A Matter of Trust, part 3

Posted by David Hopkins on March 26, 2013 under Commentary | 6 Comments to Read


“The dilemma remains unresolved. I must consume the energies of your Earth or you must slay me, and end my hunger forever.” — Galactus, Devourer of Worlds

Click here for part 1: Coaching, and click here for part 2: Management.

If you haven’t read Bryan Gutierrez’s interview with Zach Lowe, you should–in part, because Lowe agrees with me about Cuban, GMs, draft picks, and the CBA. And it’s always nice when intelligent people agree with me. It rarely happens.

I also mention the interview, because Gutierrez and Lowe discuss what might be the newest defining moment in Mark Cuban’s tenure as owner of the Dallas Mavericks: the decision to not wheel and deal for Tyson Chandler after winning the NBA championship. Of course, it wasn’t just Cuban. Donnie Nelson was also part of the discussion. According to Cuban, even Nowitzki was on board or at least understood the reasoning behind the plan. Chandler wasn’t the only player affected. The later departure of Jason Kidd and Jason Terry possibly indicated their lack of faith in Cuban’s strategy for the future.

The plan: Sign players to one-year contracts to create cap space, which they’re putting a premium value on, in order to have financial flexibility and better options. Who is to blame for any negative outcomes — Cuban for taking a calculated gamble or the NBA for approving a CBA that penalized owners with deep pockets?

Frankly, the Mavs weren’t a favorite to win it in 2011. If they hadn’t won the championship, Cuban’s plan wouldn’t be under such scrutiny. I’ve seen Cuban explain his thinking about ten different times. I’ve read the same online arguments over and over by disappointed fans. I’ve heard sports talk radio hosts dumb down the issue with “good ol’ boy” logic and bumper sticker wisdom. I’m convinced we’ll be debating this until the Mavs win another championship, whenever that might be.

Even though it’s hard to resist, I don’t want to focus solely on Cuban and the CBA. Let’s go back a few months earlier, before the lockout, immediately after the parade, when an arena full of Mavs fans were chanting, “Thank you Mark! Thank you Mark!” That was a good day for Cuban.

What did Mark Cuban do to deserve such praise?

When he purchased a majority stake in the Mavs franchise on January 4, 2000, Cuban became the most interesting and most enthusiastic owner in pro sports. With his billions, he probably could’ve purchased a better team that promised a better return for his investment. But he loved this wayward team and wanted to make them great. Whatever criticism he may have earned, no one could accuse him of not caring. His impact went beyond writing checks.

At first, Mark Cuban did nothing, and it was the smartest move he could make. Some owners, to inject new life into a franchise, will go on a firing and hiring frenzy. Cuban did not fire president and CEO Terdema Ussery. Cuban did not fire then general manager and coach Don Nelson. He did not fire the director of player personnel Donnie Nelson. He kept them and trusted them.

The City of Dallas was already working on the new American Airlines Center to replace Reunion Arena. Cuban made sure the Mavs had the best of everything: the finest locker room, the nicest practice court, the best weight room and training area, exquisite dining, a highly skilled medical staff, and any other amenity imaginable. These things may not be most crucial component for a player choosing to play in Dallas, but Cuban wanted to sweeten every deal.

Cuban rebranded the team with a new logo and new uniforms. I’ll admit I’m not crazy about the horse head. To me, it looks a little dated, a little too much like something designed for an energy drink. However, the Mavs needed an update from the cowboy hat. It signaled a change in how the organization would be perceived.

Cuban challenged the league, the referees and the commissioner. He took on fine after fine every time he complained. Cuban believed he was being an agent for change to improve the officiating and the accountability. Did it work? Some worried that the powerful and entrenched insiders of the NBA would instead target the Mavs and retaliate against Cuban for opening his mouth. Cuban was a great owner for NBA conspiracy theorists.

Cuban took care of his players. If you were good to the organization, there would be a job available. When one considers the controversial Sports Illustrated article “How and Why Athletes Go Broke”, (within five years of retirement, an estimated 60% of former NBA players are broke), this is a big deal.

