Perhaps not surprisingly, Mark Cuban thinks Dwight Howard made a mistake this summer. In an interview with reporters on Thursday, the Mavs owner said elite free agents should make their choice based on organizations, not individual players. Even though Dirk Nowitzki is a decade older than James Harden, Cuban thinks the Mavs track record since he became owner -- 11 50-win seasons and an NBA title -- made Dallas the best option.
Because they knocked off the Heat in the Finals, the 2011 Mavs have gone down in history as a scrappy underdog. It's easy to forget that they had an $85.5 million payroll and six players with All-Star berths on their resumes. Dallas gets a lot of credit for their pioneering use of analytics, but their title wasn't a triumph of savvy roster construction. It was the end result of a decade-long process of throwing massive amounts of money at the wall and seeing what stuck.
When Cuban purchased the franchise in 2000, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley were already on the roster. No one knew it at the time, but Cuban was buying an organization with two future Hall of Famers entering the prime of their careers. The foundation was in place. Over the next decade, all Cuban had to do was fill around the edges. When it comes to the NBA, he is your classic person born on third base who thinks he hit a triple.
To his credit, Cuban spared no expense in building a contender. In 2002, he traded for Juwan Howard's $18.8 million salary. In 2003, Nick Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz ($18.3 million). In 2004, Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison ($23.8 million). The extensions, meanwhile, piled up: $40 million for Shawn Bradley, $70 million for LaFrentz, $102 million for Finley, $73 million for Erick Dampier, $30 million for DeSagana Diop and $55 million for Brendan Haywood.
All told, during those 50-win seasons from 2001-2011, Cuban spent more than $1 billion in salaries and luxury tax penalties. (Numbers courtesy of the indispensable Patricia Bender) The New York Knicks are proof that money alone can't buy a championship, but nine-figure payrolls do cover up a lot of roster mistakes. When your payroll is at $65 million, the margin for error is much smaller. Money was always Cuban's biggest competitive advantage.
For Cuban and the Mavs, the new CBA changed everything. Feeling the pressure from small-market owners, David Stern pushed for punitive luxury tax penalties that would constrain the league's biggest spenders. At least in theory, the idea was to increase parity and prevent teams like the Mavs from buying championships. Cuban got the message, letting Tyson Chandler walk to create more salary cap flexibility, suddenly the most valuable asset in the NBA.
Letting Chandler leave was a catastrophic mistake, but the Mavs had survived an error like that before. In 2004, they refused to get in a bidding war for Nash, watching him sign with Phoenix and win two consecutive MVP's. However, in 2012, with Cuban focused on preserving long-term cap room, Dallas was no longer taking long-term salaries in trades. Last season, not coincidentally, the Mavs had their worst record (41-41) and lowest payroll ($61 million) since 2001. All of a sudden, they were spending less than the Spurs and the Thunder.
But while those two organizations are known for their drafting ability, the draft has never been a strength for Cuban or Donnie Nelson, the Mavs longtime personnel man. Josh Howard, drafted in 2003, was their last pick to develop into a quality NBA player. When they weren't dealing away draft choices, they were drafting guys like Maurice Ager, Rodrigue Beaubois and Dominique Jones.
Those were all late first-round picks, to be fair, but the Mavs haven't done much with their improved draft position over the last two years, either. In 2012, they traded down from No. 17 to No. 24, passing on big men like Tyler Zeller and Terrence Jones in order to take Jared Cunningham and two second-round picks -- Jae Crowder and Bernard James. You can buy second-round picks, so why give up up position in the first round to get them?
A year later, Cunningham had so little value they had to trade down again just to get his salary off the books. First-round picks have the best contracts in the NBA, so it takes some doing for a guy to have a negative value after one year. The Mavs couldn't even give Cunningham away. To dump his contract in 2013, they had to move down from No. 13 to No. 17, missing out on the chance to take prospects like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dennis Schroeder.
All that terrible drafting is why Gersson Rosas seemed like a perfect fit. A former Houston Rockets executive, Rosas was part of a braintrust in Houston that made them the overwhelming favorites to sign Dwight. He came in with the reputation of someone who knew how to find young talent in the draft, which was clearly a desperate need for the Mavs. Instead, he resigned Monday, only three months after he was hired.
It's unclear exactly what happened, though it seems that Nelson again has control of the front office in the aftermath. Cuban has already announced that the team would not be hiring anyone to replace Rosas. While Cuban has always had the final call on basketball decisions, he can only make choices based on the information his scouts give him. The history of owners running their own personnel departments in any sport doesn't inspire confidence, to say the least.
It's certainly too early to make any conclusions about this year's Mavericks' team. They are going to score a lot of points, but they are going to give up a lot of points too. Dirk, at 35, is still the lynchpin, the same as he has been for the last 15 seasons. As long as he is healthy, Cuban and Nelson don't have to do all that much to scrounge up a playoff berth. However, without much young talent on their roster, it's hard to see how the Mavericks break out of the first round anytime soon.
Cuban's track record should give him the benefit of the doubt, but only in specific situations, i.e. getting his Mikhail Prokhorov on. If he's counting pennies, he has shown no ability to beat Sam Presti, R.C. Buford, Daryl Morey and other smart general managers at their own game. To consistently win in the NBA, you have to either spend a lot of money or draft well. The Mavs have never done the second and stopped doing the first.
Until that changes, they won't have much of a chance with any star free agent.