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The Irony of the Mavericks' Hires

By selecting Jason Kidd as his coach and Nico Harrison as his GM, owner Mark Cuban improved diversity while exposing a still-flawed, insular system.

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Every major hire an NBA owner makes reveals something about them. And we just learned a fair amount about the Mavericks’ Mark Cuban.

According to reports, Cuban is set to name Nico Harrison, a longtime Nike executive, as his new general manager, and Jason Kidd, a former Mavericks star, as his new head coach. So, what does this tell us? That Cuban values loyalty, familiarity and expediency. That he’s unafraid to take chances and bold swings. That he wants to build through free agency. That he believes the best way to recruit superstars is with a former superstar (Kidd) and/or a popular, incredibly well-networked power broker (Harrison).

(Also, unwittingly, Cuban just reminded us all once again how flawed the NBA’s hiring processes can be. More on that later.)

Are there other ways to interpret this highly unconventional twin hiring? Sure. But people around the league see some fairly obvious motives at work here.

Start with Harrison. He’s smart, charismatic and has the phone numbers of every significant player and agent in his contacts list. When the time comes to pitch top free agents, Harrison will ensure the Mavs get a meeting—and serious consideration.

The Mavericks have been trying (and failing) to recruit superstars for the last decade, variously whiffing on LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Deron Williams, among others. It takes more than a persuasive sales pitch (or a persuasive personality) to land a superstar, but Harrison improves their chances.

“It just gets Cuban in the conversation,” said a longtime team executive. “He couldn’t get in the conversation anymore. They didn’t have a guy that could connect with any of those [players]. And Nico can tell Mark what he needs to do to get guys.”

And Kidd? He commands instant respect, as a Hall of Famer and former NBA champion (in 2011, with Dallas), who is universally regarded as one of the smartest point guards to play the game.

Kidd could be the perfect mentor to Luka Dončić, the Mavericks’ supremely gifted young point guard. And Harrison, according to league sources, already has a strong relationship with Dončić, which could matter a lot when tensions arise (they already have) and Dončić needs reassurance (he probably does).

It all sounds perfectly logical. And yet …

Harrison has never worked for an NBA team before. He’s never put together a roster, balanced a salary-cap sheet, strategized for a draft or hired a coach (Cuban chose Kidd, though Harrison reportedly is in agreement.) Though Harrison played Division I basketball at Army and Montana State and scouts players in his role with Nike, his success is as a marketer and relationship builder.

“I think Mark took a gamble with Nico,” said the longtime GM, who knows and likes Harrison. “I would say in the last 10 to 15 years, owners have devalued the job of a GM or president of basketball ops. Because they look at it as, Well, it’s just about getting players. And to me, it’s more about managing players, coaches, personalities.”

Also, when the free agents don’t come, the GM still needs to know how to draft, make savvy trades and manage assets. Most contenders are built methodically, over years, not with one or two marquee signings.

And when superstars pick a new team, it’s almost never because they like the GM. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving picked Brooklyn because the Nets were competitive and located in a major market—not because they were charmed by Sean Marks. The same for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who chose the Clippers for their location and their shrewd roster construction—not for Lawrence Frank’s charisma.

There’s plenty of recent precedent for hiring a consummate networker and business person to run a team. Five teams have former player agents running basketball ops: Portland (Neil Olshey), Golden State (Bob Myers), New York (Leon Rose), Utah (Justin Zanik) and the Lakers (Rob Pelinka). All have had had some degree of success, though it’s still too early to judge Rose (who just finished his first full season) or Zanik (who was just elevated to the top job).

But there’s so much more to running an NBA team than networking and recruiting. A GM has to be versed in the salary cap, scouting, analytics, sports medicine, sports science and a dozen other things that have nothing to do with signing free agents. Harrison’s success depends on hiring an experienced staff to fill in the gaps.

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Kidd does have experience, having coached the Nets for one season (2013–14) and the Bucks for three-plus seasons (2014–18). But both stints ended abruptly and acrimoniously, amid tensions with management (in Brooklyn) and players (in Milwaukee). Kidd has spent the last two years as the lead assistant with the Lakers, quietly rehabbing his reputation while adding another ring.

Until Cuban came calling, it was questionable whether any team would take a chance on Kidd again. Some team executives doubt his coaching skills or his demeanor. Others say he’s a good coach who simply sabotages himself with poor people skills.

But Cuban did come calling, because Cuban likes and respects Kidd and because—like many NBA owners—Cuban likes hiring people he already knows. And this is where the flawed process comes in.

By all appearances, the Mavericks did not conduct a broad search for either position, after the twin departures of longtime GM Donnie Nelson and longtime head coach Rick Carlisle two weeks ago.

The Mavericks initially hired Sportsology, a well-known headhunting firm, to conduct the GM search. But it appears Cuban short-circuited that process to hire Harrison. Sportsology is not known for making a recommendation this quickly.

No, Harrison and Kidd are landing with the Mavericks because of their relationships with Cuban, which is fine and his prerogative. But hiring friends and confidants doesn’t always work out so well (see Magic Johnson and the Lakers, Vlade Divac and the Kings), and it often exacerbates the league’s diversity problems (see Brad Stevens and the Celtics), because white owners mostly hire white executives.

Kidd has a 183–190 record as a head coach.

Kidd has a 183–190 record as a head coach.

The irony in the Mavericks’ case is that a closed, insular process actually resulted in more diversity, not less: Both Harrison and Kidd are Black.

Diversifying the GM and coaching ranks has been a priority for Commissioner Adam Silver, though results have been underwhelming for most of his tenure. But this latest cycle is showing promise.

The hirings of Ime Udoka (Boston), Chauncey Billups (Portland) and Kidd bring the current number of Black head coaches to 10—the most since the 2013–14 season, when there were 12. (And there are still three vacancies to be filled, in New Orleans, Washington and Orlando.)

Harrison will become the sixth Black head of basketball operations (either GM or president), joining Masai Ujiri (Toronto), Koby Altman (Cleveland), Troy Weaver (Detroit), Rafael Stone (Houston) and James Jones (Phoenix). That figure is the highest in more than a decade. (Six other teams currently have black GMs who report to a president of basketball operations; those six are effectively the No. 2 in their departments.)

“I think it’s going up because Adam and the league has made the push for it to go up,” said the longtime team executive, who is Black. “I think owners have heard the message. Now it’s: How long will it last?”

The Mavericks provide a rare case where a team owner hiring friends and close associates actually worked in favor of diversity, instead of stifling it. But that doesn’t justify the insular process, or inspire much confidence that the league is learning from past mistakes.

To be clear: This could all work out well. Harrison is sharp and capable, albeit unproven in this role. Kidd is a basketball genius, albeit with questionable people skills and an extensive trail of burned bridges.

Their task is straightforward: Surround Dončić with the requisite talent to contend for titles. Keep him happy. Convince him you’re on the right path. Because in today’s NBA, the consequences for failure are worse than just a coach or GM losing their jobs. It could mean losing the franchise star.

Which means hiring a first-time GM and a polarizing head coach might be the biggest gamble Cuban has made in his 20 years as an owner.

“End of the day, you gotta win,” said the longtime team executive. “End of the day, you gotta win.”

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