To understand where the Dallas Mavericks have been and where they could be headed, it requires understanding owner Mark Cuban. Both of him.
"There are two Mark Cubans," a Western Conference executive says. "There's Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, and there's Mark Cuban, the brand. The reality is, the brand is better than the owner."
The Owner may never catch The Brand at this point, but the potentially good news for Mavs fans is that Cuban the owner appears to be making a go of it. Credit that to Luka Doncic, the Mavs' sensational second-year point forward who has assumed the franchise superstar role relinquished after being held for 21 seasons by 14-time All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki.
"He's played this game before," Doncic's agent, Bill Duffy, says of Cuban's willingness to shoulder the cost of building a title contender. "He'll unload the wallet when he knows he has the right pieces. He's been renting. He's wanted to buy but he's been waiting. And when he buys, he will buy big."
Cuban actually introduced the idea of NBA owners doing more than just writing checks. He became the first to talk publicly about the moves he wanted to make and players he hoped to acquire, essentially playing fantasy-league basketball in real time with a real team. While Donnie Nelson is the Mavs' general manager—and has been since 2005—he is rarely in front of the cameras, and both rival GMs and player agents say they talk to Cuban when discussing deals.
"Mark changed the look and feel of what an NBA owner is," an Eastern Conference GM says. "He was the first owner to parlay ownership visibility into celebrity. Prior to him coming into the league, you didn't know who the owners were. They hired their basketball people, sat back and let them work. They weren't in the draft room, showing up at workouts and being interviewed all the time. Owners are hands-on now."
But as Nowitzki aged, so, seemingly, did Cuban's enthusiasm for sparing no expense to win another ring. The owner who made an immediate splash by outfitting every player's locker with a personal flat screen, sound system and plush bathrobe, as well as dropping $46 million on a new team plane that included a weight room, became frugal. The player perks never stopped—Cuban upgraded the locker room again in 2017—but in the last eight years, the Mavs' player payroll has been in the league's bottom third five times, including dead last two years ago. Their payroll has not come close to ranking as high as it did in their 2010-11 championship season, when the Mavs were third behind only the Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic.
30 teams, 30 days: The biggest story from each NBA team ahead of the league's return.
"What Mark is good at is being first," the executive says. "He was the first one out on Twitter saying he would pay his employees during the [coronavirus] shutdown. A lot of owners paid their employees more than he did, but every time somebody announced they were doing it the story referred back to Mark because he was the first to do it."
The Mavs have been receiving positive reviews lately as well. After three consecutive seasons near the bottom of the Western Conference, they've composed a roster of dynamic young talent and proven veterans that produced the franchise's fourth-best winning percentage (.597) in the last decade, as of the shutdown. The transformation started with a bit of luck. In 2018, they targeted Doncic, but getting him in the draft at their fifth overall draft slot required several other teams who should've been acutely aware of his potential to look elsewhere. The Phoenix Suns had the No. 1 pick and a head coach, Igor Kokoskov, who had been head coach of the Doncic-led Slovenian national team. The Sacramento Kings had the second overall pick and are run by GM Vlade Divac and assistant GM Peja Stojakovic, both Eastern European-developed NBA stars with extensive international ties.
The Atlanta Hawks, in desperate need of a floor leader, actually took Doncic with the third pick, only to flip him to the Mavs for No. 5 pick Trae Young and an additional protected first-round pick.
"Mark fell ass backward into Doncic," the executive says. "But he's really comfortable with international players. He traded for [Kristaps] Porzingis. It has got him re-engaged. He's making calls to build the roster again."
Make no mistake, the executive admires Cuban, both for being a progressive voice in the NBA and fearless in speaking his mind on subjects outside the league's realm. It's just that Cuban The Owner, as the executive sees it, spent his first 11 years after purchasing the Mavericks creating Cuban The Brand by genuinely doing everything he could to win a championship. Since finally doing it in 2011, the Mavericks haven't come close to winning another one, making the playoffs four times over the next eight seasons and never getting out of the first round. "Mark won his championship and then took the next eight years off," the executive says.
