Snake Eyes

Posted by Rob Mahoney on July 3, 2012 under Commentary | 19 Comments to Read

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Successful navigation of free agency typically requires foresight, planning, and creative financing, but ultimately falls to the mercy of chance. All of the managerial savvy in the world can only make a compelling case, and in the process leave the fate of a franchise in the hands of an individual with many, complicated interests.

So it was with the Mavs’ failed pursuit of Deron Williams, which officially came to an end with Williams’ announcement of his intention to re-sign with the Brooklyn Nets. Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban avoided long-term investments and wiggled their way into the cap room necessary to lure the DFW native, but the payoff for their efforts was always a gamble at best, and it’s not exactly surprising that their little wager against the incumbent Nets didn’t pay off. That said, the outcome also doesn’t make the decision to break up a championship core any less correct than it was a year ago; tough as it was for the champs to forego their title defense before the season even began, Williams and Dwight Howard were prizes worth chasing, particularly in the face of otherwise over-investing in a fading core.

The 2011 title will always be a cherished memory in Dallas, but Nelson and Cuban didn’t let sentimentalism interrupt their sense of pragmatism. Fans have the pleasure of enjoying the NBA from any conceivable angle, but owners and general managers aren’t granted such a luxury; NBA decision-makers have little choice but to attempt to build a winner in the most prudent way possible, and though Dallas would be a formidable team with Tyson Chandler and company still on the roster, the Mavs’ brain trust unfortunately knew the limitations of such stagnation. What was good enough to win a title last season — under incredibly fortuitous circumstances, no less — isn’t at all guaranteed to be good enough to win a title in another. Don’t mistake the Mavericks’ grand accomplishment for some kind of enduring brilliance, as even the most stable influences of Dallas’ title run reached unbelievable (and unprecedented) heights at just the right time.

It took an untouchable Dirk Nowitzki, an endless supply of magical comebacks, and improbable performances from a wide variety of veterans to even get the Mavs to the Finals in the first place. It took all of that and a bizarre LeBron James letdown to usher the Larry O’Brien to Don Carter. It was absolutely, positively earned, but the Mavericks won the title as a dark horse, and that shouldn’t be forgotten merely because the team didn’t arrive at the following season intact.

All of which may seem like a slightly unnecessary reflection on year-old decisions, but Williams’ choice provides a far-too convenient looking glass for a franchise at an interesting juncture. Dallas didn’t play safe or play sure — they merely did what gave them the best chance to transition from one period of the franchise’s history to another. They opted for the possibility of cleared books rather than the comfort of a binding cap picture, and though Williams shuffles from New Jersey to Brooklyn, Dallas isn’t altogether without options. Their approach simply demands a bit of refocusing and a dash more patience, and while the latter is undoubtedly in short supply these days among the Maverick faithful, it nonetheless bears the more frustratingly promising potential.

  • CoL

    Too optimistic and completely absent of criticism Rob.

    We had something, wanted to get something better, gambled and failed miserably.
    Right now? will be year 2 of a mediocre team (just 2 years after a championship) and the near future isn't that bright either.

    Next year Dirk will be 35 years old, have a 23 million mammoth contract that (together with cap holds and even if we clear everyone else on the roster) will prevent us from luring 2 superstars (CP3 & Dwight) with max deals. And why would one of said superstars choose to pair with 35 year old Dirk when there'll be far better options out there (ATL, Hou, etc).

    Was it a dream worth chasing? YES.
    Was it worth sacrificing the rest of Dirk's career? No, not to me.

    We dreamed, gambled, and failed. That's pretty much it.

    • Rob Mahoney

      I didn't feel like what I wrote was all that optimistic — just representative of the fact that teambuilding is a process, and one failure/blown gamble/whatever isn't the end of days. Maybe Dallas' strategy isn't the epitome of doing right by Dirk, but it's the same formula the Mavs used to piece together a contender with essentially a decade of shelf life, and one that's not worth deviating from just to get in a bit of good will and line Tyson Chandler's coffers.

      The beat goes on, and so does everything else in Dallas. This particular lull might be more than anyone bargained for, but that doesn't make a calculated risk any less calculated — or any less logical.

      • Phillip

        Financial prudence is the “formula the Mavs used to piece together a contender with a decade of shelf-life”? Not really. Cuban is many things, good and bad, but fiscally prudent has certainly not been one of them during his tenure as owner. Williams (and Howard) are prizes worth chasing, for sure. But the new CBA makes it much harder to play by the rules Cuban and co. have played by in building the Mavs into a consistent playoff participant. He's openly stated that the CBA forced him to change the way he runs the team.

