Standing Alone

Posted by Rob Mahoney on August 29, 2011 under Commentary | 9 Comments to Read

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Great success in the NBA is almost always met with a flurry of willing copycats. The league’s cycle of title winners makes imitation incredibly alluring; with so many NBA champions winning it all through similar blueprints, the secret of the championship is democratized. Coaches and general managers across the league are given full view of what works, and those looking to emulate the NBA’s best teams are simply left to their own devices in terms of executing a known plan. I don’t intend to undersell the importance or difficulty of actually obtaining the right personnel to implement a successful system (after all, netting that superstar player through the draft, trade, or free agency is more than half the battle), but there’s still something to be said about watching the 2000s Spurs or Lakers execute their in-game strategy in plain sight. That fact, coupled with the reality that repeat title-winners have made the entire process at least slightly formulaic, makes the borrowing of strategies and systems a no-brainer.

Teams look to steal actual player components from championship rosters, not merely because of their title-winning experience, but also because they boast a proven skill set that works in a system that can usually be replicated (or at least attempted to be). Even more conspicuously, teams poach assistant coaches away from title-winning clubs — a la the Toronto Raptors’ hiring of Dwane Casey — in the hopes of also snaring their systems. P.J. Carlesimo and Mike Brown were signed for head coaching jobs based off of their success with Gregg Popovich’s defensive system. Kurt Rambis was given rein over the Timberwolves so that he could implement the wildly successful triangle offense. All of such moves are done in an effort to bottle up greatness; pedigreed coaches and players are acquired in an effort to import the successful systems and strategies that empowered them.

Franchises such as the Spurs and Lakers provide the NBA’s models. Through them, other teams can envision their own future successes; they can imagine a world of paired superstars (or a trio of them, in the post-Celtics, post-Heat era), or of a suffocating team defense. They see a basic structure that could eventually accommodate their team, even if the likes of Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant aren’t at the center. Even the same is true for one-time champs like the Pistons, Celtics, or Heat; the way that those particular rosters coalesced is a real, achievable possibility for the NBA’s also-rans. They can look to the way the Celtics jumped from a 24-58 record in one season to NBA champions in the next, and use that tale as a basis for hope. The mystique of the NBA model is its attainability; every team is just a player or two away from really making some noise. Just look at [team x].

The Mavericks could very well be the first team in the modern era to truly buck the modeling trend. They are a singularity; try as any owner, general manager, or coach might, and they still wouldn’t be able to capture what makes this particularly weird franchise so great. Other franchises could put the same diligence into scouting, analytics, and the details of player acquisition in general, but it would be almost impossible for another franchise to emulate the Mavs based on two specific elements of their formula: Dirk Nowitzki and Mark Cuban.

Nowitzki isn’t just a highly successful player, but one without precedent nor successor. There is no “next Dirk Nowitzki,” because even as Dirk enters his 14th NBA season, he remains completely baffling as a player. He simply shouldn’t be as successful as he is; Nowitzki benefits from posting up and getting to the free throw line, but he still makes a living based on bucking the odds — and the efficiency numbers — from mid-range. He thrives by accomplishing what shouldn’t be possible, and yet here we are, and here Dirk is, standing as one of the greatest the game has ever seen. The Mavericks create on offense with only one true star, entirely because of Nowitzki’s weird skill set. This type of construction just wouldn’t be possible around most any other player in the NBA; there are a select few who are objectively better NBA players than Nowitzki, but I’m not sure any could anchor an offense in the same way. Thus, another team reimagining itself with the Mavs in mind misses the point. It only works — and worked — because of Dirk, and unless there’s a way to manufacture superstars with not only Nowitzki’s elite production but also his unique ability to tilt and exploit defenses, looking to Dallas’ offense as a model is a misguided endeavor.

Yet even more unique than Nowitzki may be Cuban, an owner willing to pay his way out of mistakes in order to maximize the window that the talent provides. Cuban and Donnie Nelson have been relentless tinkerers over the years, and have employed coaches who shared their love for adjustments. Donnie Nelson, Avery Johnson, and Rick Carlisle have never been afraid to fiddle with the starting lineup or the entire rotation, a floor-level embodiment of the entire franchise’s approach over the last decade-plus.

Nowitzki is the star, and around him were positioned whichever pieces were thought to fit. Some exceeded their usefulness, others were proven to be redundant. Some took contracts elsewhere, and some were brought in on a gamble. Regardless, Cuban and Nelson kept shuffling until they found a formula that fit; you could see the basis of it in the 2005 playoffs, and that core retained its shape until 2008. Then, the duo again rebooted the roster, opting to trade for Jason Kidd (at great cost), sign Shawn Marion (for nearly $40 million), acquire Tyson Chandler (who has a horribly inconvenient injury history and was free to bolt at season’s end), overpay Brendan Haywood (for depth’s sake), and bring in a ball-stopper in Caron Butler. As a result of employing so many B-level players (in addition to Nowitzki and Jason Terry, who were already on the roster), the Mavericks didn’t just exceed the luxury tax line — they laughed at it. Cuban has made plenty of minor cost-cutting moves throughout the years, but rarely have they ever come in conflict with the team’s ability to compete at an elite level.

Save for James Dolan, no owner can be considered Cuban’s equal in terms of his willingness to spend. Of course, what separates Cuban from a punchline owner like Dolan is the payoff for his relentlessness; Cuban has put intelligent decision-makers in positions of power, is as informed as any owner in the league, and makes an effort to keep the Mavs in the know via player and lineup data. He’s willing to open his wallet if need be, but only for moves that make sense; he doesn’t acquire talent for his team, but pieces that fit together in an attempt to form that elusive, championship-worthy whole. It didn’t always work out, but that didn’t stop Cuban from trying — even as the Mavs raked up an astounding bill in their pursuit of a title.

The NBA has plenty of great owners and ownership groups, but none with Cuban’s deep pockets, undying passion for his team, commitment to making informed decisions, and willingness to spend. Most teams in the league couldn’t afford to acquire talent in the same way the Mavs did, which makes the structure of the roster — one true star surrounded by a flurry of quasi-stars — that much more difficult to replicate. It’s that intersection between two truly unique individuals that makes Dallas an unattainable model; that which Dallas has built depends so heavily on an impossibility (Nowitzki’s astounding success) and an improbability (an exceedingly wealthy man who sees reason to part with that wealth for the team’s gain, to almost no limit) that any other franchise would be insane to even attempt it.