Mark Cuban grew up a working class kid in Pittsburgh. He became a billionaire. He was a headstrong, reckless billionaire, who knew how to spend and root for his Dallas Mavericks, but was not the cool, calculating owner who typically tastes success.
Time passed. Cuban mellowed. And he became the cool, calculated successful owner. Once overly blustery and at times reckless, Cuban has channeled his inner desire to see Mavericks greatness, and has put a good management team led by Donnie Nelson Jr around him, as he navigates this new CBA.
Why is he so successful? He zigs when everyone else zags. And if you look at a tale of the Mavericks since 2011, that’s why he has put a fearsome starting lineup together around Dirk Nowitzki.
After the 2011 finals, Cuban made the boldest of choices, deliberately choosing to break up the NBA champions. It was truly shocking, at the time. Always known to spend and always wanting to win. What was he doing? Putting money in the bank or outsmarting himself?
Cuban’s choice was emblematic of the number one rule of thumb under the new CBA. It is imperative to have a keen understanding of where you reside on the arc of contention (think of the Spurs as the apex, and the Sixers as the first pencil stroke), to understand what the league wide player perception is of your franchise (how do you acquire signature free agents and sell players on your franchise otherwise?), and act accordingly.
Cuban did that. He justified the choice, believing that yeah, the group won a title, but it was definitely not going to repeat. (ESPN). And he was right. It’s better to be lucky than good, and the Mavericks, while very good, were lucky. The Spurs went down early, the Thunder were not ready, the Lakers imploded, the Heat super imploded, and that opened the door wide open for his persistent Mavs. He knew there was little reason to expect that to happen again. And be realistic: were they going to beat the more seasoned Thunder or the Spurs, or LeBron’s not mentally broken Heat these past three seasons? Cuban was realistic.
Cuban figured, in 2011, 2012, and 2013, that he could attract a superstar to come to Dallas. He said to himself, more or less, “I have Dirk. Dallas is a big city. Guys will want to play here”? He responded to a mini generation of stars forcing their way onto teams of their choice by trying to be one of those teams. It worked miserably. Nobody came onboard in 2011, after the lockout. So Cuban strung along a bunch of floatsam on one year deals, figuring he would score on Dwight Howard, or Deron Williams (ouch), or whatever other available name. It did not work in the summer of 2012. Dallas rolled its cap space into 2012-13 with similar plans. For a third summer in 2013, it did not work. But then, something happened.
Suddenly Cuban shifted away from that. Despite opening up 2013 free agency with the intent of a big score, Cuban did not roll the cap space over again. Rather, he added Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert and Devin Harris, and other actual players on deals beyond a season. Largely, his summer work was panned
The idea behind much criticism: Cuban was spending on mediocrity going forward, rather than remaining flexible. He could have chosen to tank and rebuild, the way Philadelphia and many teams are, or chosen to remain highly flexible, and did neither.
Cuban then did something interesting. He took to his blog to explain why he was not rolling the cap space over again. A few of his quotes were extremely interesting, and shed light on how Cuban has adjusted as an owner on the fly.
“What I do know, at least what I think i have learned from my experiences in business is that when there is a rush for everyone to do the same thing, it becomes more difficult to do . Not easier. Harder. It also means that as other teams follow their lead, it creates opportunities for those who have followed a different path.”
On signing Ellis and Calderon, et al
“You also have to pay attention to what is happening around you . . . I do believe that by having a core of players that we can grow and develop with, and cap room in the upcoming season and what we feel is the ability to develop and improve the performance of our players, we are in a good position for this year and for the future. We have been hurt by not having a core of players in place that free agents see as teammates they want to play with. That shouldn’t be the case next year.”
Unpack those two statements, and the Mavericks’ ability to overturn their roster and build this Chandler-Nowitzki-Parsons-Ellis-Rondo unit he now has, which has both defensive talent (especially if Rondo reengages), and projects as an offensive machine.
Cuban definitely paid attention to the events occurring around him. And what he saw was simple. Bullet dodged or not (likely dodged), when Deron Williams chose not to sign in Dallas, one idea he made clear was he felt like it was going to be him and Dirk on an island. Dwight, who chose to be a Houston Rocket because of the James Harden trade – recall, he did NOT want to be a Rocket prior to the chance to play with Harden, also chose not to join Cubes in Dallas, and presumably had similar concerns.
Cuban paid attention. Much talk during the “stars leave small markets for big markets” mini-era, was that stars were deserting the small markets they played in to be in the big city. We had an entire NBA lockout, largely over rectifying that “problem.” Cuban learned (the hard way) that this was not actually the case. In reality, stars wanted to play with other stars, and with other players whom they perceive are talented, and whom can help them win. Over three summers, free agents looked at Dallas, saw Dirk and floatsam, and, knowing Dirk’s age and the lack of talent around him, said “no, this is not attractive.”
Cuban realized, right at that moment: cap space, for all its virtues of affording flexibility, is overrated: it does not mean a whole lot if nobody wants to sign into it. Cuban realized: if he was going to acquire signature talent to pair with Dirk, he was not going to do it by waiting and hoping for a superstar signing. He was going to have to build an infrastructure of players that guys respected, and wanted to play with.
As he said after his criticized 2013 haul “we have been hurt by not having a core of players in place that free agents see as teammates they want to play with. That shouldn’t be the case next year.”