  • Rancerdavis

    Yep…now instead of looking for two superstars…the Mavs will be looking for three.  Dirk in his mid-30's?  With a maybe we'll have it together?  Nope…finished.

  • Rbhill76

    I admire you for trying to be the voice of reason in the face of fan panic, but CoL is right. Hindsight is of course 20/20, but many of us expressed the same skepticism when he were introduced to Mr. Cap Flexibility last year. The Mavs have always been bridesmaids in free agency, and have not been very successful in drafts. The formula that kept them close to an elite level and and finally paid off was the strategy of using creative trades and smart usage of cap exceptions to tinker with 3-4 role players a year. I just never understood why Donnie and Mark decided that now was the time to stray from that formula. In fact, outside of the craziness that is the Heat, what other team has pulled off what the Mavs were swinging for?

    Instead, we will have now wasted 2 years of the precious time Dirk has left, and will be left with the same wing and a prayer chance of hitting a home run next year.

    I wish we had just kept swinging for contact instead of power.

    • Rob Mahoney

      I hear you, I just don't see this course of action as a deviation from the formula. The reason Dallas seems to be deviating is because cap space was always so elusive; the contracts of Michael Finley, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Erick Dampier, Josh Howard, Jason Terry, Devin Harris, Jason Kidd, etc. built on a foundation of previously laid salary, making the possibility of being a free agent suitor all but impossible. This was the one time when it made legitimate sense for Dallas to clean house to make a run at a few franchise-changing talents, and so they did.

      Plus, I'm just not a fan of the “bridesmaids in free agency” logic, especially when you go on to rhetorically ask how many teams have actually pulled off a major free agent signing by clearing cap — a point that's absolutely fair. It's an incredibly tricky feat to pull off, but Dallas, as evidenced by Williams' deliberation, had a shot here. They had an incredible potential teammate (and then some if we consider Marion, etc.), a terrific head coach, a smart management team, and a cultivated pattern of success as their pitch. That's nothing to scoff at, and though Dallas wasn't able to pull in the star they so desperately needed, that was hardly related to the whole “never attracted a premier free agent” spiel.

      • CoL

        The thing is at some point we have to stop and realize that some of the criticism coming from outside is right. Cuban and Donnie sometimes outsmart themselves. The reason we have been able to be a 50+ wins per season franchise for the past decade, is not because our management is oh so amazing at making free agent signings (and having no cap space is really no excuse since several teams over the past decade have lured plenty of FA's through sign and trades), trades, or draft picks; It is simply because we've had one of the best player of all time who's carried the franchise through thick and thin, fixing mistakes here and there.

        One only needs to go to wikipedia to find all the horrible contract's we've offered that didn't even make sense back then, draft picks we've wasted just to be bold (and outsmart everyone else) or ridiculous blockbuster trades blowing up everything once a year. I think we've made probably 2 great moves in the past 10 decade (and they were more lucky bounces than calculated risks, we didn't expect Chandler to be this good, we just took him as an upgrade to wait for our FA raid) maybe a couple more that were good but we always manage to erase those ourselves. The second and third best players this franchise has had in the past 10 years (probably more) Steve Nash, and Tyson Chandler, we just let them walk away for free to succeed somewhere else only to end up with replacements that didn't match their talent (and hoping that one of those at 39, well past his prime, comes back).

        And after years, and years of apocalyptical failures at center, the moment we finally end up with a great one and a winning team, instead of reshaping (yes, reshaping, I know Barea, Stevenson and most of those had to go, but Chandler should have stayed) we blow everything up for another chance at something we've rarely (if ever?) gotten right… a spectacular made-in-heaven offseason.

        So I guess you are right Rob, we didn't deviate from the formula because the mavs formula is chaos, blowing everything up and having to rebuild yearly.

        I understand there's absolutely nothing constructive about hindsight but my point was to acknowledge that our management shouldn't always get away with everything they do and escape without criticism, and they seem to do from inside mavsland (and man this is hard to say cause I LOVE MARK CUBAN).

        And the future is dark… I don't have a crystal ball, but the way things are shaping up is not unreasonable to admit we will not land a superstar, Dirk won't be able to carry a team to a championship anymore as the main piece (and will still have that gargantuan 23M contract in 2013 preventing us to have real flexibility, also whatup Brendan Haywood), we have absolutely no trading pieces, none, horrible contracts and 0 chance of landing a good draft pick as long as Dirk is alive… so what's in it for us? two more years of a bunch of role players sneaking into the playoffs to win a game or two?

