For Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, settling into the batter's box to take a home run hack at the 2014 free-agent crop was a little too easy.
All the billionaire businessman had to do was find the cleat marks he'd left over the past two summers.
Surrounded by executive sluggers with better power numbers, Cuban has emerged as one of the NBA's best contact hitters, a steady source of production. Over the past 14 seasons, his franchise has won 65.9 percent of its games, making 13 playoff runs, appearing in two NBA Finals and raising one championship banner (2011) during that stretch.
One of the biggest keys to Cuban's survival has been the work of former MVP Dirk Nowitzki.
The sharpshooting big man has been around for all of the owner's best days. He'll be a part of any celebrations to come in the near future after agreeing to a three-year deal to stay with the franchise, as reported by ESPN's Marc Stein:
Always a loyal member of the family, Nowitzki reportedly took a team friendly deal with an average annual salary of around $10 million per year, via Stein:
That was the easy part. Now, the franchise must face the larger issues that loom ahead.
Despite the success he's had with second-tier signings, Cuban is still shooting for the moon.
"We're going to swing for the fences," Cuban said during an appearance on 103.3 FM's ESPN Dallas GameDay, via ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon. "I think some of these guys are opting out just to create leverage, and they'll go back. Then there's some that really want to go to different teams. We'll try to put ourselves in position to get them."
If there is a big fish searching for new water, it would seem to be scoring machine Carmelo Anthony. He's the one who's been enjoying the red-carpet treatment during the opening of this market, embarking on a cross-country recruiting tour that included a stop in Dallas on Wednesday, via Stein:
The Mavericks were one of five scheduled stops on Anthony's itinerary, a journey that started in Chicago on Tuesday and will work its to Los Angeles on Thursday for meetings with the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post.
Dallas managed to make Anthony's short list, which is a small victory in itself. However, that's not all it takes to get him into a Mavericks jersey.
For that to happen, the Mavs had to wow Anthony with a stronger sales pitch than the lavish ones he'd already heard. And they apparently had to do it quickly.
Anthony, who spent all of Tuesday in Chicago and a big chunk of Wednesday in Houston, was in and out of Dallas in less time than it takes to watch many movies, per Stein:
Frankly, movie-watching is just one of a number of activities that eat up more time than Anthony's two-hour meet-and-greet:
From Cuban's perspective, there was no reason to hold a lengthy courtship. He knew what his team had to sell, and he didn't beat around the bush while selling it.
"What I can tell you is that we made this purely a business meeting," Cuban wrote on his CyberDust app, via NBA.com's Jeff Caplan. "No tours. No banners. All basketball and business."
Maybe the Mavericks didn't need the fluff. Maybe their condensed, straightforward pitch struck a chord with Anthony. It's not as if the franchise was hurting for compelling material, as MacMahon and Stein explained:
Dallas' meat-and-potatoes pitch emphasized the opportunity to contend immediately with elite coach Rick Carlisle, selfless star Dirk Nowitzki and a quality supporting cast featuring high-scoring guard Monta Ellis and defense-minded center Tyson Chandler. The Mavs also focused on the creativity and proven track record of the front office, stressing their plan to sustain a contender throughout Anthony's prime and ability to add at least one more major piece next summer.
All of those are strong arguments.
Rick Carlisle does possess a brilliant coaching mind. Nowitzki is a unique superstar—and not only because he's a 7-footer with a borderline unguardable fadeaway. The supporting cast is intriguing, with Monta Ellis there to ease the offensive burden and Tyson Chandler providing defensive insurance.
Yet, the presentation sounds rushed, if not simply incomplete. The Mavs brought their best "meat-and-potatoes" argument, but Anthony might have wanted an appetizer first and dessert after.
As a source told Sporting News' Sean Deveney in April, Anthony wanted "the Dwight Howard treatment." He wanted to be wined and dined, but that short window made the Mavs focus only on their main course.
That's not to suggest that Dallas has already been eliminated from this race. Until Anthony has put pen to paper on his next contract, nothing is official.
That said, the Mavs' long-shot status seems to be in jeopardy.