To most smart people, Ellis and Calderon in particular (they ate most of the forward thinking space on the balance sheet) where the reasons to criticize Cuban. Looking at the advanced stats, Ellis was an inefficient high usage scorer who the Warriors cut loose before they began winning, and who could not make the Bucks any better. Calderon: a defenseless point guard making $7 million per who is in the bottom tier of player at his position.
But Cuban was simply learning from his prior mistake of assuming that players would choose to walk into his max space. After all, it’s one thing to sign Ellis and Calderon to $15 million total (combined, roughly), if that represents your entire wad of cap space, and renders you stuck going forward. That would not have been smart for Dallas, a then middling team on the arc of contention.
However, all Dallas did in reality was essentially say, “we would rather have a nice amount of cap space, with a nice, attractive to other players nucleus in place, than a ton of cap space, with a roster no player wants to be a part of.” And that was an excellent decision. Near max space with players wanting to come on board as the guy who could be the missing link (and perhaps more space with edge trimming deals) beats max space and a dead cell phone. Cuban did not tie up his future in Ellis and Calderon: he saved it.
After all, for all the criticism of Ellis, NBA players (and former players in general, a big part of analytics tends to strain against this) for the most part tend to love scorers: Dwight Howard listed Monta as one of five NBA players he would love to play with
Perception is very important. Media saw Ellis and Calderon and Dallas overspending on a per production per dollar basis. Cuban saw an investment into turning his franchise into a destination because he added players that other players (whom he really wanted) would want to play with: a core, if you will.
The result of that work? Chandler Parsons loved Houston. There were few destinations that were going to appeal to him this summer, as a place good enough to depart Houston, and his good friend in Dwight (whom he sold on Houston over Dallas). Intrigued by the core Cuban discussed, he came onboard. Calderon was useful for Dallas, and ultimately necessary: his salary was critical to the Tyson Chandler acquisition.
And now, the pinnacle moment has come, in the Rajon Rondo trade. Cuban has completed the making up of a fearsome starting five around Dirk, and Rondo forms its fifth and final link. Hats off to Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojyahooNBA) for the scoop. One of his Tweets was the pinnacle moment, and must have been music to Cuban’s ears:
In trade talks, remember: Rondo essentially had veto power. No one would trade for him as rental. He had to be committed to sign extension.
The significance is obvious. Dallas was the destination that was not a destination. Free agents came and went, off to cores with more in place. Cuban continued to roll his cap space over, refusing to sign any non max free agents … until he didn’t. At the end of the day, you assess your cap picture, your place on the arc of contention, and act accordingly. A team in the middle of the arc, with ridiculous amounts of cap space and no suitors: eating into the space to increase desirability, while retaining some of it was the way to go.
Cuban did it. He made Dallas a destination. And he got his point guard.
And on that note, Cuban’s other point about tanking was useful to his process as well. For all the discussion of tanking as a necessary evil, Indiana and Houston didn’t. Atlanta didn’t. Toronto wanted to but didn’t.
And Cuban, now, didn’t. He realized, as he said, that when everyone rushes to do the same thing, that thing becomes hard. There are more teams tanking than there will be stars to come out of the draft, and merely not drafting a bust is not enough: the draft forces you into long term losing, star or bust on the last Thursday of June. The Utah Jazz, as an example, have acquired so many good young kids and players in recent years, in Favors, Burks, Kanter, Hayward, Burke, and Exum (partially through trade): they’re sitting at 7-19 and half of them already got their first extension.
Utah is “everyone” trying to do the same thing. Cuban blazed his own trail.
Cuban knew that just because he lost out on a max star a few times, did not mean that he had to go down that road. Again, it’s all about assessing your place on that arc of contention, and acting accordingly.
For all the talk that you cannot “rebuild from the middle,” you certainly can (and Dallas just DID) if you are in the middle with financial flexibility. The reason is clear: if you are in the “middle,” you do not need a max player to put you into contention. Cuban added several nice pieces in Rondo, Chandler, Parsons, and less recently, Ellis, but none is a true max superstar. He put this together without needing that piece.
And that is really the rub. What Cuban noticed is that, in a market where teams are literally fixated on tanking, and lining up all the cash in the world to make a run at the top 5-10 players in the league, that is a saturated market. Three teams draft or sign that guy, and the rest accomplish little to nothing.
And with so many teams in that market, that creates little to no market for the league’s good to very good players. That’s how any market works: when one market is saturated, its counterpart is unsaturated. Teams are almost scared to put this good to very good class of player on their roster as they chase pipe dreams, worried that they will win too much in the short term, or ruin their flexibility. Cuban pounced, and essentially traded Brandan Wright, Jose Calderon, one low first rounder, and floatsam for Ellis, Chandler, Rondo, and Parsons — and all of them on reasonable contracts.
A great owner is not just an owner who says he has a vision (Hello, Vivek Ranadive). A great owner is not an ATM machine whose stare makes you wonder if you are on his kill list. (Hello, Mikhail Prokhorov). A great owner is an owner who hires a good staff, studies what is happening around him, adjusts to the changing market (including the CBA and player sentiment), and lets reason and smarts curb his passion.
Mark Cuban is a great owner. And his Mavericks are going to be tough to beat.