Friday Donuts: Rangers & Mavs & Free Agency
DONUT 1: He was THIS close to being dealt to another team, before they swooped in a made a trade for him. In a surprising move, he was acquired for relative peanuts. He was a player the team hadn't had on their roster in years, if ever. Upon his arrival, something instantly changed in the culture of the team.
The difference was palpable. The defense gained a huge boost, but it was more than that. His presence brought an air of confidence that settled over the team and they began to understand what they could accomplish, even if that wasn't instantly recognized on a national level. It didn't matter though, because the team knew what they were now capable of with him on board. With him here to make the difference on defense for a team that had become so world renowned for its endless offense, the franchise was in prime position to go places they had never been before.
DONUT 2: Man, what a great deal Rangers GM Jon Daniels made last July to bring Cliff Lee to Texas!
DONUT 3: What? Was that not who you thought I was talking about? Oh, right. Tyson Chandler took pretty much the same path and did that exact same thing for the Mavericks when he came to Dallas in a deal with Charlotte.
When Cliff Lee arrived via Seattle with his golden left arm, things changed forever in Arlington. Publicly his effect didn't seem immediate, but his flashes of dominance and influence on the rest of the pitching staff during the regular season planted the seed of what would become a deep run in the playoffs that culminated in a glorious, although ultimately unsuccessful, trip to the World Series.
The everyday interaction with Lee assisted other Rangers pitchers like C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis into climbing to places in their careers that were previously beyond reach. The combination of his pitching talent, the Ranger's offensive prowess, and the overall winning situation in Texas created something the franchise had never before seen. A fan base was galvanized as the Rangers took over DFW and Lee was the catalyst.
DONUT 4: Sound vaguely familiar? It should because the two franchises have more in common than expected after taking a closer glance.
Though his arrival happened without as much fanfare as the Lee trade deadline deal, Tyson Chandler's DFW sports legend takes nearly every twist and turn that Lee's did.
When Don Nelson arrived in Dallas in 1997, the Mavs developed the well-earned, difficult to shed reputation as a superb regular-season offensive team that didn't have the necessary schemes to execute in the slowed down, half court offense of the playoffs. (See late-90's Rangers teams who annually had the best offense in the league that slowed to a stutter in the playoffs when they couldn't hit home runs off elite pitching.)
That perception changed a bit with the addition of Avery Johnson's commitment to defense and Jason Kidd's overall influence on the game. (See Ron Washington's small ball game and strategy to manufacture runs). Still, a spark was missing.
Erick Dampier was serviceable and Brendan Haywood was good, but a guy in the middle who could cover up many of everyone else's defensive shortcomings while giving life to the team, franchise, and arena was something only Tyson Chandler could do. The skills Chandler brought with him from Charlotte and the situation Dallas provided gave him the ability to create belief amongst a worn down fan base. And he did it.
DONUT 5: TY was the perfect complement to the core of the team already in place and the factors he brought to the floor was all the Mavs needed to be taken to heights they had never seen before. For Lee, the height was helping push a historically sad sack franchise to the brink of a championship. For Tyson, it was winning one. Though their ultimate result wasn't equivalent to the other, the similarities in their runs are uncanny.
But what does it all mean?
DONUT 6: As if their paths to and through the Metroplex didn't mirror each other quite enough, they further cemented that theory by finding themselves in free agency immediately after helping lead DFW franchises to their best seasons ever. This twist in their stories created an odd dynamic between fan, franchise, and player.
In major league baseball, there's no real salary cap. That's why you always hear about the Yankees or the Red Sox being rumored to be chasing every big free agent. They have the cash and are willing to bite the bullet on a big contract, so why not? In theory, any team can throw as much money as they want at a player, with the only drawback technically being that the team has to actually be able to afford to pay them and cover all the taxes/expenses (You hear me, Dodgers?).