Just days ago, a team source told MacMahon that getting Chandler back "makes us real players for LeBron [James or] Carmelo." Now, MacMahon is suggesting the Mavs, "Bump point guard Isaiah Thomas to the top of the priority list."
Free-agent windows can open and close that quickly. Cuban and Co. know that all too well by now.
The Mavericks tried to pursue Dallas native Deron Williams in 2012, only to see him return to the Brooklyn Nets with a max contract in hand. Cuban missed Williams' recruiting visit to work on his Shark Tank TV show.
Asked later whether Cuban's absence impacted his decision, Williams told reporters simply, "Of course."
Last summer, Dallas was one of several teams that went big-game hunting for Howard. The Mavs made a three-hour pitch to the big man, a presentation that included an epic two-minute cartoon video of Howard finding greatness with the Mavericks.
Howard ultimately opted to join the Houston Rockets, a decision Cuban ripped shortly thereafter.
"Obviously, he made a mistake in judgment," Cuban said, via Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News. "Do I blame him? No, that's what young kids do. They make mistakes in judgment."
Should the Mavericks fall short in this pursuit, what will their next move be? It's simple, they'll just proceed down the rest of their free-agent big board.
It's a list they've been developing for some time.
"Realizing their dark-horse status in the Melo derby, the Dallas decision-makers have put a lot of thought into their Plan B options," MacMahon wrote. "They'll be prepared to pounce if they don't pull off the upset of signing Anthony."
Plan B could lead them in a couple different directions.
They could make an optimistic run at a restricted free agent like Gordon Hayward or Chandler Parsons—although it will likely take plenty of money to pry them away from their current clubs—or chase unrestricted targets like Luol Deng or Trevor Ariza. They need to upgrade the small forward spot, and any one of these four would do the trick.
Another option is setting their sights lower and taking a quantity-over-quality approach.
They'd like to bring free agents Devin Harris, Vince Carter and Shawn Marion back if they could, MacMahon reported. Cuban kicked off the free-agency period by having dinner with Harris, according to MacMahon, who could become a priority re-signing with the team having traded last season's starting point guard Jose Calderon.
Thomas could be another candidate, along with restricted free agent Greivis Vasquez.
The more flexibility Dallas maintains, the more holes it can fill on the open market. If the Mavs go the specialist's route, they might be able to find shooting (Anthony Morrow) or perimeter defense (Al-Farouq Aminu) for cheap.
No matter how this plays out, don't expect Cuban to stop gazing at the stars. He's had trouble bringing top-shelf talent on board, but it definitely won't come if he stops chasing it.
The question he'll need to figure out is why his sales pitches have yet to produce results.
Do top-tier players just not see Dallas as a viable place to call home? That's a tough argument to make. This is a major market, with a loyal fanbase, in a state that doesn't collect income tax. Global brands can be built in this city. Just ask the Dallas Cowboys, America's Team.
So is the roster the problem? Again, that's a hard sell. The Mavs might not have the deepest talent base in the business, but it certainly doesn't look shallow enough to scare anyone off.
Could it be Cuban himself? That doesn't seem right, either. It's hard to imagine Nowitzki staying around as long as he has if Cuban was the issue. It's harder still to think players would mind suiting up for someone who has consistently proven he'll spend to field a winning team.
Call me crazy, but here's my guess at the culprit: bad luck. Or bad timing, maybe.
It was bad execution during the Williams' pursuit, but in hindsight, the Mavs may have dodged a bullet. Dallas had a strong pitch to Howard, but Houston seemed to scratch a couple more of his itches. With Anthony, he can get more money from the Knicks, a bigger stage from the Lakers or deeper rosters from the Bulls and Rockets.
The Mavericks have had something to sell, but so far other teams have had more to offer. That's not a reason to stop selling.
He's getting meetings with the most notable names, so it's not as if he's pursuing empty pipe dreams. Plus, the Mavs are making the most out of the base hits he's provided.
With Father Time closing in on 36-year-old Nowitzki, Cuban will need to connect on one of these top-shelf targets sooner than later. Considering how much practice he's had over the past few summers, he'll be ready when the right one hits the market.