The 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks jubilantly surprised the basketball world when they won the NBA title. The Mavs thwarted the Miami Heat’s Big 3 with a band of castaways, retreads, also-rans and over-the-hill stars. And Dirk Nowtizki. When he captured Finals MVP, Dirk was 33 years old and entering the twilight of his prime, but he was still sound and solid bedrock upon which to build a championship-caliber team for the next few seasons.
Yet, here we are three years later and Dirk’s Mavericks seem destined to keep barely squeezing into the playoffs while never truly contending again.
Nowitzki has struggled quite a bit with conditioning and injury since that championship, but he’s nonetheless delivered 20.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while shooting 50.3% from two-point range and 39.3% from three-point range. His free throw shooting remains marvelous at 89%. And all this while committing just 1.6 turnovers a game.
This might be the twilight of Dirk’s career, but in many ways, his star has shone just as brightly.
The real problem seems to be Mark Cuban’s sticker shock from the lockout in 2011. It’s his business and he signs the checks, so Cuban is free to dictate roster decisions, but he’s hellbent on cap flexibility. That would be fine if this were the Rockets of five years ago searching for a superstar. But Dallas has the franchise cornerstone already in place.
In the pursuit of cap flexibility, Cuban’s scuttling what’s left of Dirk’s prowess. DeShawn Stevenson, J.J. Barea, and, most notably, Tyson Chandler were not brought back for the 2011-12 season after playing key roles in capturing the title and also winning 57 games during the regular season. Cuban was typically defiant in his defense of the decisions:
“Oh, hell no. No, no, no, nope,” Cuban said when asked if he has second-guessed himself. “Not even a millisecond. Because those that are talking otherwise haven’t read the CBA, like I know you guys haven’t, and are just talking out their ass without any foundation.”
There was no guarantee the Mavericks would have repeated as champs. The 1999 Chicago Bulls are the only champion to voluntarily defuse a title defense like the Mavs when Michael Jordan retired amidst acrimony with management. Other champions stumbled in their next season, but these stumbles were never intentional. The 2007 Miami Heat were torn asunder by injury and partying/malaise. The 1970 Boston Celtics fell down a flight of stairs after Bill Russell’s retirement. The 1978 Blazers lost their MVP center Bill Walton to injury. The 1957 Philadelphia Warriors lost Tom Gola to a military draft.
Uncle Sam, South Beach and AARP didn’t need to undermine Dallas. Cuban was content to let the championship formula slip away in favor of finding it later at discount prices. Sure enough, the Mavericks’ team salary, via data from shamsports.com, has declined precipitously since the title and Lockout:
2010-11: $86.6 million
2011-12: $75.9 million
2012-13: $61.8 million
2013-14: $67.3 million
The Mavericks have famously and publicly wooed Deron Williams and Dwight Howard in the interim, but these were half-hearted flirtations. Dalliances with Deron Williams to compliment Dirk were scuttled in 2012, according to Williams himself, by Mark Cuban’s conspicuous absence:
Williams cited another factor Monday [in choosing Brooklyn over Dallas in free agency]: the owner Mark Cuban’s absence from the Mavericks’ recruiting meeting. Cuban had a scheduling conflict — he was in Los Angeles shooting an episode of the reality television show “Shark Tank.”
Asked if Cuban’s absence affected his decision, Williams said flatly, “Of course.”
Williams added: “A lot of the questions that me and my agent had for them really didn’t get answered that day — you know, pertaining to the future. And I think if he was there, he would have been able to answer those questions a little bit better. Maybe would have helped me.”
Maybe would have helped Dirk’s career, too. Sadly Dirk’s basketball future has been entrusted to an owner who’s filming awful reality TV shows instead of being present when a potential sidekick for, and ultimate replacement to, Dirk could be found.
Cuban, though, seemed unperturbed by the whole situation:
“It’s not about signing a maxed-out player,” Cuban said. “It’s about building a championship team. If you just add $75 million to your payroll, you’re stuck, and I didn’t want to be stuck. That’s the position we didn’t want to be in.”
When spurned by Dwight Howard — in a rather long-shot free agency dance — Cuban again trumpeted how cap room and flexibility were stupendous:
“I think we’ve put ourselves in a spot where we’re in a better spot than we were at if we got just the one max-out deal,” Cuban told ESPNDallas.com during the Mavs’ summer league game Wednesday night. “I think it’d be better shorter and longer term. I don’t want to make that sound the wrong way. I think we’ll be better this year because we added five good players or more.”
Now here we are three years after the title and we’re seeing the results of Cuban’s philosophy. The venerable Shawn Marion, along with Nowitzki, are the only players left from 2011. These new Mavs are an offensive juggernaut thanks to the coaching genius of Rick Carlisle. But defensively, they are a saloon door thanks to the personnel.
Perhaps this is all a spate of bad luck for Cuban’s designs to truly rebuild Dallas as a contender. But given the distinct lack of disappointment he expresses when missing out on potential free agent signings that could salvage the Mavericks, this seems no accident. It might be unplanned and not hoped for, but it’s still no accident. Dirk Nowitzki, one of the greatest players of the last quarter-century, is seeing his career slowly fade to black on teams struggling to make the playoffs.