I was prepared to write one of two stories today. Either a congratulations to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban for bucking the odds and signing LA Lakers center Dwight Howard, or another condemnation for Cuban not learning from the mistakes of last year and playing the odds this time.
When you go all in on a long shot and you lose, you invite criticism. Mark Cuban has done it two years in a row.
Mark Cuban made the decision to implode a championship team out from under his superstar player Dirk Nowitzki by not resigning Center Tyson Chandler and others following the 2010-11 season.
Instead Cuban chose to adopt a policy of trying to beg young players of note to sign with Dallas.
For the last few years, Mavs faithful have seen Cuban pass on good players in order to "keep their powder dry" --- ie. retain enough space under the cap to make pushes for higher profile young, "star" players.
For the second year in a row, plan powder is a total bust and it is once more up to GM Donnie Nelson to rebuild the team after a Cuban gross miscalculation.
(For those who do not recall, Donnie Nelson had accurately pinned down the value of a cooked Jason Kidd a few years ago and had drawn a line in the sand as to what the Mavericks would offer New Jersey. Cuban stepped in right before the trade deadline and wiped out that line, personally overpaying for his man crush and dropping the talent level in Dallas to that of a playoff pretender.
The Dallas title window appeared closed until Nelson was able to secure a very unbalanced trade with Washington that rebuilt the talent level to contender status.
Do not forget in the title year, it was a free agent signed by Nelson, Corey Brewer, who almost single-handedly turned around the key Los Angeles series by leading a 20-6 run in game 1. Dallas had regularly struggled vs. the Kobe Bryant-led Lakers in the playoffs. Key roles were also played by guys like Brian Cardinal and DeShawn Stevenson in the title series. Those two guys in particular were considered outright "scrubs" signed off the trash heap.
Don't forget the damage control acquisitions of OJ Mayo and Darren Collison last season when Cuban didn't close the sale with local guy Deron Williams.
I am starting to see Mark Cuban in much the same light as I see Jerry Jones. The big difference is that Cuban has one of the top 5 GMs in the NBA to clean up his miscalculations.)
The problems with powder
I think there are three big problems with the powder plan.
1) Dallas/Fort Worth is not that appealing to the players being targeted. It's a tough sell vs. all of their other options. Most NBA players are black and Cuban is targeting young guys.
Is a young black guy going to take life in DFW over LA? NY? Chicago? Washington? Boston? Philadelphia?
Look across all sports. Has any star in their prime ever taken just fair deal to come to Dallas? I cannot think of any.
Deion Sanders and Alex Rodriguez are the biggest gets in recent Dallas history. They signed huge, bloated deals to come here.
The Mavs can't do that. In the NBA, every team playing this powder game is offering basically the same contract.
So it comes down to metro area vs. metro area. That's a stacked deck.
It's like Cuban is getting a hand dealt from a deck with no picture cards or Aces. He's confidently carrying a hand with 3 tens, but someone needs to run an intervention for Cuban on his "gambling problem".
Dallas/Forth Worth is a southwestern metro area that offers (some) high culture and is a decent place to raise kids.
Houston is on the other hand is Texas's sweaty, steamy sex capital. It is actually well known for strip joints and the amount of silicon breast augmentations. Culturally Houston and East Texas are not southwestern like the rest of Texas. The region has more in common with the deep south than the southwest. It is not that dissimilar in those ways to Atlanta, where Howard is from.
Williams was from DFW. Even he didn't want to come here as a young "star", preferring to go with the Nets to Brooklyn. New York offers a lot more excitement than Dallas.
DFW is not a bad place to live at all, but it isn't exciting like NY, LA, or Miami. It doesn't have basketball history like Philadelphia or Boston. Last year Dallas competed with Brooklyn. This year Dallas competed with LA, Houston, and Atlanta. Next year, Dallas would potentially be competing with Boston.
Dallas is a solid home to 28-34 year olds with their young families, not so much for rich 22-26 year olds who like the bar scene. Good luck luring in young ballers.
2) Young NBA stars appear for the most part to be knuckleheads with little vision. These targeted NBA "stars" are for the most part children --- basically teenagers --- given pallets of money after little to no college education. How does that not stunt a young man's development?
Having a boatload of money to throw at your mistakes is not a pathway to quick maturity.
Getting a college education requires commitment and hard work in subjects you often don't care about or actually hate. In other words, as our fathers would say, "it builds character".
The odds of getting a new standup, mature face of your franchise who hasn't had years of college grunt work are long indeed. And yet, that is the mystical unicorn Cuban is trying to capture to protect the long term value of his franchise.
The guys Dallas has targeted seem to lack some character. They want things handed to them and in the case of Howard and Williams turned on their coaches and executed messy departures in Orlando and Utah respectively. Those failures make a fan question if these are guys who offer the stability to ever win anything.
Cuban's sales pitches are probably full of things like --- "We have won a title recently, we have a strong basketball culture, and we have tough as nails winning coach."
Is that really going to appeal to a young NBA player who thinks they have arrived?
