Mark Cuban, the “shark” GM?

In addition to the sustained excellence of Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks franchise can boast something else no other team can boast: an owner with a running feud with the President of the United States:

It started during the primaries. Cuban had originally been psyched to have a fellow billionaire running for office, but just like many Americans, constant exposure to Trump’s actual personality proved toxic. Since then, off and on, they’ve been trading blows. The latest example, in which the President of the United States felt compelled to pull the “he didn’t break up with me, I broke up with him!” line shows how it’s usually gone – nobody likes Trump who didn’t already, and nobody will.

This isn’t a political column because this isn’t a political site, but it is worth asking why the two are drawn to each other. The answer, almost certainly is that they represent an even smaller clique than billionaires: they are billionaires who consider working the public to be essential to their brand. For Trump, it was the Apprentice, the Art of the Deal, and now the freakin’ presidency of the United States. For Cuban, it’s Shark Tank. A few others, like Elon Musk, have seemed generally surprised at what the public won’t tolerate when it comes to projecting how they see themselves. I know I’m still not talking about basketball, but give me a minute.

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Cuban is one of the most visible owners in the game, likely the most visible, and I’ve often wondered how his particular brand plays into his decision-making process. This is a more serious question for the Mavericks because of how hands-on Cuban is as an owner. The public perception, at any rate, is that he is more the GM than Donnie Nelson, who holds the title officially. Mavs fans will remember the half a day where it seemed like Gersson Rosas was going to be the Mavs’ new GM. It very quickly turned out that Rosas had not quite understood what the job entailed, and most presumed that he didn’t realize how little independence he’d be given.

The Mavs are also notable around the league for their unique approach to improvement. Since 2011, while everyone else has been trying to work the draft or some mega-trade, the Mavs have focused exclusively on trying to get the biggest free agent name in a given class. To do so, they’ve repeatedly traded down in the draft to save cash and have tended to sign anybody they get to one-year deals for the same reason.

This is well-trod territory and there are lots of possible explanations for this, including the fact that it’s a reasonable enough response to the recent focus on draft picks. If other teams are lining up to do X thing, you might as well do Y thing, if only because the line is shorter. What I’ve often wondered, though, is whether the Mavs’ strategy is essentially a reflection of Cuban’s “Shark Tank” personal brand.

That is to say, I wonder whether the Mavs keep going back to this well because their owner has 100 percent confidence that if he has money in his hands, he’ll be able to make a deal. Hubris is the mark of any billionaire, and it’s not hard to understand why – if your guesses made you so rich you could buy France, it’d be hard to believe they aren’t always solid gold.

And yet, of course, the Mavs have always come up empty. To the extent it seems like they haven’t, now, it’s because they picked up Wes Matthews hoping he would entice DeAndre Jordan and then gave a max contract to somebody, Harrison Barnes, that nobody else would have maxed. Dwight Powell, who they paid $8 million plus rightly or wrongly, was a throw-in in the Rajon Rondo trade. It might all work out, but the actual plan was Deron Williams, or Dwight Howard, or DeAndre Jordan.

Meanwhile, besides Dirk, Justin Anderson, and technically Devin Harris, the team doesn’t have anybody on the roster that they actually drafted, and it’s unlikely they have young pieces capable of getting anything in return in a trade. The guys on the hot stove are guys like Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams – declining veterans on one-year deals. Plus, NBA players seem to have wised up to the Mavericks’ strategy and seem to be explicitly working it to get good contracts for themselves. This last summer, Nic Batum didn’t even make it to his meeting with the Mavs, while Mike Conley only did after being offered the biggest contract in NBA history.

Hassan Whiteside was supposedly deciding between Dallas and Miami, and all through the night was said to be leaning Dallas. Then, as soon as legally possible, he announced it was Miami and moved on with this life. In a statement he made more recently, one that hasn’t been discussed enough, Whiteside said that Portland, not Dallas, had been his second option. It’s hard to believe the Mavs weren’t just being used, here.

If you asked Cuban about this, I’m sure he’d say he wouldn’t mind. He probably respects the players’ hustle that way, and has stated before that he believes building relationships often pays off the second time around. Plus, and importantly, this Mavs team is certainly the most interesting and enjoyable one since the championship team. No one thinks it’s competitive, but with these Warriors in town, who is?

Yet, to return to politics at last, one thing Cuban said has always stuck with me. He keeps a personal blog where he opines on all kinds of topics – just one of the things that makes him so visible – and in 2012 he weighed in on Mitt Romney’s tax plan. The post is very interesting, and thoughtful and what he keeps coming back to is the fact that Romney’s vagueness, at the time, on his tax plan wasn’t because he didn’t know what he was going to do but rather because he expected to be able to negotiate a solution when he got there. As Cuban put it at the time, the “detail” that makes all the numbers add up was Romney himself. What he said about Romney – that he “firmly believes that he is as good a negotiator and dealmaker as there is” and that “if you put a problem in front of him, he knows in his mind that given enough time, resources and control he can solve the problem” – seems to me to describe Cuban himself perfectly well, and I doubt he would dispute that.

Many people have wanted a businessman president for a long time and have now gotten what they wanted, with the attendant problems. Most owners of professional sports teams are either businessmen or their heirs. What I’ve always wondered is whether Cuban is running his team as a business more than these other businessmen, not in terms of numbers and ledgers but in terms of what he considers to be assets. In short, I wonder if he believes that his own ability to make a deal is a better asset for the Mavericks than young talent they could draft or players they could trade. Since 2011, the Mavericks have privileged having money to spend over anything else, a strategy in sharp contrast to the rest of the league. It’s hard not to think that this ethos, the same one that has him butting heads with the president, is the reason why.

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