MAVNALYSIS: The Power of Creative Opportunism
In Part II, I will examine the uniqueness of Dirk and explain how his singular talent took a while to find the correct mix of supporting players to finally put the team over the top. In Part III, I will attempt to show how the culture of the organization created a mental advantage that, contrary to the 2006 naysayers, ultimately led the Mavs to a championship.
But first, I present to you what I did with the past two weeks of my life when I didn't have TV or internet (an entirely different story): A graphic representation of all the significant Mavericks trades in the Cuban Era.
(I know. So much going on there that's it's too small. Click here for the enlarged version.)
To explain how I came up with this monstrosity, I started by including all trades since the Dirk-for-Robert Traylor deal, since we can all probably agree that's when the franchise began to turn a corner. I limited myself deals that were connected to other deals by common players involved in an attempt to show how the pieces used to acquire Player X became Player Y. There were certainly other deals that were made in the past 13 years, but I omitted them because they were either non-contributory towards a subsequent trade or relatively inconsequential in terms of constructing the roster. Each player's name appears in the graph (for the most part) in the year he was acquired by the franchise. I also included the Dirk trade as well as the franchise's most-recent blockbuster, the Josh Howard and Drew Gooden for Haywood/Butler/Stevenson deal for juxtaposition.
Another goal of mine was to judge the front office for its philosophy in roster-assemblage. That said, lets dive in.
How do you construct a championship-caliber roster of 15 NBA players when your team is perennially over the luxury-tax threshold? The answer is with Creative Opportunism via trades. Beginning with the deal that brought Juwan Howard to Dallas, a pattern emerges that shows the front office's willingness to drastically alter the makeup of the roster in pursuit of upgrades. Furthermore, analyzing each transaction through the long lens of history we can see that each significant transaction the Mavericks made ultimately improved the franchise, either in terms of on-court chemistry or an overall upgrade in number of tradable assets.
To illustrate, at least eight of the 15 members of the team that won the championship came via trades: Dirk, Chandler, Kidd, Marion, Jet, Stevenson, Butler, Haywood. Each of those players played significant roles in bring Larry O to Dallas, and each was brought in based on the Creative Opportunism of the front office. Further, Roddy was brought in via a draft-day deal, and if you're willing to stretch the definition of a ‘trade,' you can include DoJo, who was traded for cash, and Peja, who arrived via a quid-pro-quo swap with Toronto.
Furthermore, when a newly acquired piece didn't fit, for whatever reason, the front office showed a willingness to repackage that asset into something better. The four guys named Antoine/Antawn illustrate this idea. Also, going hand-in-hand with the notion that the Mavericks always run big payrolls is their persistent willingness to take back the other team's "baggage" in trades. However, this willingness to absorb undesirable contracts has not hamstrung the franchise.
Indeed, the same Creative Opportunism that allows the Mavericks to somehow always be players in the trade market also affords them the ability to offload a lot of this baggage onto others. The contracts of Chris Mills and Jiri Welsch and Tony Delk illustrate this (borderline-predatory) opportunism.
Now, they aren't perfect. Even Cuban recently bemoaned having to honor the Tariq-Abdul Wahad untradeable contract. But even when the Mavs were forced to accept bloat, they were often successful in finding a niche for the other team's supposed castoffs. For example, Avery Johnson, a throw-in to the Juwan Howard deal, became the franchise's winningest coach (by win percentage) and DeShawn Stevenson as well as Antoine Wright both became productive starters.
To summarize, the three facets of Creative Opportunism:
*A willingness to take on baggage
*The ability to repackage assets that don't fit for upgrades
For the sake of brevity, I will focus on three trades that illustrate my previous points:
1. Juwan Howard, Donnell Harvey, and Tim Hardaway for Nick Van Exel, Avery Johnson, Raef LaFrentz and Tariq Abdul-Wahad
This deal was the ultimate Don Nelson trade and it represented a doubling-down on his offense-first preference. The Dallas Mavericks, already the league's highest-scoring team, essentially traded their best post defender for two prolific offensive players in LaFrentz and Van Exel.
Sadly, Howard was also their best low-post offensive threat as well. Though it wasn't the move that helped the team conquer the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers, it was an interesting basketball experiment.
Indeed, by acquiring the Nuggets' top two offensive players, and known Laker-killer Nick the Quick, the Mavericks envisioned rolling out an unguardable lineup of Nash, Van Exel, Finley, Nowitzki, and LaFrentz at crunch time. LaFrentz, another big man with 3-point range (a Don Nelson favorite), would help mitigate the Mavs' lack of interior size by drawing the opposing big man away from the basket and clearing the lane for drivers Van Exel and Nash.
Furthermore, the Mavericks obtained another in a long line of "Centers of the Future" in Raef, who was among the league leaders in blocks and 3-point percentage at the time of the trade. (Side note: is it just me or does every player who carries the ‘Center of the Future' moniker get overpaid?)
The trade also showed the Mavericks getting maximum value for their outgoing players, a recurring theme. Essentially, they sold off Juwan Howard's expiring $20 million dollar contract for two pieces they needed: a cold-blooded Laker-killer (Van Exel) and a center with an offensive presence in LaFrentz. By trading away one starter for two, and adding another quality piece in Avery Johnson, the Mavs upgraded the overall talent of the roster and serendipitously brought in the team's future coach as well.
This transaction also highlights the Mavs willingness to take back another team's bad contract in the form of Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Though his presence didn't make much of an impact on the court, his inclusion mitigated the Nuggets getting the short end of the basketball talent in this deal.
It was a trade made in fantasy basketball heaven – but the on court results weren't quite as scintillating.
