It was the second quarter Sunday in Dallas, and the Mavericks had these five players on the court: Chris Kaman, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison.
Sure, players coming and going is standard fare in the NBA, but this is exactly the kind of unit that local fans struggle to identify with. It's not much fun to root for a bunch of transients.
The NBA is trying to limit player movement in the future with continued incentives to re-sign with existing teams and new limitations on sign-and-trade moves. It’s a tough battle to win, though, because among the primary goals for the NBA Players Association is letting guys choose where they want to play.
And with players seeking to exercise those rights, owners trying to view this as business and coaches almost always preferring experienced journeymen over unproven youngsters if they’re serious about winning, it becomes extremely difficult to keep the same guys in the same cities for a long time.
The game Sunday didn’t feel empty in this regard, though. Why?
And that just felt right, didn’t it?
“It’s fun,” Bryant said after winning the duel with Nowitzki. “He’s one of my all-time favorites. He’s a throwback type of player.”
But before we get too far ambling down that sweet, nostalgic road, consider this:
The next five leading scorers for the Lakers on Sunday were not Bryant's teammates until this season: Steve Nash, Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks, Dwight Howard and Earl Clark.
That’s why it would be great if LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh stay together through their future free-agency opportunities and if Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka could become franchise cornerstones in OKC.
Usually, the only times players stick around for long stretches are when winning affords them the opportunity—the way it has for Dirk in Dallas and Kobe in Los Angeles.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was indirectly addressing this dichotomy in business and emotions with his comments on ESPN Radio in Dallas on Friday, considering whether the Lakers should use their amnesty provision on Bryant.
Cuban was only speaking hypothetically, as Los Angeles would never cut Bryant for the same reasons he would never cut Nowitzki—countless years of success serving as the face of the franchise.
It’s a completely logical business consideration to save millions of dollars if there is no current investment in the likelihood of an NBA title.
That said, there is an immeasurable degree of loyalty to players with whom you’ve done great things—such as win a championship like Nowitzki has for Cuban and Bryant has for the Buss family.
Cuban has already been a leader in clearing out payroll for future opportunities, drawing considerable criticism for changing the roster right after the Mavericks’ first ever title in 2011 to set up future flexibility.
But even Cuban can’t be so cruel to Nowitzki as to cut him—in part because there is still a business component to keeping him.
As long as Nowitzki is in Dallas, the Mavericks maintain brand recognition that they sorely lack when they’re playing so many transients. Otherwise, they are only led by Rick Carlisle, who, despite being a fantastic head coach, hardly has Cuban’s commanding personal presence.
Nowitzki told reporters after the game Sunday that he intends to play next season and then sign for two or three more years—perhaps even as a role player at the end. That will be another tricky path for Cuban to track given how much Nowitzki deserves to be paid for his performance at that point.
For now, though, that part is easy. As we saw when he grabbed 13 rebounds and drilled all four of his three-point shots against the Lakers, Nowitzki is indeed still a franchise player, in more ways than one.
Kevin Ding has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Los Angeles Lakers for OCRegister.com since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.