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Is Cuban the NBA's Jerry Jones?
Now that the Dallas Mavericks have struck out on yet another superstar acquisition, now that the owner’s gamble to break up a championship team has failed, and now that Dirk Nowitzki will spend a third straight season without a team worthy of his talents, let’s call things as they are.
The Dallas Mavericks’ decision to let walk the team that won an NBA championship in 2011 has backfired in stunning fashion.
And Mark Cuban, the team’s flamboyant, passionate, engaged and high-profile owner, has officially become the Jerry Jones of the NBA.
This is not meant as an insult — although Cuban, in an email exchange Monday, seemed to take it that way:
“You write what you want to write. That has nothing to do with basketball or the Mavs. That's talk radio fodder. If you can't write something with substance pander to talk radio. Go for it. When you have a question with some substance or relating to any facts feel free to email me and ask it.
"Or feel free to email Paul from Tyler or any other radio show callers. I'm sure they have something to contribute.”
The “radio fodder” line of reasoning seemed to be a shot at radio hosts and their chosen profession (it’s apparently beneath Cuban’s station), but the sentiment itself was pure Jerry: aggressive, confident, funny (“Paul from Tyler” had me chuckling all day), and the kind of diversion a powerful and wealthy man with as much celebrity as money might think effective.
It’s exactly the kind of in-your-face, pissed off, self-aggrandizing, clever, my-way-or-the-highway reply that makes this long-suffering Cubs fan wish Cuban had been able to purchase the team a few years ago.
It’s also bursting with enough Texas-sized ego to fill Jerry’s World three times, and it’s a big part of the reason the Mavericks went from boasting a championship team – and in Dirk Nowitzki having an anchor Dallas should be able to build a bridge to the future with – to being utterly adrift and irrelevant.
Cuban shares more in common with Jerry than a Dallas-based sports team. It takes a special kind of owner to be the force behind turning a moribund franchise into a champion and then, at the peak of that team’s power and his own rising celebrity, play an equally pivotal role in its downward slide.
Jones loves the spotlight and the celebrity that comes with his status that other owners often eschew. So does Cuban.
Both guys’ churning confidence can backfire spectacularly. Think Jerry Jones is up for admitting his decision to part ways with Jimmy Johnson was a mistake that laid the groundwork for the Cowboys’ long-term malaise? Think Mark Cuban, busy with TV shows like “Shark Tank” and uber-cool cameos on “Entourage,” feels like admitting he’s made some mistakes since hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy?
Look, say what you want about Jerry Jones. I dig both these guys. They’re willing to spend real money to turn a team into a winner. They both parlayed their guts and drive and passion for their teams into championships for what were long-suffering fan bases. They’re both winners, and egomaniacs, and guys I – and you – would love to have a beer with. I wish they owned the teams I root for.
But that’s largely because I’d take one championship over the course of a lifetime. I have no experience with watching a championship-caliber organization crumble because I have no experience watching one of my teams win a championship.
In our exchange, which was prompted when I candidly told Cuban by email I was wrestling with the idea he’s the Jerry Jones of the NBA, he was brusque, funny and revealing, even if accidentally.
I asked him why the Mavs have had trouble landing big-time free agents.
“The only meeting I have had with a free agent that I wanted and didnt get was howard,” he wrote back in reference to the team's recent pursuit of center Dwight Howard.
I asked about the team’s inability, and he answered about himself. Because, as with Jerry and the Cowboys, it’s all about Mark.
When Deron Williams, a key target for the Mavericks after they let their championship team disperse, was being wooed a year ago, Cuban was too busy to make it to New York and help pitch Dallas to the point guard because he was … doing a TV show.
It’s not often a player of that caliber calls out someone for dropping the ball. D-Will must have found it pretty galling.
"I think (Cuban) would have been able to answer a lot of the questions me and my agent have for him that really didn't get answered that day pertaining to the future," Williams told reporters afterward. "And I think if he was there he would have been able to answer those questions a little bit better. It maybe would have helped me.”
Like it or not, this is a star-driven league in which players can demand they be traded to the destination of their choice. They expect to be courted, wooed and loved during their free-agency recruitment. Jerry Jones has the luxury of getting caught up in his own celebrity (at least with his players). Mark Cuban does not.
If the Lakers can unfurl banners begging Howard to stay – when they know it’s a long shot – Cuban probably could have gotten on a plane and headed to New York for Deron Williams, who ended up with the Nets.
Cuban also said he doesn’t regret breaking up that 2011 team.
“No,” he wrote Monday. “Look at the two teams that won before us. I would rather be in the position we are in.”
He’s talking about the Celtics and Lakers, who stuck with older teams and got themselves into cap trouble. He may have a point with the Celtics, but the Lakers will have all the cap space in the world next summer, they’re still the Lakers, and they aren’t going to pay Monta Ellis around $28 million over three years as the Mavs just agreed to do. Advantage: Lakers.
There’s also the uncomfortable fact that, after two years of swinging and whiffing on free-agent targets, Dallas' cap flexibility hasn't paid off. For the most part, the Mavs could have kept that 2011 team around for one or two more seasons and still had cap room in 2014. They could have had their cake and eaten it, too.
I also asked Cuban whether he ever saw his passion, often an asset, as a negative.
“No,” he wrote. “But this was a great question in 2003.”
Yes, it was. And then a silly question in 2011. In 2013, because of his and his team’s decision-making, it’s a vitally relevant one.
The Mavericks let Tyson Chandler go even though he was a center in his prime who was peaking as other big men in the league were about to be felled by injury and drama. The Pacers got this, ponied up a lot of money for Roy Hibbert and made the Eastern Conference finals this season.
Had the Mavs kept Chandler, who the following year had a remarkable season with the Knicks – even if they’d let Caron Butler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson walk – they’d have had a nucleus the following year of Nowitzki, Chandler, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry.
Instead, they went 36-30 in the shortened season and lost in the opening round of the playoffs. They did not make the playoffs last season. And in a crowded and fascinating Western Conference, the team’s best hope is to be fodder for another quick playoff exit.
There are long-term consequences to making key decisions that backfire. Post-Jimmy Johnson, Dallas has many, from Quincy Carter to a widely panned recent decision to pay Tony Romo $108 million. A brash and brazen owner only amplifies the mistakes in the eyes of everyone – and, when ego gets in the way, delays or prevents corrective action.
For the Mavericks, it isn’t just breaking up that team that seems now like a mistake. There were tough decisions at the time, whether it was Cuban putting a TV show ahead of a player the Mavericks desperately needed or thinking his fun-loving, big-time personality would attract Chris Paul or Dwight Howard. Turns out Paul never gave Dallas a serious look, and Howard chose to move to Texas to play for the Houston Rockets.
Sometimes, when great owners taste a championship, the combination of their own celebrity and the strength of that thrill becomes a little too intoxicating. Jerry Jones became a giant and then slayed the head coach who helped make him one. Mark Cuban turned a mess of a franchise into a winner and, three years later, has helped return his team to mediocrity.
Monta Ellis for $28 million the year before a potentially blockbuster free-agent crop and a stunningly deep draft?
It almost makes that $108 million Tony Romo contract look like a stroke of utter brilliance.