The Mavs never got a chance to tangle with the Lakers in the playoffs and ultimately the assets acquired in this trade were sold off in separate deals. But this is perhaps where this trade gains ever more value.
In continuing to make assets multiply into more assets, the Mavs traded Van Exel and LaFrentz in separate deals that would eventually lead to the acquisition of players that would comprise the most successful Mavericks teams in history.
In the first deal, Nick the Quick was traded along with the others shown above for Antwan Jamison, Danny Fortson, Chris Mills and Jiri Welsch. This deal once again saw the Mavs ship out an asset (Van Exel), at the height of his value after a remarkable playoff run where he averaged 19.5 points (seven points higher than his regular season average). As Donnie Nelson noted at the time, the deal made the Mavs "bigger and younger and more versatile," as they acquired not only a 20-points-per, athletic 4 in Jamison, but also a tough-but-undersized rebounder in Danny Fortson.
The Mavs once again accepted another team's throw-ins in the form of Chris Mills and Jiri Welsch, but were able to quickly flip these undesirable pieces into a deal with Raef that brought Tony Delk and Antoine Walker to the franchise. Though these pieces too ultimately didn't fit with the Mavs for more than one season, they were shipped out for a package that included … Jason Terry.
2. Antawn Jamison for Laettner, Stackhouse, and Devin Harris
Analyzing the deal itself, this trade once-again saw the Mavs sell high and get a maximum return for Jamison. The Mavs got a PG of the future that could learn behind Nash (a free-agent that ultimately signed with Phoenix), a savvy veteran in Stackhouse who could generate his own offense, and a serviceable backup in Laettner. Harris and Stackhouse were obviously the prizes of this deal and both helped carry the team past the big-brother Spurs, Suns and within two wins of the NBA championship.
This is my dark-horse pick for best trade in franchise history. Not for what it brought at the time, because I wasn't a fan of trading out the reigning Sixth Man of the Year in exchange for a declining Stackhouse, a re-tread backup (Laettner) and an unproven rookie (MilkFace).
No, I love this trade for what it led to down the road.
The Mavs traded one guy for three, two of whom became key players on a team that made the Finals for the first time in franchise history. And furthermore each of these three was a cog in three separate deals that further upgraded the franchise.
Indeed, Harris was the key player in the trade that brought Jason Kidd (more on that in a minute), Stackhouse became The Stack Chip that landed Marion, and Laettner was part of a deal that led to the acquisition of Dampier and, ultimately, Tyson Chandler. From this one deal sprang the parts that eventually lead to the acquisition of three foundation players from last year's championship team.
Now you may object that it was the front office taking advantage of separate sets of circumstances that ultimately led to Kidd, Damp/Chandler, and Marion, not this one transaction itself. Indeed, you'd be right, but you're just reinforcing my point – behold the power of Creative Opportunism.
3. The J-Kidd Trade
Perhaps no trade more emphasizes the Mavericks tendencies of Creative Opportunism than the J-Kidd deal.
Indeed, in this one transaction, the Mavs sold high (Harris), got clever with the pieces involved (Keith Van Horn's ghost), took on extra baggage (Wright, Allen), and then recycled it for other pieces (Wright's inclusion in the Marion deal). This deal was much maligned at the time, and perhaps with some merit: the inclusion of two first-round picks still seems a bit much. However, the deal certainly accomplished its goals.
It made Dirk's life easier on the court, and it helped The UberMan share the leadership responsibilities off of it. It also gave the franchise as a whole some much-needed BBIQ, and it later helped the Mavs win a championship, even if it took time to become over-the-top move that it was envisioned to be at the moment it was executed.
Some other random thoughts:
*I included in our fancy DB.com chart the trade that brought in Haywood, Stevenson, and Butler as a point of contrast. As you can see, this deal isn't connected to any others, but it still illustrates some aspects of Creative Opportunism. For multiple reasons, Josh Howard had worn out his welcome as a Maverick and no longer was a piece that fit on this roster. Therefore he was shipped out along with other ill-fitting parts for upgrades. Also, you shouldn't be surprised if some of these pieces get moved in the future for others. Creative Opportunism is a continual process.
*The Mavericks sure do love recycling backup big men. Evan Eschmeyer, ‘Gana Diop, Eddie Najera, and Calvin Booth have all been acquired and traded away by Donnie and Cuban. Thanks for the frequent flyer miles.
*It's probably safe to say that the Mavs have better relations with some team's front offices than others. To illustrate the Mavs have consummated multiple deals with the Nets, Bobcats, and Warriors. However, the partner that the Mavs got the most from (and should probably send Christmas cards to every year) is the Washington Wizards. In retrospect I'm mildly surprised that the Mavs didn't end up with Gilbert Areanas because Juwan Howard, Calvin Booth, Christian Laettner, Jerry Stackhouse, Devin Harris, Brendon Haywood, DeShawn Stevenson, and Caron Butler all came to the Mavs via the Wiz.
Politics aside, Mavs fans, don't tell me Washington has never done anything for you.
Looking at all of these transactions, you can't say that the Mavs lost any of them. Though at the immediate time they may have seem like they overpaid (Kidd deal), didn't live up to expectations (The DUST Chip), or seemed like the machinations of a madman (the acquisitions of the Antoines/Antwans), each ultimately improved the franchise through one means or another. The front office usually makes deals that not only lead to short-term improvements of the team, but also confer a competitive advantage over the long run as well.
In the last decade-plus, the Mavs have made lots of moves and lots of bold moves, almost always in the direction of the man who traded a paper clip and ended up with a house.
That's Part I of the three keys to this title … the power of Creative Opportunism.