Watching the Dallas Mavericks’ season come to its predictable conclusion on Tuesday night in Houston just re-confirmed how solid this team actually was, but ultimately the degree of how much Mark Cuban blew it.
Mark Cuban was blessed to already have the once-in-a-generation player on his roster necessary to win an NBA title when he bought the team in 2000, and in the end he will regret the level he took that man for granted. Watching Dirk Nowitzki struggle against the Rockets is the sign that the Dirk Security Blanket is gone.
He will be 37 soon, and despite his greatness it’s simply no longer there. It will be every now and again, but he can’t cover it all up any more. Even in his prime he was a marginal defender, and plus rebounder. Now his offensive game is erratic at best, and he can’t guard a tree.
Cuban has been a wonderful owner for the Mavs and he makes them relevant year-round, but the single biggest reason he looks so smart as a basketball guy is because of Dirk. He never fully appreciated Dirk because he never had to go through the struggle to find him.
The saddest part of solid Cuban’s tenure is that he took Dirk for granted. Watching the new documentary about Dirk, which is a must-see, it was irritating to listen to Cuban playfully dismiss Dirk taking less money to remain with the Mavs.
How many NBA guys are going to do that, twice? Dirk could have put the screws to Cuban about a myriad of topics and he never did. Dirk had the keys, and other than helping force Avery Johnson out as coach he never drove the car into Cuban’s face as so many NBA players do.
Have you seen what guys like Kobe Bryant did to the Lakers? Or Shaq did to the Magic, Lakers and Heat? Or Deron Williams to the Jazz and Nets? Dwight Howard to the Magic and then Lakers? LeBron James to the Cavs (the first time)?
NBA stars routinely hold their teams hostage to their wishes, and Dirk never did. Cuban should be smart enough to recognize the financial value in that.
Rather than acknowledging the rarity of having Dirk, Cuban was too busy showing how smart he was and surrounding his meal ticket with a collection of spare parts that were not good enough. When you have a Dirk – you go for it at all times and worry about the rest later.
This is not on GM Donnie Nelson, or head coach Rick Carlisle. These are smart, political men who know how to “manage up”. That doesn’t mean they are yes men, but it does mean they know where the line is. They want jobs and to remain employed. Their boss does not like the NBA Draft, or grooming younger players, so they are “all in” on the Cuban plan. The plan worked because of Dirk.
Ultimately, Cuban can point to the fact his team is one of but eight NBA franchises to win a title since 1984. The Mavs are the one team in that span to win just one. In a league where top-end parity is non-existent, squeezing on that list is impressive.
They are on that list because of Dirk. Dirk covered an array of front office blunders, draft day denials and an inability to develop other guys around this man. No one can dispute Dirk’s greatness or his legacy but his boss absolutely did him no favors. Dirk should have one or two more rings.
No NBA superstar was consistently surrounded by the type of spare parts the way Dirk was in his career. The closest is Kevin Garnett when he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves before he was dealt to the Boston Celtics.
When the Mavs’ had their media day to start the 2012 season – after they won the NBA title and the Mavs gutted that roster – I asked Carlisle the loaded question if the team was taking advantage of a superstar’s best years. Dirk was 33 then.
“I think the only guy concerned about that is you,” he said.
I have said it a million times in regards to that line - how sad. The Mavs were not concerned about their Hall of Fame player growing older. They were more concerned about being flexible so they could go after big time free agents, none of whom have signed here.
Since the Mavs won the title, they have won no playoff series. The decision to gut that roster made sense with the exception of Tyson Chandler. They should never have let him walk to New York, and do not believe the spin out of the American Airlines Center he wanted to go. He wanted to stay, but Cuban was convinced he knew more about the new collective bargaining agreement. Chandler is flawed, but the Mavs had an athletic, smart, professional 7-footer who could defend and they let him walk in his prime years.
Cuban’s plan to net the big-fish free agent to flank Dirk resulted in O.J. Mayo, Chandler Parsons, Monta Ellis and a handful of other guys.
Since Cuban bought the team the Mavs have been consistently one of the best franchises in the NBA, and his eagerness for the spotlight has made the team relevant at all times. Cuban Dancing With the Stars, Shark Tanking and making the TV interview rounds benefits the Mavs.
Cuban makes the Mavs relevant, but Dirk made the team successful, and great.
Now he’s old and he can’t do it by himself any more.
Cuban is a smart man, but he never knew how good he had it. Good luck finding Dirk again.
Mac Engel, 817-390-7760