        Over the past decade I knew at the start of every season that we would win around 50 games and be a contender a trade or two away from making a deep run; that era is over and we need to acknowledge that. This is the second straight year (with at least another one coming) where I know we'll just enter a wasted, unavoidable, useless, treading-water season (I'll watch, #mffl) waiting till we can finally blow up, and start again in a couple of years, from chaos, as always.


        • FromWayDowntown

           Very well said and I completely agree. There were good reasons not to sign Nash but history gave us the middle-finger. There were good reasons not to resign the best center the Mavs had in ages and blow up the team that won a championship. Yet again the West was wide open last year and the bottom line now is that this chance was squandered for nothing. As CoL said: Same old, same old.
          Especially if you look into Dirk's middle years you have to cringe looking at what the management achieved. And I have absolutely no hope that the near future gets any better.
          Cuban is a great guy and seems to be pretty smart too but overall I thing his balance is way worse than it should be.

          • Uncle Al

            Maybe loyality as free agent pays off after all and maybe thats the lesson… Dirk resigned for less than the max and got rewarded with a title. I cannot blame DWill for staying at his team.

            And (as we saw in our championship run) maybe the TEAM building will pay off even many experts are talking of the era of Super-Teams (built off not 1, not 2… superstars).

            In that sense, a 3D team built around Dirk-Dwight-DRAGIC with Kidd or Nash as mentor maybe a good plan B….

            There is always an alternative, whether it refers to other great players or to bashing the Management that brought together a championship team for the first time in franchise history

        • Rob Mahoney

          As far as Cuban and Nelson outsmarting themselves, I just don't see it. They make mistakes, just like every management core does, and they've overcommitted to the wrong players in some instances, just like every team is occasionally ought to do. They've botched a few draft picks, though largely those coming in the 20-30 range or deep in the second round. It's absolutely true that Dirk alone can make up for a lot of miscues, but that doesn't mean that Nelson and Cuban weren't doing their jobs well — just that it's really and truly difficult to win a championship.

          Plus, considering how high the Mavs' annual salary has been in the Nowitzki era, the lack of free agent additions — through highly complicated sign-and-trades is completely understandable. Despite that, the Mavs were players on the MLE market every season despite their position above the tax line, and Cuban still footed the bill on acquiring Marion via S&T despite the potential to cash out on Jerry Stackhouse's salary.

          I know it's tempting after an errant move to highlight all others, but don't forget that this is the management team that found Josh Howard with the 28th pick, dug up viable NBA players like J.J. Barea, Marquis Daniels, Brandon Bass, and Jeremy Lin as undrafted free agents, traded Antoine Walker for Jason Terry, traded Antawn Jamison for Devin Harris and Jerry Stackhouse, flipped Howard for both Caron Butler and a far-more-affordable Brendan Haywood, scored Lamar Odom for nothing (which is still a good deal, even in retrospect), stuck the Bobcats with the contracts of Matt Carroll and Eduardo Najera (shortly after also ridding themselves of DeSagana Diop's bloated deal by taking on Carroll's in return), and creatively financed the Jason Kidd deal by using Keith Van Horn's unofficially retired status. Nelson and Cuban aren't infallible (and certainly aren't above criticism), but they do good work, generally assess talent well, and move around the pieces as best they can.

          Sure, there's a lot of turnover from season to season, but from where I sit, Nelson and Cuban went to great lengths to NOT blow up the roster as it's been constructed. Some of the performances have been underwhelming, but Nowitzki — and later Terry — remained, and the Mavs did as much as they could to surround both guys with the talent and compatible parts necessary to chase a title. There was no bottoming-out season; just years and years of 50+ wins, playoff berths, and decent shots at contention.

          Plus, it's not as simple as Dallas letting the best center in franchise history walk out the door. Chandler signed what will likely amount to a cap-crippling deal in years 4 and 5, and that's assuming that his biggest injury concerns are behind him. He's an excellent player, but that's a ton of money to commit to a player when the rest of the core is only getting older, and would have been a painful burden on the eventual rebuild. I'm sure it was tough for a lot of Mavs fans to see Chandler go, but the calculus was sound and completely understandable.

          I have no idea what the future holds, but concur that the immediate future looks pretty grim. Dallas won't be contending this year, and will likely have to claw to make it into the postseason. But spending just to spend doesn't bode well for the long-term health of the franchise, and while cap space may be not be a tangible asset to many people, it truly is the currency of the NBA. There's still a manager and owner worth trusting — even if also worth criticizing, at times — here, a star player who will be brilliant even in decline, and a wisely played hand clouded by some bad breaks.

