Now that Jason Kidd has decided to sign with the New York Knicks to be Jeremy Lin’s backup, it’s time to discuss the disaster that is the Dallas Mavericks 2012 offseason. Actually, this is part-and-parcel of the disastrous 2011 offseason, when the Mavs leadership decided to blow up a championship team in order to pursue big name free agents this summer.
At the time, Donnie Nelson titillated Mavs fans by saying they wanted to land a “big fish”. Mark Cuban talked on and on about “financial flexibility” to do the same. So the Mavericks made a 1-year offer to Tyson Chandler (knowing he wanted a multi-year deal) and let JJ Barea go in free agency. Allowing Desean Stevenson to walk out the door was minor news, but that was 3 members of your 8-man rotation you shoved out the door.
The hope was the team would be able to lure either Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, or Deron Williams in free agency (or through trade) with all that extra cap space. Some local media talked of 2 of the 3. In other words, the Dallas Mavericks decided to go into the 2011-2012 season with an inferior team, hoping they would be better than ever in the 2012-2013 season and beyond. What I’m amazed is that some among the Mavericks faithful (media and fans) continue to defend these moves. They say the Mavs took their shot on a 50/50 chance and were trying to avoid being in the middle ground of the NBA–irrevelant, but not so irrelevent they were in the lottery.
I take exception to both of those points. I’d argue the Mavericks never had a 50/50 chance and that history proves that to be true. I’d also argue that the course Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson set has the Mavericks exactly where they wanted to avoid: on the cusp of the 8th seed in the playoffs. Here’s further thoughts to underline these points:
1. Don’t Blow Up Championship Teams
First of all, you don’t blow up championship teams. It takes so much to attain the world title, you don’t mess with that chemistry. The combination of talent, chemistry, and luck that goes into a world championship is such that you try your best to hold those things together, because starting over only puts you further from your goal.
Look at the last team to blow up a championship team: the 1990s Chicago Bulls. After Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippin, Dennis Rodman, and Phil Jackson won their 3rd straight NBA title, the Bulls brass decided it was time to put an end to things and start anew. They grumbled that Michael Jordan made $30 million a year, as if he didn’t pay back that outlay. They grumbled that Phil Jackson didn’t work well with the front office, thinking he was more essential to success than Jerry Krause (GM) and Jerry Reinsdorf (owner). They never considered that maybe Phil Jackson was right. Like Jerry Jones with the 1990s Dallas Cowboys, Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf came to believe they were the reason the Bulls won titles.
They thought all that had to be done was blow the team up and start over, and they would build a new contender in short order. Ten years of futility followed, until the Bulls got the 1st pick in the draft and drafted Derrick Rose. And the Mavericks wanted to follow this plan to achieve success. Granted, the Mavs thought they were retaining their superstar and that he combined with the world championship would lure big time free agents to Dallas. I say that was always a longshot…worse than a crapshoot.
2. The Mavs Never Get Free Agents
Ten years in the NBA should have taught Mark Cuban that the Mavericks never lure star free agents to Dallas. Cuban deluded himself into thinking it was because the Mavericks never had the cap space to outbid other teams, but cap space doesn’t get around the rules that allow teams to offer their free agents more than other teams. You need cap space PLUS assets for a sign-and-trade.
More than that, you need a situation players want desperately want to play in. Playing in DFW just doesn’t cut it for NBA players. Heck, even Chicago doesn’t seem to be alluring to NBA superstars. Instead, they want to play in New York City, Los Angeles, or Miami. It’s a matter of lifestyle in the case of all three and profile in the case of LA/NYC. Dallas is a great place to live and settle, but it doesn’t have the sizzle that NBA players (in particular) want.
On the side, the Mavericks need to learn from this they’re never going to lure the biggest stars through free agency. They don’t consider Dallas a glamor destination, despite the fact it’s a Top 5 market. Furthermore, Mark Cuban didn’t take into account the prestige of winning a world title would be spent a year later, if the Mavericks were one-and-done in the playoffs.
3. Perception Has To Be Considered
There’s this to consider, too: these free agents just saw you dump your championship players. These guys just helped you win an unexpected world title and you had no loyalty to them. They were the best in the world, yet they weren’t good enough for you. But more than the message this sends to potential free agents, imagine the message it sends to your roster.
