It is rare for an NBA franchise owner to publicly admit mistakes, and rarer still for an owner to admit a mistake and simultaneously rectify it with an emphatic reversal of agenda. But Mark Cuban is not like most NBA owners.
The Dallas Mavericks claimed their first championship in 2011, with a smart, sturdy, well-balanced group of veterans, delivering Cuban his proudest moment as owner. Four years later, his celebratory photo with the Larry O'Brien trophy is still affixed to his Twitter profile.
But that team quickly dispersed due to a combination of age, cost considerations and the arrival of a new labor deal designed to handicap the league's big spenders. In a concession to new realities—and with an eye on future flexibility—Cuban let Tyson Chandler leave for New York, and a four-year, $58 million contract, before the 2011-12 season.
Last June, Cuban welcomed Chandler back in a multiplayer trade that has helped nudge the Mavericks back into contention in the rugged Western Conference.
"Let's just say I learn from my mistakes," Cuban said in September.
If you squint a little, you can almost see the outline of the 2011 Mavericks coming back into focus. In October, Dallas re-signed J.J. Barea, the energetic point guard who played a key role in the 2011 Finals before leaving for Minnesota (and a bigger contract). And last month, the Mavericks made a blockbuster deal to acquire Rajon Rondo, who had never been a Maverick but certainly resembles one.
"Just his vision, it's very Jason Kidd-like," Dirk Nowitzki told Bleacher Report, comparing his new point guard to his old one.
It's not a perfect analogy, of course. Kidd was one of the greatest point guards of his era, indeed of all time. But there are key similarities. Both Kidd and Rondo are creative, pass-first guards who especially thrive in the open court, throwing passes few others can conceive. Both are great rebounders for their position. Both arrived in Dallas with broken jump shots but with a nose for defense.
"It's never about him, or it's never about J-Kidd," Nowitzki said. "They're happy when they win, get a couple assists and compete like crazy on the defensive end."
Said Chandler, "[Rondo] is more willing to see his teammates succeed than he is trying to force a shot up on his own."
Since Rondo's arrival in late December, the Mavericks are a modest 8-5, with a six-game winning streak and a few surprising losses, including recent defeats to Detroit and Denver. (Rondo missed the loss to the Nuggets on Wednesday with an Achilles injury suffered against the Kings on Tuesday.)
But the Mavericks as of Friday were just a game behind Houston for fourth place in the West and firmly in the thick of the race. Their offensive efficiency has, oddly, slipped a bit since Rondo arrived, though they remain No. 1 in the league. Their defense has improved significantly, however, allowing just 101.3 points per 100 possessions with Rondo, after posting a rating of 105.1 over the first 27 games.
Although Rondo has admitted to slacking defensively during his final two seasons in Boston, he has perked up again now that he's back with a contender. And he presented a huge upgrade from the aging Jameer Nelson, whom he replaced at point guard.
"Being able to have somebody up top that I can communicate with, bounce ideas off of each other and make adjustments [is key]," Chandler, a former Defensive Player of the Year, said of Rondo. "It can't be one player on the floor. You have to have a couple guys. And me being able to be vocal with him and him being vocal back really helps."
Like Kidd—who was once dubbed "Ason, because he had no 'J'"—Rondo arrived in Dallas with a poor jump shot. But Kidd retired as one of the top three-point shooters in NBA history, having developed the shot late in his career. Perhaps Rondo, still just 28, can do the same. Coach Rick Carlisle has been seen personally working with Rondo on his shooting form.
"He's still young, and he's going to get better," Carlisle told Bleacher Report. "And it's our job to work with him and help him improve his shooting and his range. … He's about the same age when Jason really made a commitment to it, and Rondo's doing that, too. It's going to take time, but he'll get there."
Ten point guards started at least one game for the Mavericks between the time Kidd left for New York in 2012 and the day that Rondo arrived—a list that includes Nelson, Jose Calderon, Devin Harris, Gal Mekel, Derek Fisher, Mike James and Darren Collison, among others.
None could replicate Kidd's uncanny court vision or his pinpoint passing. But Rondo will come close.
"He just does things on the floor that are very unique," Carlisle said. "His impact with deflections, rebounds, steals, sixth-sense passing, seeing things that other people don't see, make him a remarkable player."
While Cuban now admits a mistake in letting Chandler go four years ago, he wasn't wrong in choosing cap flexibility to try replenishing on the fly. In the last two years, the Mavericks have used that room to add Monta Ellis and Chandler Parsons, providing Nowitzki with the best scoring support he's had in years.
That cap room also allowed the Mavericks to chase (albeit unsuccessfully) Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony and other marquee players.