          • Kirk Henderson

            Right now its hard to look at a deal as cap crippling when this is our team as of this second (assuming the rookies all make the team)…

            G – Roddy/Do-Jo/Jared Cunningham/Carter/Kidd
            F – Dirk/Marion/Jae Crowder 
            C – Haywood/Wright/Bernard James

            That is a hot mess of fail. That team is an 8 seed at best. So I'm not sure what is worse: fielding a team that isn't worthy of Dirk or fielding a team with potentially cap crippling contracts as Dirk rides off into the sunset. 

          •!/CoL_70 CoL

            First of all, thank you so much for taking the time dedicate all those words to a reply in the comments section, that's why you're the best.

            I of course never intended to judge Cuban and Donnie's job by quantifying RINGZ since that involves a ridiculous amount of randomness, I  merely do on the sum (or rather, zero-sum game)  of the moves they've made.

            Signing Shawn Marion (to a let it be known, not a good contract) and drafting Josh Howard seem more like the exception to the rule than a constant, and I'm pretty sure if you were to analyze the past 12 years of every single nba team, you'd find at least 2 moves just as good if not more.

            And maybe we have just different ways to analyze it right now (half full, half empty) but I read those names you mention to try to bring up the success we've had. J.J. Barea, Marquis Daniels, Brandon Bass… and albeit I recognize basketball isn't merely about superstars and you need your fair share of role players to contribute (what up 2011 mavs) I don't see any of those moves as something to write home about, simply the management doing their job and again I'm sure every team in the league has had their fair share of discovering a Brandon Bass over the past decade. If our reason to be proud is all these low impact moves then we just have different ways of judging what is truly a standout management.

            And come on now… we're going to try to take credit for Lin for simply giving him a summer league tryout? let's not forget we had 2 chances to claim him off waivers after his GSW season.

            You mention us trading Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison away (we also moved Desagana Diop, Eric Dampier, Raef Lafrentz) as a prowess, but you fail to acknowledge we shouldn't have been stuck with them in the first place; when I see the combination of horrible contracts we've given over the years I fail to see that many teams  (oh there'd be some, I know) would have erred as much there. 
            Does fixing your own mistakes take you above the rest? When you screw up and then erase that on a different move does the aggregate make you stand out as one of the good ones, above the rest? or morely resets you to a “let's try again” situation?.

            You mention that we managed to acquire Jason Terry by trading Antoine, but let's also remember Jason Terry came here to replace a far, far, far better future hall of famer that we allowed to walk for free

            Are we good at fixing our own mistakes? one of the best.
            Are we, overall, better at managing Contracts/FA's/Draftpicks/trades  then most of the other franchises? (To me) not even close, I'd say we are one of the below average ones.

            You bring up the consecutive 50+ win seasons, but again I considert his to be a product of having one of the greatest players (and nba characters) that ever lived and not a byproduct of good management. Let's do a simple excersise, let's go back to April 16th 2011, before Dirk's magical pixie dust run and how it changed our perception on everything.
            Let's go back to that day; (arguably) our second best player is Jason Terry… look back to every single one of the “contenders” (and even the pretenders!) and let me know how many of those had a “second best player in the team” worse than JET? Cause I remember clearly that not just ESPN but pretty much everyone argued that Mavs' opponent had 4 of the best 5 players in every series, and they really werent “hating”.

            I don't expect us to equal or best the Spurs or Thunder management, although everyone always says that is easy to win having to build around Tim Duncan, but look at us, we had Dirk Nowitzki and the best we could do long term is surround him with Jason Terry, again nothing to write home about or be proud of unless one's expectations are really, really low and doesn't realize (mostly) every team in the league makes moves like this.

            Let me correct something, the best center in our franchise history went away and signed a 4 year deal, not 5, averaging  13.85M a year (When we take in consideration Asik, an unproven hopeful (Yes I know how good his defense is, but he's also played in the best possible situation and against mostly second units for 10 minutes a game, everyone is just expecting his numbers to hold up when moved to 36 or so minutes) netted 8m+ a year… is Chandler's deal crippling? or just fair contract value for the third (fourth?) best center in the league?) and he would have given us a discount on that money, not just because he said so (he did), but because he could have given us around a 8.97% discount (New York's state income tax) to keep his daughter in the same school without losing a single penny.

            A fourth year deal, with the second about to start (meanwhile we are in year 2 of treading water, knowing we have no chance to win, but no chance to be really bad and rebuild either). So in the end assuming Chandler won't be worth it in year 4 (and a fanastic trade piece it would be then), would that be that much worse than the 2 years we've wasted?