The "stars" think in much more basic terms. "Who else is going to do the heavy lifting so the pressure is not on me? How many years do they have left?"
Those are not questions that favor the Mavericks.
Phil Jackson is retired and there are not any other coaches that will entice a young player more than playing with another young "star".
The players have their view of reality. A coach they can run out. Signing with a team with another young player or two of note is, in their mind, much more important.
Dallas doesn't have a young "star".
3) Mark Cuban is deluding himself and grossly mismanaging his assets in playing the powder game.
I am going to go to where many would consider a dark place. Mark Cuban is filthy rich because he sold his company, Broadcast.com, to a bunch of execs. It is probably not a stretch to say that most of them were probably business minded-white guys --- just like Mark Cuban.
I wonder if Mark Cuban thinks he can sell anyone anything. That belief is probably hardwired into him at this point. Today should be a moment of humility for him that, if he is honest with himself, can be a moment of growth.
There is no evidence that Mark Cuban can connect with young, mostly immature black "stars" entering the prime of their careers enough to get one of them to lace them up in Dallas for the Mavs.
At the risk of offending some, perhaps Cuban should take a path of less resistance and consider signing promising white players to rebuild his team --- given that his team is based in a metro area that is less appealing to black players? (Minnesota free agent center Nikola Pekovic, for example, would be a nice fit in Dallas. Indiana PF Tyler Hansbrough could provide very good minutes.)
Despite Cuban's infamous "Money is no Object" proclamation early in his run as team owner, Dallas hasn't signed a single black "star" of note in the Cuban era.
On the surface one could conclude that no "star"player on other teams seem to want his money. It appears that until players get here as older vets via a trade, they don't acknowledge that playing for the Mavs is a pretty sweet deal.
Then there is the asset utilization aspect of powder play.
The powder strategy makes Mark Cuban the key player in the Mavs organization instead of GM Donnie Nelson. Anytime an owner is reducing the importance of his or her full-time personnel professional for the owner's own part-time contribution, it seems a questionable policy.
It is even more glaring in this instance, as Nelson is one of the best GMs in the NBA. He has a knack for finding players and finding good trade partners.
Consider Dallas just turned their last two first round picks (one of which was #13) into a single, money saving player, Shane Larkin, in order to play the powder game. Larkin is a sophomore eligible prospect who is likely to be something between a much lesser Ty Lawson and JJ Berea --- if Larkin makes it in the NBA at all.
Dallas potentially landed a serviceable backup.
You cannot minimize assets that way.
Which is why Dallas should go back to doing what they do best...
It is time to let the powder get wet. It is time to get back to what built the two Mavs teams that made it to the title games --- Donnie Nelson finding the talent and Mark Cuban signing the checks for good, not great players. The Mavs also need to get back to trusting in Dirk as a superstar.
It is time to get back to signing and trading for vets on the decline side of their primes. Trade picks for vets Rick Carlisle will actually play.
Dirk maybe has another 2-3 years. As San Antonio's run this year proves, you don't have to be young to have a real chance to beat Miami for the title. You just need a closer (Dirk), a solid veteran team, a good coach, and a little luck.
Dirk has taken the Mavs to two title games and won one. He has in many ways had a better career than Charles Barkley or Karl Malone. And yet everyone still sees skin color and talks about how Dirk needs to be the second best player on the Mavs. No one ever said that about Malone or Barkley and yet they have said it about Dirk for his entire career. It's stupid.
It is time to rebuild the Mavs into a team that will be good enough to keep games close. That would give Dirk a shot to carry this team to titles.
It is time for Cuban to stop waiting for Godot. It is time for Cuban to stop prematurely shutting Dirk's championship window for a future player that may never sign.
Nelson has already taken a decent first step in the gentrification of the now run down Mavs in negotiating the signing of PG Jose Calderon. If Carlisle will play Calderon (and not screw him to the bench for playing mediocre defense), Calderon can do a lot of the things Jason Kidd did for the Mavericks --- including lead a team, execute an efficient end of game offense, and hit open 3 pointers.
Dallas is reportedly looking at Andrew Bynum. I think he has made his money and has a lot of dog in him. To me, the pursuit of Bynum reminds me of teams chasing Stanley Roberts and Eddy Curry. I think it isn't worth doing if it precludes the acquisition of another center.
There are lots of solid options out there. In addition to Pekovic and Hansbrough, it would be worth considering a re-acquisition of Houston PG Jeremy Lin (who may be significantly better another year down the road from his injury). Re-signing Anthony Morrow and Brandan Wright makes sense.
I'd say Dallas would be smart to consider re-signing Corey Brewer as a backup swingman and defensive stopper (if Carlisle has come around on him now). I think they need to acquire a competent veteran center who can play some good defense like Houston's Omer Asik, Pheonix's Marcin Gortat, or Washington's Emeka Okafor. Something like that that gets the Mavs at least 7-8 deep and would make them a chippy but solid underdog --- exactly what they need to be to be a playoff threat again.