Mark Cuban gave Dallas fans a peek behind the curtain of the Mavs' thought process in free agency. (Eric Gay/AP)
While certain media appearances are more or less mandated for NBA players and team officials, legitimate disclosure is not. Players can spout clichés to make their way through a gamut of post-game interviews and disguise truths. Coaches can find their buzzwords for the season and repeat them in lieu of actual commentary. And those in a team's front office -- whether general managers, owners, or of any other position -- can dispense comments so vague as to be altogether untelling, simply because they have little motivation to do otherwise.
But there are exceptions to those standards, and none more anomalous than Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. He's likely more well known for his courtside tirades and criticism of the league's operations, but it's Cuban's confessionals that have long endeared him to the Dallas faithful. In the past, he's described the team's decision-making process in more detail than most would, whether in regular interviews, at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, or through through his own independently curated blog. The latter doesn't regularly feature Mavs-specific content, but Cuban took to the blog on Saturday to talk about both his team and the state of the NBA in a 3,300-word missive.
There's a lot to parse, beginning with Cuban's revisiting of the 2011 offseason -- in which several pieces of a championship team drifted away in free agency by the Mavs' own concession. Cuban explains:
All my thoughts on the new CBA have been well chronicled elsewhere, so i won’t revisit them here. But what we have not discussed publicly was our concern of bringing back an older team in a shortened season. We basically saw the 2011-12 season as a throw away no matter who we signed. With out the time to prepare and get their bodies ready, throwing a team with with an older starting lineup right into the fire was going to be tough. Young guys can walk into an NBA game any day of the year. Get to your mid 30s, not so much. So to bring the gang back , we would basically be losing a year. When you look at keeping together an older team and the first year after your championship is a lost year, it’s hard to justify keeping an older team together. But we were the champs. That meant a lot.
This is an interesting point in the context of team construction. While many idly noted that the lockout could be tough on some of the league's older teams, this is the first explicit tie made between a team's trajectory-altering offseason decisions and age as it relates to the lockout. One could make the argument that Dallas' continuity might have given them an edge that others lacked in 2011-12, but Cuban's claim is compelling nonetheless. Given that it took Dirk Nowitzki -- a creature of habit and incredible preparation -- so much time to get his game up to speed following the extended layoff, there is some sense in the notion that the 2011-12 season might have been lost while the Mavs grew older and their core more expensive. With that, the need to add a bridging, franchise-level talent to that group would be even more challenging than before:
It also meant that if we kept everyone together we would have to make do with our existing roster. We would have little room to add new players. In particular we would not be in position to add someone who could come in and be a cornerstone for our future. IMHO we would be stuck with an aging team and not be in a position to make a big impact on our roster.
So we made the decision to stick with the folks we had under contract for the lockout season. We made a trade that we would thought would help, but obviously turned into a disaster. The good news was that it was a compressed season and we thought it would go by quickly and after the season we would have cap room to go after players we thought would be impact players and also fit our culture.
The trade that Cuban references was Dallas' bargain acquisition of Lamar Odom, and "disaster" might be too kind a word. Had Odom played anything resembling decent basketball (or the 19.4 PER he posted the season prior), the Mavs' reboot might be regarded in very different terms. As it happened, though, Odom crumbled; for reasons that to this day are not quite clear and the Mavs pushed him to the side midseason in an effort to get along without a piece that was intended to be a major addition. It was yet another solid gamble that didn't work out for Dallas, and in that a harbinger of the tough breaks to come.
Cuban goes on to defend two important elements of the Mavs' current process: Dallas' reluctance to trade the 35-year-old Dirk Nowitzki and the franchise's aversion to the notion of tanking. The case for keeping Nowitzki -- aside from tremendous offensive play and long-standing value as the face of the franchise -- derives from his contributions to team culture:
Culture is very important to the Mavs. Your best player has to be a fit for what you want the culture of the team to be. He has to be someone who leads by example. Someone who sets the tone in the locker room and on the court. It isn’t about who talks the most or the loudest. It is about the demeanor and attitude he brings. It is amazing how when the culture is strong, the chemistry is strong. When the Mavs have brought in players that didn’t fit or buy in to our culture it created on the court and off the court problems. Its possible to handle one guy who may not fit it. It’s going to have a negative impact on your won and loss record if you have more than one.
