Star power in the NBA can be blinding.
Once someone is identified as a star, no matter how ambiguous that definition might be, organizations clamor for that player.
We’ve been told that the key to championships is through star power, and while there’s certainly some truth in that statement, it’s a premise that’s generally flawed.
Mark Cuban should know this better than anyone.
It was Cuban’s Mavericks that finally broke through in 2010-2011, winning the organization its first championship and the first for one of the league’s icons in Dirk Nowitzki.
But Cuban didn’t recognize that. Even though Cuban, along with Donnie Nelson and Rick Carlisle built that title team, they failed to recognize the specific attributes that made them champions. They instead became persistent, almost infatuated with pairing Dirk up with a worthy star.
It’s that road that has led the Mavericks into purgatory.
Mark Cuban runs one of the most respected front offices in the NBA. How is that possible? His short-term thinking and desperation have pushed Dirk, in the twilight of his career, further away from another Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Mark Cuban has been to the Mavericks what Jerry Jones was for over a decade to the Dallas Cowboys.
It’s difficult to compare any organization in the NBA to the Spurs, but in 2011, when the Mavericks won their first title, the Spurs were pondering their own future after being eliminated as the West’s top seed by the Memphis Grizzlies.
Here’s where those divergent organizational paths, with aging legends, changed course again. The Spurs chose subtle changes, while the Mavericks parted with key components in order to open up cap space for a big splash.
The Spurs traded George Hill to the Pacers for Kawhi Leonard on draft day; then took a flier on Danny Green, and by midseason 2012 added Boris Diaw and Patty Mills. Without those understated moves, the Spurs don’t win back-to-back Western Conference championships or the 2014 NBA title.
In the years after winning the 2011 title, the Mavericks set their sights on big targets such as Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. They needed cap space, so they parted with Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and Caron Butler. Chandler was a dominant defensive player, who wound up winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2012 as a member of the Knicks. Butler was third on the team in scoring and third on the team in minutes, and even though Barea’s contract with the Timberwolves would have been hard to match for Dallas, he ran the show for an extremely effective second unit. Then, to add insult to injury, the Mavs traded away a future first-round selection to the Lakers for Lamar Odom.
The Mavericks won 36 games in a lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season and were swept by Oklahoma City in the first round.
Not to worry though, Mark Cuban and the Mavericks had their sights pointed directly towards procuring a big-name star to pair with Dirk.
Cuban’s big fish in the 2012 offseason was Dallas native Deron Williams.
Remember, the moves made in the previous offseason were a product of their pursuit for a big name like Williams. This time they allowed Jason Terry to walk, as well as Jason Kidd, and when they swung and missed on Williams, they settled for O.J. Mayo and Elton Brand.
With time ticking on Dirk’s championship window, the Mavericks gambled and lost, and amassed a roster in just two short years that was virtually unrecognizable from their championship squad.
In 2013, after missing on Deron Williams, the Mavericks went 41-41 and missed the playoffs for the first time since Dirk’s second NBA season.
But Mark Cuban, ever the savvy, one-step-ahead thinker, turned his attention towards Dwight Howard. Cuban’s years of shedding salaries and bad short-term planning for the sake of precious cap space would finally pay off.
Again though, Cuban’s overtures went unanswered. All of that money with an aggressive willingness to spend it, and all of those poor short-term decisions in order to win now with Dirk, condemned the Mavericks into obscurity.
Here’s the amazing part. The Mavericks, in spite of all of their poor decisions, started to put something together. Ellis blossomed into the offensive catalyst many people had projected, and although the Mavs qualified for the postseason as the No. 8 seed in 2014, their seven-game series against the eventual champion Spurs was a sure indicator of title contention once again.
The 2014-2015 offseason took the Dallas Mavericks full circle. Cuban finally got to stick it in the face of rival Daryl Morey. He signed restricted free agent Chandler Parsons away from the Houston Rockets and welcomed back Tyson Chandler to be the backbone of a defense that was brutal in 2014. (This, of course, was after chasing LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.)
The Mavs started out fantastically in 2014-2015. They now had legitimate defensive pieces to pair with the NBA’s most efficient offense. They were 19-8 in an extremely tough Western Conference on Dec. 18, when Cuban got the itchy finger again. Cuban had been shut out from acquiring a top-flight star, and even though they had rectified those past mistakes and were back on a path towards NBA glory, they stunted that growth by trading for Rajon Rondo. Cuban finally got his star. Flash over substance.
They went 31-24 the rest of the way, lost to the Rockets in the first round in five games and saw a dramatic decline in offensive and defensive production. It was so bad at the end for the Mavericks that Rondo was banished from the team.
The allure of landing a big star in free agency has given teams that value continuity a major advantage. In the past five years, multiple teams have hoarded major cap space in an effort to sign marquee free agents. The worst offender of this has been Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks.
Perhaps this specific case study represents a valuable lesson contradicting the win-now mentality of teams in professional sports.
In Mark Cuban’s haste to win-now on behalf of his aging legend Dirk Nowitzki, he has actually pushed the team further and further away. Foresight and long-term planning are keys toward sustained success. The Mavericks had a winning equation all along, but their greed and failure to recognize what made them champions clouded their ability to make the right long-term decisions. It’s not bad luck on the part of Cuban; it’s the price of doing business when you put all your eggs in one basket.
Star power is a mirage. Our perception of what constitutes a star player changes rapidly. Stephen Curry was labeled early as prohibitive because of injury issues. The Bulls gave away countless draft picks and made bad short-term decisions in an effort to find a star 2-guard to pair with Derrick Rose. Then they stumbled upon Jimmy Butler at the end of the first round in 2011.
Mark Cuban is a brilliant businessman with a public image exceeded only by his exorbitant wealth, but lately he has proven to be plankton in the shark tank of the NBA.