Dallas Mavericks: Is There Something Rotten in the Land of Dirk?
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What now, Mark Cuban? As the world waits for a parachute to open this offseason amidst hopes that there will be a soft landing for the Mavericks sooner rather than later, a new wave of scrutiny is washing over the colorful owner.
The difference is, while Cuban has had no shortage of attention over the years for his behavior, there is a lot more doubt now about his ability to make good decisions for the team. I couldn't help but wonder if there was something we may have missed amidst the Dirk Nowitzki era.
Most sports fans have been in touch with a least some of the nationally known prominent owners who ruffle a few feathers. Although the bad boy sports franchise owner was not completely alien me growing up as a Cowboys fanatic in Fort Worth, I was certainly immersed in something entirely different.
As "America's Team" the Cowboys put together a record string of winning seasons along with multiple Super Bowl rings guided by the triumvirate of Tom Landry, Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt.
You rarely heard a peep from either the team's original owner, Clint Murchison Jr. or his successor Bum Bright and whether you were a Cowboy fan or not, no one could argue with the team's success, nor the high degree of professionalism with which the organization's top brass conducted themselves.
By contrast, some of the most controversial figures in sports were most notable when I was a lad. Topping the list is George Steinbrenner, whose escapades also touched home when his favorite employee Billy Martin made a pit stop in Arlington to manage the Rangers.
This was also prime time for Al Davis and Marge Schott. If you didn't live through it or weren't paying attention you can imagine the shock to the system when Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys in 1989. Jones started his career as a lightning rod right out of the gate by firing Tom Landry and subsequently purging everyone else who made the team what it was.
Jones didn't endear himself to the fans back then and hasn't been any more endearing since. His unceremonious treatment of the men who had been at the helm since the team's inception severed my affection for an organization I had basically worshiped my entire life.
I have to admit, although I have tried very hard to be interested in the team since, I simply have not been able to join other hometown fans in embracing them, even through the first round of success in the Jones era with popular players such as Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Darryl Johnston winning multiple rings. I guess to me, sports has to be more than a business.
Don Carter, who started the Mavericks, was a popular local figure and his successor, Ross Perot Jr. was basically disengaged...more interested in the real estate surrounding the arena than the team. When he sold the team to Mark Cuban, the ensuing change has certainly as seemed all too familiar. I'm quite certain I've heard whispers enquiring about what's in the water in Dallas...at least the water that sports franchise owners drink.
Yet somehow over the course of Cuban's tenure, I've managed to retain my affection for the team, perhaps largely because of my affection for Dirk Nowitzki as a player and a person and whatever shenanigans he's been involved in, I don't think anyone compares Cuban to Jerry Jones.
Bad-boy owners are sometimes larger than life. Already a minor celebrity as the Internet young entrepreneur who piloted Broadcast.com to a huge payoff before buying the Mavericks, Cuban has been notable for a number of reasons.
His boisterous personality has landed him in the news more than once for comments he's made, yelling at players and referees and similar behavior. He's managed to become something of a pop culture icon by appearing on Dancing with the Stars and Shark Tank.
Everybody loves a winner and for the most part, Cuban has delivered. I've never jumped on the bandwagon of saying Mark Cuban is the best owner in sports overall, although I would certainly agree that in many ways he excels. He takes good care of his team and is enthusiastic and engaged.
I also said in a recent commentary that at least at first glance it's hard to argue with the success he's had, taking a struggling franchise and turning it into over a decade of consecutive winning seasons and playoff appearances including two trips to the NBA Finals and one Championship. Notta so bad.
Of course, I also pointed out that the Cuban legacy has a whole lot of goodness without much greatness until 2011. Championship season included, the Mavs have pretty much been perceived as a team that would be great during the regular season and get booted from the playoffs early, largely based on doing exactly that.
When they finally made it to the Finals in 2006, the series started with two wins after which they had a complete meltdown and lost four straight to a Miami Heat team most everyone felt SHOULD lose to Dallas.
They followed up the appearance in the Finals by having the best record in the NBA and the top seed in the West only to lose to the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors. It's little wonder they didn't ever really shake that reputation and as before, they were not expected to do much better in 2011. To many, many observers the Championship was a big surprise.
So at that point there was hope that finally winning it all might signal an evolution from a perennial also-ran contender to the league's elite. Today, living through the second off-season of doom, dreams of the Mavericks becoming a dynasty such as the Spurs have been dashed.
After the highly controversial dismantling of the championship team and subsequent retooling that's currently NOT happening, there has been a new wave of discussion as to whether Cuban has good judgment in regard to these decisions.
Curiously enough, though, I haven't heard anyone looking back at a history that may very well indicate a touch of deja vu for me and I'm wondering if anyone else feels the same.
After all, as popular as Dirk is, if there's another similar player in Mavs history, it would have to be Steve Nash. A fan favorite in Big D, he couldn't get Cuban to ante up and keep him, taking his talents to Phoenix and now the Lakers, where he may follow up on his two MVPs with a championship before he retires.