Your moves underscore to these guys they’re expendable. Dumping Tyson Chandler in particular was a gut punch to the players remaining, because people like Dirk Nowitsky and Jason Terry realized how hard you had to work (and how lucky you had to get) to get a good center in the locker room. For years, the Mavericks had been playing 4-against-5, because they had to deal with Shawn Bradley, Raef Lafrentz, Eric Dampier, and Brendan Heywood. You finally make a good deal to get Chandler and play 5-against-5 for once and you let that walk right out the door. Again, that offer to Tyson Chandler was all-but-saying you wanted him to leave.
Morale on your roster has to be considered, while perception around the league must be considered. Why should Jason Terry and Jason Kidd buy into your program if you let their championship defense walk out the door, and why should players around the league take you seriously if you blow off a title defense? Dirk Nowitzky said it for all the guys the other day when he said, “I’m too old to start rebuilding.” You’re playing with years off these guys careers when all of them see the window closing. That’s just a really bad idea with an aging team.
4. Plan a Year at a Time
Which brings me to my last point: you have to plan one year at a time. When you decided to chuck a whole year for the chance to lure Deron Williams, Chris Paul, or Dwight Howard, you were setting yourself up to be disappointed. You never know what’s going to happen in the NBA in a year’s time, but history tells you everything is going to change from year to year. One thing for certain is that what appears to be the case now won’t be the case in a year’s time.
Chris Paul was almost certain to be traded. When he was traded, he was certain to be off the market, because he was going to a team that was likely a contender–much better than the New Orleans Hornets, at least. If you wanted a shot at Chris Paul, you had to make a strong push to trade for him last year–not hope he would choose you when he came free in 2013. Teams can convince a player to stay once he’s in the house, especially because the rules are set up to help the team with their rights. Otherwise, you’re just another franchise.
Most of the plan centered around Deron Williams and Dwight Howard, though. Dwight Howard completely blew up the Mavericks calculations when he decided to opt for another year. Instead of only outbidding teams for Howard’s services, they were going to have to send a package of assets to the Orlando Magic to rent Dwight Howard for a year–assets the Mavericks certainly don’t have. That left Deron Williams as the only truly huge free agent on the market and the only real advantage the Mavs had was that Deron Williams was from the DFW area. That’s not much of an advantage. When was the last time going home swayed an superstar NBA player in his prime? And even if Dwight Howard had hit free agency this year, it’s obvious he would have chosen the lousy Nets over the longtime contender Mavericks. That should tell you something about perceptions around the league (though Dwight Howard is a little crazy).
So the Mavericks built their hopes on shifting sands. Worse, they build their hopes on shifting sands that were likely to shift out from under them. They had a bad plan and they executed the plan badly. Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson set themselves up for disaster and now they preside over wreckage. Their offseason is a wreck and it’s about 95% their own fault.
Far better it would have been to have put the best product on the court last year, made a run as late as possible in the playoffs, maintained as much of the prestige of the title the year before and the perception of title contenders moving ahead, then taken their chances in free agency with a better store of trust and standing. Financial flexibility is great, but it’s not the only factor. The Mavericks treated it as the only factor, which was their downfall.
Count Me Out on Next Year
I can already see it coming. Some have already moved on to Dwight Howard and Chris Paul in 2013. Wait another year, maintain your financial flexibility, and one or both of these guys will come to Dallas. You’re fooling yourselves. Another year of mediocrity and the Dallas Mavericks will look even more irrelevent. Dirk Nowitzky will be 2 years removed from an NBA title, 35 years old, and well past his prime. Chris Paul will have had two years with a young LA Clippers team and have spent two years in Los Angeles. Why would have want to move to Dallas? Dwight Howard will still be wanting to go to New York City, or wherever he wants to be in 2013. I’m betting it won’t be the Mavericks.
The Dallas Mavericks gambled everything lost. The summer of 2011–essentially everything since the world championship celebration ended–is going to be seen as the moment this team threw away a chance at title defense. 2012 is going to be seen as the year it became evident, but this was a year in the making. These past two offseasons are about decline into mediocrity. 2013 isn’t going to see the Mavericks as a contender for the biggest free agents, but about the Mavs admitting they are rebuilding and shopping Dirk Nowitsky to find the best way to shorten the rebuilding process. That’s my prediction, because you just don’t blow up championship teams.