Exclusive: Mavs Cuban Responds To Dirk
If we accept the premise that Saturday's overtime loss to the lottery-bound Hornets was indeed "Rock Bottom," for the 2012-2013 Dallas Mavericks then a moment of reflection is in order.
How did Dallas get here and what is the path forward? Dirk has spoken his piece.
And now Mark Cuban is responding.
"Dirk,'' Cuban tells DB.com in an exclusive visit, "gets annoyed with our team every year. He uses his annoyance as motivation. ... Dirk gets upset when we go through a tough period. Always has.''
What we are seeing are the results of both the Dallas Mavericks' decision to allow the cogs around Nowitzki to sign elsewhere and Nowitzki's early-season knee injury. We can speculate where the team would be had Dirk Nowitzki not been injured, but none of that is very helpful or certain. A healthy Nowitzki undoubtedly would have made a sizeable impact on Dallas' outcomes, and perhaps with a fully-functional Nowitzki, Dallas would be sitting inside the West's top eight.
What is certain, however, is that Cuban's plan to pursue financial flexibility amidst a changing NBA landscape seems to be drawing more criticism than ever. Letting popular players go will always be difficult for a fanbase to swallow. This pill was made all the more bitter following on the heels of those players', and Nowitzki's, greatest success in June of 2011.
We've debated the merits of this plan many times before, however, let us inject some nuance into this debate. With any big gamble, where outcomes are uncertain, the ability to separate the merits plan itself from outcomes produced becomes possible. That is, poor results are not sufficient, by themselves, to call this plan a failure.
However, the results are poor indeed. Since Cuban's decision almost 13 months ago, Dallas is 49-51 in the regular season and has not won a playoff game since Game 6 of the 2011 Finals. Dallas has the third-worst point differential in the Western Conference and the sixth-worst differential in the entire league. Injury aside, Nowitzki is having his two worst shooting seasons of his career outside of his rookie year.
The plan to allow Nowitzki to transition into a second-tier player in the twilight of his career is happening – just without the superstar around to take the mantle, and Dallas is suffering along with a band of short-timing castoffs surrounding the legend.
So where to go from here? That answer has both a short-term and long-term component.
Short term, the franchise will do what it has always done: go out every night with the intent to win. Barring catastrophic injury to Nowitzki, Mayo, Marion or Collison, the most valuable members of this team, in that order, Dallas will likely not seriously entertain the thought of tanking to improve lottery draft stock.
Cuban's stated target is still the playoffs. And as with "Plan Powder,'' the owner and the star are on exactly the same page. So there will likely be no course-correction of that goal until it becomes out of reach.
Per ESPN's Marc Stein, GM's around the league believe the Mavericks are "one of the teams most eager to do business between now and the Feb. 21 trade deadline." Yes, the most available difference-maker rumored to be available is DeMarcus Cousins, but there conflicting reports circulating now that have him possibly headed to Boston and still others that claim the Kings denying his availability at all.
Regardless, Dallas may struggle to put together a package that both appeals to the Kings and leaves the Mavericks markedly better after consummation. We've addressed the Mavs' true thinking on Cousins at this point in this Premium story.
Perhaps Dallas can pull a move from it's old wheelhouse: absorbing a bad contract. In a frank interview with ESPN, Dirk said, "Maybe Cuban has something up his sleeve. Maybe you have to take a chance on a bad contract to get him in here and make something happen. I mean, I don't know."
Ah, but you see ... Dirk DOES know. He understands Plan Powder. AND the risks. He understands how this roster is assembled every year -- AND has a voice in it. Does anyone think for a moment that Dallas will get to the lip of the cup of a Cousins trade, for instance, and not involve/consult/inform Dirk?
"If you only knew the things he has said to me during recent seasons about our team,'' Cuban joked. "I'm glad I didn't listen!''
Having said all that: the long-term outlook is murky, and maybe gloomy. The original targets of Dallas' plan for cap space, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, will both again be free agents. Further, Dallas is still in a position to make hay, provided they can find a landing spot for Marion. The only other team on the NBA landscape poised to make a play for both Howard and Paul is the Atlanta Hawks, but they were not the stated desired destination of both Paul and Howard when they recently conspired to consider joining up in Dallas.
With each Laker loss and spat with Kobe (there are reports the two almost came to blows on New Year's), perhaps the chances of Howard leaving the Lakers increase. However, Chris Paul is the quarterback of a young, deep, Clipper squad that is tied with Oklahoma City atop the Western Conference.
As we saw last offseason with the ill-fated Deron Williams chase, it is highly difficult to pry a superstar from a destination market, especially when said destination market has the built-in advantage of being able to offer a longer contract.
Dirk himself, echoed as much after Saturday's loss (all quotes courtesy of ESPN): "We hoped for Deron last year. We hoped for Dwight. Why would he leave the Lakers? To me, it makes no sense. He's in a great situation. Why would CP3 leave? [The Los Angeles Clippers are] the best team in the league probably right now. They're probably the deepest team. So are you going to hope that we get something?"
So where is this team going, Dirk, and what of the team mentality in the wake of Plan Powder?
"It's going to be tough now," Nowitzki said after the loss to the Hornets. "I always liked to think you don't want to build your franchise on hope."
"We knew that coming in, that eight or nine new guys on one-year deals is not really an ideal situation, but what else is there to do? So either you break the whole thing up and trade me, or you get a bunch of one-year deals and try to be a player next summer. That's the decision we made, so now we've got to fight through it."
Thinking like a GM, Dirk is essentially outlining the Mavs' options more than advocating that he be traded. (Indeed, if you read the original story just right/wrong, you might be left with the impression that a trade is a consideration -- something we can assure you is not in Dirk's thinking.) He would go on to clarify, "the only reason I would leave -- or would have left -- is if we wouldn't have won the championship, and I would have been like a Karl Malone and [Gary] Payton going to join Kobe and Shaq in L.A. like they did at the end. But now I've got a ring and obviously want to finish my career here. But I also want to be competitive."
So there is no reason to believe that this is the origin of some exodus for Dirk. What he is doing, however, is illustrating just how painted-in-to-a-corner Dallas seems to be, filtered through the emotions of a crushing home defeat against a cellar-dweller.
And he is doing so while seated in a chair alongside Cuban, not one across from him.
Dallas has been superb at asset management in the Cuban era, continually turning less valuable into usable pieces and occasional stars. In pursuing financial flexibility, the Mavericks experienced the largest hemorrhage of high-quality assets at one time in the past 13 seasons.
Now, the cupboard is comparatively barren and the options for roster improvement are limited to trading expiring contracts to others seeking financial freedom, the draft, and free agency. With the limited market for the former, and the crapshoot (at best) that is the NBA draft, Dallas's best chance lies in free agency.
With their season, and franchise direction, at a cross roads, Dallas faces a difficult uphill battle on two fronts based on dim, yet still possible outcomes.
In the short term, the playoffs remain a possibility and therefore, Dallas will continue to fight every night to make that a reality. In the long term, free agency acquisitions remain the most straightforward option, as Howard and Paul may yet still decide to unite in Dallas.
Putting great stock into that hope? Even Dirk seems reluctant to do so. We would note, however, that Dirk is a Cuban ally and is part of the solution and not part of the problem. We would further note that the one thing worse than allowing oneself hope is failing to do so.
Yet those comments can be read as being rather incendiary ...
"That's Dirk,'' Cuban said. "Dirk's mad. Everybody's mad. No one on this team, including Dirk, should be happy with the way we are playing. I know I'm not.''
Indeed, we might note that at 13-21, the real scoop would be if Dirk Nowitzki isn't pissed.
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