I could."
In the meantime Cuban will focus on three fronts:
Cuban maintains that Harris was drafted not to replace Nash but to extend his career by reducing his minutes to fewer than 30 per game. The negotiations are going to come down to length of contract: Don't expect the Mavs to guarantee more than four years to their hard-driving point guard, who turns 31 in February. Nash, who spent last weekend at Wimbledon with Nowitzki, was planning to return to Dallas from a two-month European holiday on Wednesday, to begin talks with Utah, Phoenix and Denver, as well as with the Mavericks.
?Developing the next generation. After loading up with expensive veterans over the past couple of seasons, the Mavs have returned to Cuban's original plan of developing young talent to complement Nowitzki, Nash and Finley. Last year's surprisingly successful rookies, swingmen Josh Howard and Marquis Daniels, join Harris and Podkolzine, the enormous 19-year-old who showed up at the charity baseball event wearing a Mavericks cap pinched uncomfortably over the tops of both ears. The 260-pound Siberian Shaq was the tallest and rawest of all the first-round picks, averaging just 3.0 points in 53 games for the Italian club Varese in the last two seasons. Podkolzine looks exceptional in individual workouts, exhibiting a rare combination of agility and shooting touch for someone so tall, but his inexperience renders him all but useless in games.