Grantland's Bill Simmons, in his most recent column, had a lot of things to say about the Mavs' season, failed title defense, and free agency approach.
Two schools of thought: (a) the only thing that matters is winning a title, and (b) part of winning a title is defending that title. I believe the latter, which is why I remain lukewarm on the '83 Sixers as an All-Time Greatest Team (they got bounced the following year in a humiliating Round 1 loss to New Jersey), and why I love the '86 Celtics so much (they were banged up the following spring and could have rolled over, but they didn't). Dallas's willingness to toss away their title defense for cap space (and the "chance" at Dwight Howard and Deron Williams) always seemed a little too clever, as well as a massive underestimation of everything Chandler did on and off the court.1
What rarely gets mentioned here: Had they convinced Chandler to take a little less to stay, they could have pursued Deron Williams this summer (with Dirk and Chandler as the bait) and maybe even used Chandler as trade bait for a sign-and-trade for Howard (either in February or this summer, which wouldn't have been any more callous than how they treated Chandler, anyway). And they could have actually defended their title.
Here's where a Mavs fan might say, "I don't care, we won the title." Yeah, but you also won the "One of the Worst Title Defenses Ever" title. In the Shot Clock Era, only two defending champs missed the playoffs: the '99 Bulls (no MJ or Pippen) and '70 Celtics (no Russell or Sam Jones), but since both teams were rebuilding, you can't totally blame them. Four other defending champs were bounced in Round 1: the 1981 Lakers (lost a best-of-three miniseries to Moses Malone's Rockets), 1984 Sixers (lost a five-gamer to Micheal Ray's Nets), 2007 Heat (swept by Chicago) and 2012 Mavs (swept by Oklahoma City). That's a short list. The Mavs outsmarted themselves; heck, they couldn't even complain about Lamar Odom as he stole money from them for four straight months, because Odom's agent (Jeff Schwartz) represents Williams as well.
And by the way … why are we so convinced that NBA free agents are so desperate to play in Dallas again? Because they want to play with Nowitzki … who's about to turn 34 and cross the 45,000-minute career barrier? Because they want to play for Cuban … who didn't take care of Nash in 2004 or Chandler in 2011 when both guys wanted to stay? You don't think players around the league noticed how Cuban handled Chandler's situation? Even if we've learned not to count out Cubes (especially when things look bleak), I find it hard to believe that he wouldn't grab a do-over for the last 11 months.
These are some interesting opinions, and I can't say I disagree with all of them. I do have a few major points of disagreement:
1. Bringing Chandler back would not have won us a title. I think this is a relatively uncontroversial thing to say, since it was painfully clear by the end exactly how slow, unathletic, and offensively-challenged the 2012 Mavericks were. Even if Chandler were back, Dirk would still have been out of shape at the start of the season. Jason Kidd would still have been old and turnover-prone. James Harden would still have been able to knife through the Mavs perimeter defenders like he did in Game 4. This season, like last year, was a season of bounces. Only this year, like Dirk said, every break went the other way. Last-second shots, big comebacks by opposing teams, it all happened. As much as I love Chandler's game, I can't believe that bringing him back would have changed everything.
I applaud Cuban for having the audacity to do what he thought was best for the long-term. Bringing back a title team is easy. The fans are still on a championship high and no contract is too big for a returning championship player. But how many teams actually repeat? Simmons lauds his beloved '86 Celtics because "they could have rolled over, but they didn't." That may be honorable and satisfying, and it may give you nice warm feelings at night, but that doesn't mean anything in the long run. Does Simmons think the chance at that repeat run for the Celtics in '87 was worth the 15 years of irrelevance (until 2007) they suffered in the post-Bird era?
I don't think so, and buckle up, Mavs fans, because depending on what happens this summer and the next couple years, irrelevance is a real possibility. But Cuban is doing his part to prevent that, and that's what an owner should do.
Just like the decisions to let Nash go in 2004 and trade for Kidd in 2008, the verdict won't be decided for some time. Cuban can't win right now, and he knows that. But he made his move anyway.
As far as our being in the running for "worst title defense ever," I couldn't care less. Other than Bill Simmons, no one in the world will ever feel the need to assemble a list of the worst title defenses ever, and as bad as this year was, it would have felt just as bad if we lost in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
2. I don't buy Simmons' assertions that Chandler was treated poorly by the Mavs or that their declining to sign him was an underestimation of his effect on the team. In fact, if anything, the Cuban and the Mavs (especially Dirk) have excessively praised Chandler and his great defense and leadership and allowed it to become a dark cloud hanging over the team this season. The media didn't just invent the "Chandler made the Mavs tougher" narrative out of thin air; they got it directly from Cuban.
With regard to his treatment, I listened to Simmons' most recent B.S. Report podcast and he mentioned that he had a quite lengthy conversation with Tyson Chandler recently, where Chandler expressed some lingering disappointment with the organization's "treatment" of him, supposedly also saying something to the effect that "the Spurs wouldn't have treated me like that."
Frankly, I was a little surprised and disappointed in these comments by Chandler. We all know he's a great guy and unselfish teammate, but statements like these make him sound petty, ungrateful, and downright clueless about the way free agency (and business in general) is conducted.
The Mavs under Mark Cuban, for as long as I can remember, have always had a sterling reputation with players and their agents. The Lamar Odom fiasco this year was a perfect example, as Cuban and Carlisle continued defend Odom and justify his inexcusable play long after the fans had lost their patience. I don't know exactly what happened with Chandler's situation (he mentioned them not being in contact with him), but it seems that he's just bitter about the Mavs choosing not to pay up. He seems to have conveniently forgotten about how the Dallas picked him up and gave him a chance to resurrect his career when other teams like the Thunder wouldn't even medically clear him to play.
In short, I think Chandler's beef with the Mavs' front office is just an example of some leftover bitterness, not some devastating indictment of Cuban's dealings with free agents.
3. I'm never counting out Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk's year, especially the beginning, was excruciating at times. But when there's no international games in the offseason, when there's no 9-in-12 stretches or back-to-back-to-backs, and when the number of games goes back to 82, I think you'll see the great Dirk Nowitzki.
34, the age he will be on June 19, is not as old as it sounds. Paul Pierce is 34 right now. Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett are 36. Nowitzki depends less on athleticism, lateral movement, and defense than all of them. Pierce, Duncan, and Garnett are still playing lights-out in the playoffs, with Duncan and Garnett both looking as much as 5 years younger.
It's mindboggling that people are willing to see these elite performances from his contemporaries, acknowledge that Dirk is currently both younger and a better player, and yet conclude that Dirk's time of elite performances is over (cough, Barkley -- I honestly don't give a damn what Colin Cowdung says).
In the end, people are going to pile on you when you're down. Dirk has seen and heard it time and time again, and at the end of the day, No. 41 is the least of my worries.