"It was a mistake to let [Chandler] go, but it turned out best that we did it the way we did," Cuban said in an email. "The plan was to be opportunistic. We couldn't build through the draft. That couldn't be done fast enough. We tried to be opportunistic. I thought we did a good job when we got Vince [Carter] and Lamar [Odom]. But Lamar was probably the worst move I have ever made. We went in the wrong direction and that was it."
Cuban said he wasn't necessarily trying to replicate Kidd, or the 2011 Mavericks roster, when he acquired Rondo, but he did cite one significant similarity—"Like J-Kidd, he knows how to win and raises his game when others can't," Cuban said.
As it happens, the Mavericks' statistical models actually suggested they shouldn't make the deal.
"But numbers," Cuban added, "don't track intangibles."
Around the League
• If you're offended by the Philadelphia 76ers' so-called tanking agenda—or just sick of hearing about it—relief may be coming soon. The teardown/losing portion of the plan is likely in its final months. League sources indicate that general manager Sam Hinkie had a two-year window in mind when he began this process, and that window effectively ends with the June draft. The Sixers are on course for a top-three pick to add to recent lottery picks Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel. They'll also get Miami's pick if it's outside the top 10 (which is likely). That's a promising, cheap young core to build around, and this might be the summer the Sixers start building, with a projected $45-49 million in salary-cap room to spend. Don't expect Hinkie to reload in one big spending spree—he'll want to keep some cap flexibility for 2016 and 2017—or to land one of the marquee stars. But there will be a wealth of second-tier free agents and solid veterans who could help bring along the 76ers' young stars and provide some welcome relief for coach Brett Brown.
• The New York Knicks are now committed to a rebuild of their own, having dumped J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. But rival executives wonder how successful the Knicks can be, given the lack of experience in the front office. Phil Jackson has been team president for less than a year, with no prior front-office experience. Steve Mills, the Knicks general manager, had never worked in basketball operations until last season. Neither one is well-networked across the league, thus placing them at a disadvantage when it comes to making deals. "No one has Steve Mills' phone number," said one Western Conference executive. Another executive said that, unlike most teams, the Knicks have no one who regularly calls around to gauge the value of players, or to get a sense of who is available. That job is typically done by the GM or an assistant GM. With Jackson hired to be more of an overseer—and with no interest in the schmoozing game—the Knicks would seem to need an experienced, well-networked GM to make the rounds with rival executives. Jackson inherited Mills—a favorite of owner James L. Dolan—but sources indicated last year that Jackson would evaluate the front office during his first year before making any changes.
• Speaking of Jackson: The decision to start tearing down the roster all but ensured that the Knicks will finish with one of the worst records in the NBA, threatening the 76ers' chances of gaining the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery. The team with the worst record has a 25 percent chance of winning the top pick. The team with the second-worst record has a 19.9 percent chance and the third-worst team has a 15.6 percent chance. The Knicks, 76ers and Minnesota Timberwolves are in a three-way battle for the ping-pong balls. And the Knicks' moves caught Hinkie's attention. "He's definitely nervous," said one NBA source.
Courtney Lee has given the Memphis Grizzlies a fantastic boost from the three-point arc, shooting a career-best percentage of 49.5—a 12.4-point leap from last season. We asked where the sudden improvement came from in this, his seventh, NBA season.
"A little bit of everything. Offseason, I did a lot of shooting, working with our shooting coach, JT (John Townsend). He came out a couple times, and we tweaked a couple things here and there. ... Being more balanced, being straight up and straight down, so all those things help. ... And then like I said, just putting the work in. I always wanted to be more consistent and a good shooter. But I wasn't expecting to have a high percentage; that wasn't the goal. The goal was just to get my rhythm."
The Washington Wizards have been impressive through the first half of the season, but one Eastern Conference scout says don't call them contenders yet:
"They're about to start this stretch (of the schedule) where they have to prove to themselves and others that they're really an elite team. …
"Nene just doesn't show up enough. They got a lot of other nice pieces. [John] Wall is terrific. [Bradley] Beal is terrific. But the game I saw, Marcin Gortat wasn't very good either. Nene is to me a complete crapshoot. Whether he's hurt or just doesn't show up, you need guys to grind it out. He's not a grind-it-out kind of guy. He's got talent. He's a very good player. But is he a guy you can rely on at the level you want a guy to produce?
"The guy that's played well the last couple games is [Kevin] Seraphin, but he's not ready to take over the starting spot. The other interesting part of that team is Rasual Butler, who is shooting an unbelievable percentage. This guy's almost 35 years old. He's been the productive guy that they had hoped, that Otto Porter is not—really, third pick in the draft? Are you kidding me? They know that. They're not kidding themselves that he's going to be a major player. He's just not that good. He's not that athletic. He's not super skilled.
"They need Martell Webster to be healthy. He played very poorly in the game I saw. He's coming back from injury. They need some production out of him. They can't rely on production out of Butler the whole year. And Andre Miller looked like he was almost finished."
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.