With that factor in play and knowing that the Rangers would come up with a big offer, Cliff Lee's situation became more about him actually wanting to be in Texas. The caution taken in MLB free agency is based off the fear of being saddled with a player who doesn't perform up to his salary and having to pay him. But the fact remains, handling a situation like that with a bad contract in the MLB doesn't doom a team as much as it does in the NBA, which has a salary cap in place. There's more choice provided to the player in MLB than the NBA, even with exceptions like Bird Rights.
DONUT 7: We all remember how Lee's situation unfolded. Posturing before the MLB free agency period was a tad awkward between all parties, as Lee made it clear that he had no loyalties and supposedly left the door wide open for any franchise. The Rangers made their offer, the Yankees made their offer, and everyone made an inordinate amount of visits to Lee's Arkansas home front in attempts to sway the man's decision.
The Rangers provided a large, fair offer to Lee that he could have easily taken if he truly wanted to be a Ranger. Then at the last minute, Lee chose Philadelphia over the Yanks and Rangers because it was the right combination of years and money. Whether that was actually the case or he just wanted to be back in Philly all along is irrelevant.
The result was in: The catalyst of last year's magical run was gone and the Rangers were left to make adjustments with the same basic roster they had before the 2010 trade deadline.
DONUT 8: The Rangers moved on. They had to. Alexi Ogando moved into the starting rotation and, despite a few recent bumpy starts, has successfully made the transition and even grabbed a spot in the All-Star Game for the A.L. The Rangers offense continues to be strong enough that they remain big time players during the regular season. In postseason play, when games tighten up and scoring drops off, is where we will find out if they can maintain their elite level without their difference maker.
The answer to the absence of Cliff Lee will come in October, not April thru September.
DONUT 9: This same situation is exactly what we will be saying about the Dallas Mavericks if Chandler is not re-signed. There's no sense in wondering what the Mavs will look like without Chandler during the regular season; that question has been consistently answered over the past decade.
With the ‘Dirk/anyone else' Mavericks, you'll have an elite team with at least 50 wins and championship potential.
DONUT 10: It's a fact...even with Shawn Bradley or Damp at center. "Nowitzki & The Dirkettes'' is an entertaining and successful formula ... for 82 games or so.
DONUT 11: Even better, Brendan Haywood will still be under contract and he's already proven that he can be the starting center on a team that earns the number two seed in the Western Conference.
But what will happen to the championship culture of the Mavericks in the playoffs if their Tyson Chandler security blanket is gone? The extra effort Chandler provided in nearly every facet of the game in the playoffs, specifically with help defense and emotional lifts, is something that can't be replaced by anyone on the current roster. In the post season, providing consistent, additional value to your team over a seven-game series is at a premium. The Mavs will be able to keep pace during the regular season, just like the Rangers are, but the time will come when a decisive performance is needed and 'the player the franchise has never had' is obviously not always there to deliver at that time.
That moment is coming for the Rangers. It's on the horizon as Fall rapidly approaches and someone will need to be ready to step up with the transcendent performance that Lee provided against the Rays (Games 1 and 5) and the Yankees (Game 3) last year. It's very possible that a pitcher for the Rangers has it within him to give the necessary performance, but the known commodity and security blanket that was Cliff Lee is no longer an option. The Texas Rangers believe, but they don't know. Right now, there's no way to know.
DONUT 12: With the re-signing of Chandler, the Mavericks can avoid that same uneasy fate.
Tyson Chandler has expressed his adoration for the franchise numerous times and going through a championship experience with a group of guys like he did creates bonds that are not easily broken. With the NBA having a salary cap, it's obviously a precise measurement of financial responsibility and risk versus projected success, despite their need of Chandler's services.
There will be 'Plan B's and C's' if Chandler moves on, but the unknown isn't somewhere the Mavs want to be. Basketball purgatory is not a happy place. And just being good in the regular season isn't a happy-enough place.
With Dirk, the Dallas Mavericks and their fans have always had reason to believe. With Dirk and Tyson, now we more than believe. We know.