Less than two years ago the Dallas Mavericks were five minutes away from taking an insurmountable three-game lead against the Miami Heat.
Unfortunately, what ensued in that final five minutes dramatically changed the fortune of a franchise which seemed posed for its own reign of NBA dominance. Now, two years and 112 regular season victories later, this same franchise faces the previously unthinkable prospect of the lottery.
How did a team that had been among the youngest and most promising in the 2005-2006 season become the disaster that it is now? To answer that question, it is helpful to take the case of the four-time NBA Champion, San Antonio Spurs of this same era who will without a doubt take their rightful place in the pantheon of the NBA’s greatest and most successful franchises.
I believe that a careful comparison of these two divergent teams will demonstrate the utter commitment to excellence that such success requires.
Though in 2003 the Spurs had already won a ring, for various reasons, that 1999 title team differed greatly from the 2003 incarnation, and therefore the 2003 team can be understood as a new and unique entity.
2003 would be the first major encounter between the Spurs and Mavericks. Although Dallas would fall four games to two to the eventual NBA Champion Spurs, there are several parallels that should be drawn between these teams and their future counterparts.
In many ways this 2003 Western Conference Championship is analogous to that of 2006. Like Dallas in 2006, the Spurs would drop the first game against what was considered to be an inferior team, an inferiority compounded by injury (Dirk in 2003, Bell in 2006), but eventually, despite serious scares (double digit second-half deficits for the Spurs in Game six and the Mavericks in Game five), the superior team would prevail in six hard-fought games.
It was generally thought, following both Conference finals, that the subsequent NBA Finals series would merely be a coronation, that the Eastern conference team essentially had no chance.
Yet the Spurs-Nets Finals of 2003 was far closer than anyone had anticipated, requiring a superhuman near quadruple-double (20 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists, eight blocks) from Finals MVP Tim Duncan in the deciding Game six.
However, it was not Duncan’s brilliance alone that won the day, as the Spurs enjoyed solid contributions from David Robinson, Stephen Jackson, and Manu Ginobili, among others.
Dirk Nowitzki was not as brilliant in his 2006 Finals series, yet it cannot be said that he did not carry his share of the burden. Nowitzki hit one of the most impressive shots of the series in Game five, putting Dallas up by 1 with seconds to spare, only to be ultimately outdone more by a questionable call than the opposing team.
Moreover, Nowitzki’s sidekick Josh Howard provided some decidedly not clutch plays, missing two potential game and series deciding free throws near the end of Game three, as well as calling the most bone-headed timeout since Webber’s Michigan days at the end of Game five.
The Mavericks and Spurs had different results not only in their first championship series of the new millennium, but also in their subsequent offseasons.
The Spurs notably eschewed the possibility of adding All-Star Jason Kidd (and therefore essentially demoting their young, but extremely promising French point guard), while the Dallas Mavericks would eventually do the exact opposite: trading Devin Harris for an older Kidd.
Though the Spurs would be derailed by the Lakers in their bid for a repeat in the 2004 Playoffs, the Spurs doggedly retained their core group. On the other hand, the Mavericks blew up their 2003 Western Conference Championship team, adding All-Stars Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker.
Following a season in which the same chemistry that had been present in their previous season seemed elusive, the Mavericks made the decision to become more conventional, adding center Erick Dampier at what was supposed to be the cost of allowing Steve Nash to sign with the Phoenix Suns.
Despite the loss of the eventual two-time MVP point guard, the Mavericks were able to rebuild on the fly, and by the start of the 2006 Playoffs, seemed none the worse for wear. Faced with a defense specifically keyed to slowing Nowitzki down in the Finals, the Mavericks struggled to create easy offense, and can only wonder what would have happened had Dallas retained the spectacular playmaking of Nash.
Although Mavericks fans were led to believe that the choice had really been between Nash and Dampier, the truth is that it had been possible for Dallas to have gotten both. Cuban simply thought resigning Nash would have been a “bad business decision.” One is justifiably skeptical of this position when only a few years later, the Mavericks are paying an older Kidd $20 million a year and a less effective Terry $10 million.
We have seen from the example of the Spurs that continuity and stability appear to be important factors in the success of a franchise, and that the most judicious way of improving a team is not always the flashiest (Nazr Mohammed versus Jamison/Walker in 2003).
The Maverick’s acquisition of Jason Kidd was at best, conceived of a mortgage on future success, the semblance of a win-now-at-all-costs mentality. Victory, however, is rarely achieved without wisdom and prudence like that which the Spurs have displayed in recent off seasons including with respect to Kidd.
Mark Cuban and the Mavericks tried to treat their franchise just like any other business, yet the game of basketball within the constraints of the NBA is its own unique animal. Yes the principles of good judgment and good business apply, as they do in all arenas, however, the insight to realize and act upon the particularities of each situation is an important one which, thus far, the Mavericks organization seems to lack.
Certainly all is not lost, but the Mavericks must display a wisdom and insight during this offseason which they never have. As a member of a Spurs’ championship team himself, one fails to understand why Avery Johnson does not display these attributes. It is up to him and the rest of the Mavericks’ front office to finally construct the franchise that their fans deserve.