Cuban took care of his fans. He worked hard to make sure the overall experience was an entertaining one, that even people who didn’t care about basketball would enjoy the spectacle. Cuban listened to feedback. He responded to email. He hosted an annual “town hall” meeting for season ticket holders, so they can ask him anything. I’ve been there. He will answer anything, candidly and without euphemism. I respect a business person who can say “we sucked” instead of “we did not perform at a level consistent with our expectations.”

So, when an arena full of Mavs fans were chanting “Thank you Mark!” many of those people had already met him, talked with him, interacted with him, and maybe even sat next to him at a game.

Say what you will about his decision to not pursue Tyson Chandler, I would rather have Mark Cuban as an owner than 29 other owners in this league. At least when I complain, I know he’s listening.

Nowitzki, Nash, and Finley were already part of the team when Mark Cuban took over. And yet, it’s doubtful the Mavs would’ve had any of the long term success without Cuban. His enthusiasm set the tone and changed the culture of the franchise. I think Cuban has earned a little trust.

David Hopkins is a freelance writer – a regular contributor to D Magazine and Smart Pop Books. He would like to interview Mark Cuban on the treadmill. Follow David on Twitter at @davidhopkins.

  • Jay

    I also understood the Tyson Chandler decision when it was made that summer, just like Zach Lowe. At the time I agreed with it, thinking we were outsmarting the league and poised to be very opportunistic.

    Over time, though, and particularly after watching the Mavs become mediocre the last couple years, I’ve realized that basketball, and sports generally, isn’t just about winning championships. It’s about being good period. And I think we sacrificed the chance to compete and be really good for the much more elusive chance to sign big-time free agents and hit a home run. In my mind, that was a bad trade, and made worse by the fact that Dirk is an aging player who can’t carry a team anymore and deserves better than this.

    Not every franchise has the opportunity to grab two or more superstars like the Heat did. One is usually an incredible stroke of luck. And that summer, we decided to fold on the chance to rebuild and reload around our one star, and it bit us. I agree that the decision to let Tyson Chandler go was made very carefully by the Mavs management, but unfortunately I think they overestimated their strategy’s likelihood of success and underestimated the potential downsides (one-year rental players leading to a lack of chemistry, Dirk being frustrated, Dallas losing its identity as a playoff mainstay, etc.)

    • http://www.facebook.com/mr.tapeguy Craig Berlin

      Agree, and they also apparently assumed that the team couldn’t repeat. Dismantling a championship team, as far as I can tell, is unprecedented in sports history.

      • http://www.facebook.com/davidghopkins David Hopkins

        The 2004 Detroit Pistons should have dismantled–instead they “rewarded” their players and it killed the future of their franchise.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mr.tapeguy Craig Berlin

    As I’ve written a time or two, the Mavs have had a whole lot of goodness and arguably only one season of greatness. Dirk has largely managed to overcome some serious bungles by the front office, most notably Steve Nash but there are other instances – such as refusing a reasonable pay increase for Nash but signing Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood to absurd contracts. In looking back at the Cuban era, you really have to wonder. There have been several questionable decisions and dismantling the title team, no matter how your rationalize it, violates ever tenet of common sense in the book and was not only pragmatically wrong but horribly disrespectful to the players who achieved the ultimate prize.

    We will not see the true test of what kind of owner and management the Mavericks have until Dirk retires.

    • http://www.facebook.com/davidghopkins David Hopkins

      You just give Tyson Chandler whatever he wants? Cap space be damned? If we still had Chandler, we’d be about as good as the Knicks right now — a pseudo-contender with zero flexibility in the future, and no reasonable response to the truly elite teams. I personally would not want to be a Knicks fan for the next few years. It’s going to get ugly quickly.

      • http://www.facebook.com/davidghopkins David Hopkins

        Keep in mind: The Knicks are no. 2 in a shallow Eastern Conference. With the same record, they’d be no. 6 in the Western Conference. However, their record would probably be worse because they’d play Western teams more often.