            You say that the calculus was sound about not commiting long term to an aging roster, but that's an approach… you know what's another approach?
            Lakers knowing that talent, and a proven winner is hard to come by and reshaping while the window is open instead of trying to start from scratch and get luckier than the other 29 teams. They just added Steve Nash to a team in a similar position than ours was before last season and are instantly back in contention, old and all.

            Talent attracts talent, Deron ditched us because it would have been Dirk and him. Do you think (although we would have had to pull of some good moves to get rid of Trix and everyone else, some actual GREAT management moves) Deron wouldn't have considered us more if it was Chandler, Dirk and him?

            Or what about Brandon Roy? wouldn't we be a more interesting suitor with Chandler than as currently constructed? Bringing back Chandler is not just about him, it's about those small pieces that end up helping win championships going to Dallas instead of somewhere else.

            Instead of reshaping our core, we gave it away, deemed it too old, and intended to outsmart everyone else and compete against several teams for the fanciest piece.

            We lost.  We've wasted 2 years and will waste the next, this is the way we've managed Dirk's prime (compared to how other teams do with their superstars).

            I'm sorry Dirk.

            P.d. I don't think we are doomed and would be better off with Michael Jordan. I love my team and I guess I'm just doing the half-empty to your half-full.  One thing I'll say again is that we are not even close to the most succesfully managed  (in regards to moves and signings) franchises over the past decade. Just wait and see when Dirk retires, then we will see what we can build…

            P.d2 Thanks again for taking the time to engage in this conversation.


  • jibbs

    i agree with rob wholeheartedly.  while we failed at acquiring our top free agent target, it was still the correct course of action in light of the options.  i would rather be scrambling from a clean slate than screwed for 5 years (or more) because we paid too much for too little.  

    to avoid “sacrificing the rest of dirk's career”, what should we have done instead?  that's the real issue.  signing more of the guys who left after 2011 would have crippled our cap space.  i'd rather have a chance at deron and lose.  either way, we would need him and yet wouldn't have gotten him.  however, we have tons of cap space to work with right now.  we also picked up a couple of monster athletes at the top of the 2nd round.

    remember this isn't about trying to win a championship by selling the mavs' soul.  reality suggests that being patient and making prudent transactions will be rewarded over time.  blockbuster trades and overpaying generally doesn't pay off.  note the short list of champions/dominant teams over the last decade.  similarly, it's not about selling their soul for dirk's swan song.  

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  • PM

    Please put a forum section on this site..The alternative mavs only site (db)'s forum is
    so underwhelming and filled with poster's infighting it is in fact ridiculous. This latest saga with d will only proved this point to a greater degree

    Be nice to have a better option!

  • Shergill3

    Rob..I don't have a problem with the mavs goin all in (u get deron and ur set for the next decade) problem is with the timing of it- right after a championship and letting Tyson go- the best compliment to Dirk's game in all of Dirk's time here.
    but my BIGGEST problem is with the fact that Donnie gets a free pass everytime..tell me ONE superstar this guy has been able to pair with Dirk in his career??????? and the drafting of stiff euros after stiff euros to g along with Ager..Dojo..

    • Norm Sonju

       Doom & gloom, doom & gloom!! Please! There are no championship guarantees in this sport.  Who's to say that the Net's won't decide to amnesty dwill in 2 years for whatever reason, really, who knows?  Who's to say that the Mav's can't put a package together that helps the Magic rebuild and agree to a multi-yr deal with Howard? Or that his back continues to cause him to miss more than half a season, how does that help any team he goes to?
      Can the Thunder afford to lose Westbrook or Durant for a season because they blow out a knee? Stuff happens. You just never know. That's why the game is played on the court.  Sometimes they are painful to watch, sometimes they are entertaining.  I'll take 50 win seasons and playoff games every year.
      Steve Nash, he could have helped the Mav's when he left by allowing a sign & trade but he didn't. Why would he have helped then now?
      DWill, he's got Joe Johnson and for now really, that's it.   Plus they are coached by a not so very players coach.  Championship? I don't see it happening. Playoffs? Sure, why not.
      Why not dream of CP in a Mav's uni next year (or before via trade)?  Yes he has BGriffin….. that's it! I mean just look at that coaching staff and the owner.  Does that do anything for ya?
      Thanks, I'll take the Mav's and their situation.

  • Lost of Hope

    The Lakers turned Odom into 8 mill into Nash.  The Mavs turned 8 million into Odom into nothing.  Deron Williams trolled the Mavs.  Kidd just trolled them even harder.  We should just trade Dirk now.

  • Serg2741

    Its simple guys we have no chance of getting Dwight Howard