If that happens it may be the ring many think Nash would already have had if things had worked out for him to stay in Dallas, not to mention an earlier championship and possibly the first of many for Cuban and Dirk.
I could point to other emotionally jarring upheavals, such as letting Michael Finley go and then organizing a booing campaign upon his return. Really, Mark? There are others of course but I will say that when he incurs one of his many fines, he matches them with a donation to charity.
I guess the mini-series about his life will be "Good Sport, Bad Sport"...except both will be the same guy.
And most recently, aside from the pragmatic aspects of the exodus of free agents following the championship, aside from Dirk, who has been more beloved to the fans than Tyson Chandler and JJ Barea? Go ahead, honey...why don't you just go ahead and stab me in the back.
But he most important barometer for any sports owner ultimately remains how the franchise does and Steinbrenner is the poster child for that being the bottom line despite all the distractions.
The latest series of events surrounding the Mavericks has rightly drawn its share of scrutiny but personally, I'm beginning to wonder honestly, why are we surprised?
Again, looking back to letting Nash go (and Finley, to a lesser degree) was ostensibly about the same thing that leads to most prominent players leaving a team where they are having mutual success : the almighty dollar.
In Nash's case, no one has forgotten he went on to become a two-time MVP and a sure-fire Hall of Famer, even if the blow was lessened by the return of Jason Kidd. Personally, I guess I had just buried the painful memories of the exact circumstances.
Already a two-time All-Star, as a free agent Nash had no interest in leaving a very good team and his good friend Dirk Nowitzki.
Cuban was reportedly most interested in focusing on the young Dirk and reluctant to pay the *ahem* aging 30-year old Nash too much so he reportedly offered him a four-year deal worth about $9 million annually, with a fifth year partially guaranteed.
The Phoenix Suns topped that with a a six-year, $63 million contract, but Cuban would not match it, so Nash left.
And this summer, with the possibility of returning to Dallas, albeit amidst perhaps more attractive offers from the Knicks, Raptors and ultimately the Lakers, why WOULD Nash want to come back to Dallas?
Cuban jettisoned him over what amounts to about $1.5 million a year and for one additional year. Not chump change but certainly not a king's ransom by today's standards for a player of Nash's caliber.
And to really understand how Cuban might have been thinking, refer to his June 14 2006 appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, when Cuban wondered out loud, "... you know Steve's a great guy and I love him to death, but why couldn't he play like an MVP for us?"
No team is immune from "the one that got away" but this year, most of them got away, and really it isn't as if they are the first. In fact, "Plan B" might have included Jeremy Lin, Steve Novak and Kris Humphries and/or Brandon Bass...but I digress.
Or do I? Has Cuban really made good decisions for the team across the board or has it been more of a seesaw?
If Cuban let Nash and Finley go in order to save money and get younger and better, why then did he sign Erick Dampier to a seven-year, $73 million contract? That's more than the Suns offered Nash for a player one year younger with only one solid year under his belt since college.
Around the same time, the Mavs moved their other two solid scorers, including Antawn Jamison just after he won Sixth Man of the Year, and Antoine Walker. Those moves did bring in Jerry Stackhouse, Jason Terry and others so probably a wash...but what was the thinking at the time other than part of a failed attempt to grab Shaquille O'Neal.
In spite of those decisions, the Mavs made it to the Finals in 2006 only to lose to DWade, Shaq and the Miami Heat in a peculiar turnaround that began with two decisive Dallas victories by a combined 23 points and 2-0 lead but ended in four straight Heat wins including a 98-74 blowout and a 4-2 series victory for Miami.
The next year with largely the same lineup the Mavs had the best record in the NBA but fell to the eighth-seeded Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.
Through 2010, the team had few changes each year but each year a piece of the final puzzle that made the championship team came along, the last being Tyson Chandler, who was admittedly practically stolen from Charlotte.
Clearly this was an outstanding maneuver for the Mavs and it isn't as if there is nothing but ineptitude other than leading up to 2011, but the championship was a long time coming and that makes letting Chandler and the others go afterward all the more inexplicable to many of us, despite the reasons we all know.
There is no alternate universe to examine "what if" but it seems to be consensus that the Mavs with Steve Nash would have had a championship sooner. The thinking that went into disbanding the Mavs "Big 3" seems to have been dormant until last year but reared its ugly head with great ferocity.
Dirk Nowitzki is the kind of player we aren't likely to see many of in one generation: a unique blend of power, finesse, work ethic and skill. We don't ever compare him to Michael Jordan but when you think of someone carrying a team, the similarities are greater than the differences.
Jordan made the Bulls, albeit a very well coached team, and led them to six championships without much help from his supporting cast outside of Scottie Pippen.
There doesn't seem to be much doubt that Dirk has done much the same throughout his career, keeping a team competitive sometimes in spite of itself and even in 2011 winning a championship with a team on which he was the only All-Star.
Cuban has yet to have to field a team without Dirk and while that won't happen tomorrow, it isn't in the distant future either. At that time we may get to see a more realistic view of what Mark Cuban's basketball talents really are.
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