National Basketball Association
Blame Cuban for overshadowing Nowitzki
National Basketball Association

Blame Cuban for overshadowing Nowitzki

Published May. 18, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

If you’re surprised by Dirk Nowitzki’s 48-point explosion and dominance of the postseason, blame Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

The story goes that Dean Smith was the only man who could hold Michael Jordan below 30 points. Well, history may rule that Cuban was the lone man preventing Nowitzki from taking his rightful place among the 25 greatest basketball players of all time.

Throughout the majority of Nowitzki’s brilliant career, Cuban has chosen to be the face of the Mavericks franchise. He publicly spars with the commissioner. At most games, Cuban sits a camera-pan-away from the Dallas bench. He’s a T-shirt-wearing, "Dancing-With-The-Stars"-appearing rock star billionaire. He’s a character, a media darling, a fun Daniel Snyder.

It’s not all bad. Actually, mostly it’s good. Cuban’s passion for the Mavericks turned the franchise from regular loser to perennial, regular-season winner.


There is a downside. Cuban’s uncontrolled paranoia and feud with David Stern are the primary reason the Mavericks have been postseason underachievers.

You remember “The Cuban Whistle Crisis?” Some people call it the 2006 NBA Finals featuring the Mavericks and the Miami Heat. Washington Post columnist Mike Wise gave the series its appropriate nickname, “TCWC.”

One-sided officiating repeatedly sent Dwyane Wade to the free-throw line and the Heat dug out of a 2-0 deficit to win the title. The popular narrative is that the heavy-handed, pro-Miami officiating was an outgrowth of Cuban’s wrestling match with Stern. Conspiracy theorists believe The Commish had the refs take out Cuban’s Mavericks.

I’ve long believed in an alternate theory, the hypothesis of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Cuban spent so much time and energy arguing and researching the theory the refs were screwing him that everyone in his organization — from head coach Avery Johnson to the ball boys — eventually got distracted and basically let the Finals officiating crews have their way.

Coaches preach that their players ignore things they can’t control. Cuban, from his seat close to the bench, forced the Mavs to do the opposite.

A dear friend of the media, Cuban has never been properly criticized for his role in “The Cuban Whistle Crisis.” When you think of the Mavs as a soft, underachieving team, you don’t think of Cuban’s culpability.

You blame Dirk Nowitzki. Or you blamed Dirk Nowitzki.

It’s a stereotype. Nowitzki is allegedly the soft, white European player not tough enough to take on the tatted-up American bad boys. Nowitzki is the reason the Mavs consistently exited the postseason early.

Really? I say it was Cuban.

The current playoffs should help you see the light.

Seemingly from out of nowhere, Nowitzki is being hailed as one of the best and most clutch postseason players in league history. In 114 playoff games, Dirk averages 25.8 points and 10.6 rebounds. Only Hakeem Olajuwon, Bob Pettit and Elgin Baylor can match Dirk’s 25-and-10 average.

What Dirk is doing is nothing new. It’s just too many of us couldn’t see it because too much attention was focused on Cuban’s latest controversy. These playoffs have brought Nowitzki into focus.

Now there’s consensus among talking heads and experts that he is the toughest matchup since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar unveiled the sky hook. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle is ready to put Dirk in the same sentence with Michael, Larry, Magic, Russell, Kareem, Wilt, Oscar, Dr. J, Shaq, Jerry West, Kobe, Tim Duncan and the rest of the immortals.

Carlisle is going a bit too far, but he isn’t crazy.

Give Dirk two titles and he’d crack my top 25. Give him three and I’d have to make room for him in my top 15.

Take away “The Cuban Whistle Crisis,” tone down Cuban’s paranoia, and Dirk is playing for his second title this year.

I’ve liked the Mavericks all season. This is, by far, the most complete team Nowitzki has played on. Tyson Chandler gives the Mavs a defensive presence and grittiness. Knockdown three-point bombers Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic and J.J. Barea make it impossible to aggressively double-team Nowitzki when he initiates offense from just off the block.

Carlisle is the perfect, quirky coach to work for Cuban. Carlisle is dumb enough and smart enough to ignore Cuban’s whining and tolerate his owner’s need to be the smartest guy in the arena.

The loss of Caron Butler is the only thing that momentarily shook my confidence in the Mavs.

Cuban built a championship-caliber team. As long as he can avoid distracting his team with crying about officiating and Stern, I see the Mavs winning the title. It won’t be easy. Oklahoma City is going to test Dallas. Kevin Durant answered Dirk’s efficient display with 40 points. And the Bulls would be a very difficult matchup in the Finals. (If the Heat advance, the Mavs would sweep Miami.)

Again, mostly Cuban is a good owner. He just gets in his own way. And, for a decade, he’s stopped the sports world from appreciating Dirk Nowitzki in the proper context.


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