Cuban The Brand has been far more aggressive and, arguably, more accomplished. His ownership of the Mavs is now relegated to the second line of his Wikipedia bio, preceded by him being identified as an "American entrepreneur, television personality, media proprietor and investor." His Twitter bio doesn't mention his ownership of the Mavericks at all.
Maybe for good reason. He has appeared as himself in four big-screen movies in the last five years. He is universally known for his angel investor role on the ABC reality program, "Shark Tank." Since 2012 he has appeared 19 times as himself in various TV programs. For the last five years he has contemplated running for U.S. president. Although he has sparred with the current president, Donald Trump, for years, he was invited to be part of a presidential advisory board to help restart the pandemic-undermined economy. He has offered to help small businesses secure federal payroll protection plan loans.
"I used to not like him but I've learned to respect him," an Eastern Conference scout says.
"I love that he's outspoken," an Eastern Conference team president adds. "Not all of the owners can be the same. He's the one who has the personality to pull it off. I think he's a genuine guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve. In the ownership circle they all stay away from anything controversial, but he's not afraid to put himself out there."
That Cuban has emerged as a thought leader is a far cry from what he was thought of as an owner just two years ago, someone gravely oblivious and potentially misogynistic. In February 2018, Sports Illustrated wrote an in-depth investigative piece that detailed rampant misogyny, sexual harassment and predatory behavior within the team's offices that had been going on for decades, as well as domestic assault by a staff member.
Cuban, who did not respond to an interview request, was not cited as a perpetrator but had to explain how a hands-on owner could be oblivious to such behavior occurring for so long within his organization.
"I was involved in basketball operations, but other than getting the financials and reports, I was not involved in the day to day [of the business side] at all," he said to SI. "That's why I just deferred. I let people do their jobs. And if there were anything like this at all I was supposed to be made aware, obviously I was not."
One former employee named Melissa Weishaupt responded in SI soon after that she didn't buy his reasoning, writing: "You own 100% of the team, Mark. The buck stops with you."
Cuban responded to the controversy by hiring a former AT&T human resources executive, Cynthia Marshall, as his new CEO and creating new positions overseeing ethics and compliance and diversity and inclusion. He commissioned investigators to interview more than 200 employees and review 1.6 million documents, resulting in a 43-page report and several firings. When the report was released that September, the NBA announced that Cuban had agreed to donate $10 million to programs for women's leadership and domestic violence groups, surpassing the $2.5 million limit the NBA could have fined him. (The NBA also ordered the Mavericks to file quarterly reports on efforts to hire more female executives and establish a system for employees to report misconduct.)
"He's a smart guy," Duffy says. "He reacted immediately, addressed it and repaired it." For his part, Cuban told ESPN's Rachel Nichols: "I was tone deaf. And I have no excuse. I should have known better, or I could have done better. I've learned. There's just no other way to put it."
The Western Conference executive hopes that Cuban's re-engagement with his team will also inspire him to re-engage with shaping the league. Cuban spent much of his first decade as an owner publicly and abrasively complaining about various issues he had with how the league operated, resulting in more than $1 million in fines levied by then-Commissioner David Stern.
"He's matured," the Eastern Conference team president says.
The challenges the league is sure to face recovering from the coronavirus pandemic, the Western Conference executive says, are going to require Cuban's kind of progressive thinking.
"He fought for change and innovation," the executive says. "But the league browbeats you into the middle. Now is the time we need more leadership, and he's the ideal guy as someone who can connect with the old guard but is a forward-thinking innovator. The league is great on figuring out how to execute ideas, but they need someone to come up with them. The big question is, has Mark been beaten down too much to generate the momentum needed, or can he catch a second wind?"
Or maybe a third, considering that Mark Cuban The Brand isn't going anywhere and Mark Cuban The Owner has resurfaced. Is there room for Mark Cuban The League Savior?
"Mark has as much intellectual and physical energy as anyone I know," Duffy says.
As anyone. The challenge of recovering from this season would require the energy of any three. At this rate, Cuban is going to need a locker room all for himself. All three of him.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.
Bucher hosts the podcast Bucher & Friends with NFL veteran Will Blackmon and former NBA center Ryan Hollins, available on iTunes.