Who Do You Blame Now?

There is no tradition quite like Mavs fans being thoroughly disappointed with free agency results. The Mavericks, however, made several nice moves minutes into this year’s shebang, securing a couple targets that will undoubtedly help them going forward. But some of the uglier, bigger picture still remains in Dallas, despite the new regime in charge.

90 minutes into free agency, the Mavs had four deals ironed out. That was easily the most active beginning to the process the Mavs have had in ages. Tim Hardaway Jr. turned down substantially more money from the Pelicans to re-sign long-term, and Boban Marjanovic returned as well. Dallas also swiftly nabbed Reggie Bullock to a three-year deal for the full mid-level exception, and added Sterling Brown on the bi-annual exception. 

These are all good moves, especially the retention of Hardaway Jr. But several major upgrades still need to be made to this team. Bullock and Brown provide outside shooting, and in the case of Bullock, a little perimeter defense. But neither particularly raise the ceiling of this team, as they would help round out a very deep roster if bigger upgrades were made. Dallas, to this point, has not added another shot creator or rim defender, and remains a porous rebounding team. 

Dallas hardly concealed their plans to move heaven and earth for Kyle Lowry, but as they have over and over again, didn’t come particularly close to actually getting him to sign. This time around, the Mavs pivoted in a better way than they had in year’s past, signing Bullock and Brown as free agency opened without sticking it out for their pipe dreams. This is somewhat similar to the year they missed on Kemba Walker, and proceeded to stay over the cap, signing Seth Curry using the mid-level and Marjanovic to the bi-annual. 

Beginning in 2011, under a new CBA, the league began to embrace free agency in ways it just hadn’t before. Since then, the Mavericks’ largest additions have been Chandler Parsons, Wesley Matthews, Deandre Jordan, Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, Vince Carter, and Harrison Barnes. Other notable signings over the years include Andrew Bogut, Samuel Dalembert, Devin Harris, Charlie Villanueva, Seth Curry, and Deron Williams.

That Dallas isn’t frantically bringing in brand names just because they’re available is growth from a front office perspective, but what is preventing this team from becoming a serious force in the West is their owner. The teams that have been most competitive in recent years have all been guided by steady, often hands-off owners who act as ambassadors to the organization. But the Mavericks don’t have an ambassador. They have Mark Cuban. 

During the introductory press conference for Jason Kidd and Nico Harrison, Cuban was asked directly what his involvement was going to be in basketball operations, and whether or not he would make the final call on personnel decisions. Cuban said, “I always do because it’s a lot of money.”

Awkward, somewhat incredulous laughter ensued. For a man who made it through the get-rich-quick scheme maze alive, a nickel or even a dime in luxury tax here and there would be a welcome sight for a man who hasn’t made it out of the first round since the days of the iPod shuffle. Was it the right basketball decision to break up the championship team? Absolutely. There was no reason other than sentimentality to give exorbitant deals to the free agents of that year. Cuban did offer Tyson Chandler a lucrative one-year contract before he ultimately signed with the Knicks.

Getting ahead of having an aging roster and adding Deron Williams would’ve made a massive difference in Dallas. But a pair of glow in the dark collar stays on Shark Tank needed his attention instead. Williams himself said Cuban’s absence from his free agency meeting had an impact on his decision to stay in Brooklyn. Williams said, “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.”

Cuban seems to be one of the more gullible owner in the NBA. Like clockwork, he falls for leverage ploys from free agents who haven’t the slightest interest in signing year after year and never seems to gather that he is being used. Cuban is the guy at a party awkwardly milling about and jutting into conversations to tell you about the vineyard he just fumbled a chest of bitcoin on in Luxembourg, whilst friendships are being struck up elsewhere.

That’s where the problem lies. Cuban has no sense of how to bring a player to his team, short of being a jock in a big city. He forgets that other teams have billionaire owners too, superstars of their own, and are much more grounded to what happens on the court, and not on Twitter. 

When the Mavs drafted Luka Doncic, one got the sense that while there were without question a bevy of scouts and personnel people banging the table for the Slovenian, Cuban traded yet another first round pick to get him because it was simply the more exciting move. Staying put at five? Please. Let Atlanta do that. While Doncic will easily go down as the greatest Maverick ever and one of the best of all time regardless, the trade for him exposed the intuition Cuban lacks as the leader. 

Free agents want to play with their friends. The “Heatles” teamed up in Miami because they had been friends forever. Kyle Lowry wanted to play with his longtime companion Jimmy Butler. This generation of players played in AAU tournaments together. They work out in the offseason with one another. They win gold at the olympics together.

Cuban seems oblivious to this. He religiously brings in international players because of his outdated infatuation with Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, J.J. Barea, Rodrigue Beaubois. While the current faces of the league were playing against each other in the NCAA tournament and catching up at after parties, Doncic was tearing it up in Madrid.

Still without recognizing this reality, he shipped out a further two draft picks for Kristaps Porzingis, who notably comes from the NBA factory commonwealth of Latvia. Doncic and the Mavs are constantly playing catch-up, trying to throw jamborees of their own while the rest of the league is down the street at Jimmy Butler’s house. 

When Jason Kidd spurned the Mavericks in favor of the Knicks in 2012, Cuban was quite displeased with the future coach’s decision. Cuban even went so far as to proclaim he wouldn’t hang Kidd’s iconic #2 in the rafters, saying, “I was more than upset. I thought he was coming (back). I was pissed. Kidd’s a big boy, he can do whatever he wants. But you don’t change your mind like that. I’m sure I’ll get over it at some point, but as of right now, I wouldn’t put J-Kidd’s number in the rafters. I like J-Kidd. He’s a good guy. But I just thought that was wrong. You can’t put a guy’s number in the rafters when he decides he doesn’t want to be there.”

But for Jason Kidd, it may have simply come down to a basketball decision. The Mavericks were quickly sinking further and further in the West after getting swept by the Thunder the year before, and went on to miss the playoffs the following season. The Knicks were thought at the time to be actual contenders.

Cuban’s recent decision to hire a guy who gambles for a living(Haralabob Voulgaris) as a key personnel figure is a perfect encapsulation of his time running the Mavs. While he thinks he’s being forward-thinking and bold, he’s somehow been hoodwinked into giving a major position to a guy no more qualified to run basketball operations than a wet cat with an iron deficiency. His image as a fire-breathing, all-in mastermind is theatre concealing his naive, impressionable strokes as the captain of the ship. 

Until Mark Cuban gets it through his head that he doesn’t know everything, and in fact doesn’t know a lot of things, Dallas will continue on its 20+ year hamster wheel of having a galactic talent shepherding the team, with a cast of decent players everywhere else. The Mavericks have proven what excellent scouts and personnel executives they have. Few others could have found Maxi Kleber, Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Jae Crowder, Isaiah Roby, and countless others over the years both in the draft and in undrafted free agency. It’s arguable That virtually none of that had to do with Cuban.

Dallas is one of the greatest cities in America, with no state income tax, warm weather, superstars leading the way, a historically-supportive fan base, and great coaches. But free agents still feel comfortable stiff-arming the Mavs in favor of other teams, and for that reason, they’re out.

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