Our culture is one of the reasons I won’t trade Dirk.
When you turn your team upside down and try to figure out what the culture of the team is, you take the greatest risk a team can take. Dirk sets the tone for our team...he knows, that his impact on a game is far more important than any averages or what appears in the box score. That mindset. That selflessness. His work ethic is something I want to be in place long after he has retired. But to do that we have to transition with him, not in a void.
This in part informs Cuban's opinion on tanking, which almost necessarily requires the stripping of a team's culture as a means of clearing salary and acquiring young talent. But Cuban also makes a fascinating note of the diminishing returns of tanking as it increases in popularity:
In today’s game it appears that the popular path to build a team is to put together a group of young players that you hope will develop to their full potential and potentially lose a lot of games so you have a chance to pick the next Kevin Durant, John Wall or Kyrie Irving or Blake Griffin et al.
Then you have to do it again at least one more season , if not more, because any one of those players is not enough to win a championship. They are all great players now, but it takes time for them to develop into great players. THen you have to put the right players around them in order to become a championship contending team. This may be the exact right approach for teams to take to build a championship. You never know until you know.
What I do know, at least what I think i have learned from my experiences in business is that when there is a rush for everyone to do the same thing, it becomes more difficult to do . Not easier. Harder. It also means that as other teams follow their lead, it creates opportunities for those who have followed a different path.
I see quite a few teams taking what appears to be the same approach to building a team. I can understand why they are taking this approach. In the current CBA the value of a player chosen in the draft can be considerable because of the defined contract terms. And if you put together some great young players, it is very enticing to want to keep those players together for a long period.
But I also know that even if you have the worst record in the NBA, you may not get the top pick and even if you do, there is a material chance you pick the wrong player , or it just happens to be a draft when there are not any IDENTIFIABLE superstar potential players at the top of the draft.
The risks of gambling for the top pick -- of which even the worst team in the league has only a 25 percent chance of securing -- have been hashed and rehashed by this point. But Cuban's point about the mounting competition for such rewards should be even more concerning for those teams angling to win as few games as possible next season and beyond. On top of the risks of team culture, lottery odds, and prospect evaluation, tanking teams must also now deal with ever-increasing competition for the same resources in young talent, player development, and coveted spots in the early lottery.
With that risk assessment in mind, it's understandable that an owner like Cuban might shy away from tanking in spite of seeming to favor the process previously. The dynamics of teambuilding in the NBA are changing, and have been since the introduction of the new collective bargaining agreement in 2011 at the least. But it's tough to say where all of this leaves the Mavericks, who are positioned to be better than they were a season ago but again reliant on some older core pieces. That's more a product of rotten luck* than the team's process, but nonetheless leaves Dallas without the charms of title mainstays, the security of a new-era star, and the kinds of high-level prospects who could be groomed into long-term contributors.
*All of this on top of the complications that come in tracking a moving target. It's not said often enough, but the Mavs have had to constantly shift their timeline over the past few seasons due to the fluid availability of their targeted stars. Chris Paul was to stay in New Orleans until he pushed for a trade, and then was available for a brief window ahead of schedule. He then was almost traded to the Lakers, saw that deal walked back, and then eventually dealt to the Clippers. Beyond that, it was possible that he might be available as a free agent this summer, but reportedly locked in with the Clippers upon their signing of head coach Doc Rivers -- a move that still seems impossible.
Dwight Howard seemed to be pushing hard to find his way out of Orlando in 2011, but shortly after naming Dallas among his preferred destinations opted back in with the Magic for the 2012-13 season. That threw the Mavs' courtship for a loop, as did Howard's eventual landing with the Lakers in the offseason. But all in all, this wasn't a matter of targeting two specific players for a single swing in free agency -- it was a drawn-out process of attempting to cobble together trade packages, clearing salary to accommodate an outright free agent signing instead, and pinning down the erratic availability of both stars.