It's fitting that all basketball eyes were trained on Las Vegas just a couple of weeks ago, the host of the NBA Summer League which also happens to double as the national capital of gambling.
In the two years since winning the 2011 NBA Championship, the Mavericks have taken gambling and turned it into their philosophy. Everyone wants winning a championship to be like scaling a mountain -- you reach the top, raise your arm in victory and hang around for a little bit. Unfortunately, the Mavericks' path has much closer resembled skydiving -- after all that effort to reach the top, you find it ends with a free fall that plummets you back to Earth.
I've been gambling only once and lost all my money -- a meager twenty dollars, because I'm a broke college student, but the point remains. Yet had I walked out of that casino with even $30, I'm sure I'd still be jokingly bragging about it. That's how fickle gambling is - if you win, you "knew it all along". If you lose, it was the worst decision of your life and you'll never do something that stupid again.
It's important that opinions on the Mavericks past few off-seasons are not similarly fickle. As the team tumbles in a free fall, it's clear that the House won big (and we're not talking about Eddie). But there's another side of gambling that has to be considered, DESPITE the Mavericks lack of success.
So let's go back to 2011, and the decision that has been over-analyzed and beaten into the ground by this point - letting Tyson Chandler go. There's no debate that, knowing how things played out now, Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban would have retained Chandler for better or for worse.
But they took the chance that it'd play out differently. There's no reason to rehash the Chandler debate once again, but less talked about is the other side of that off-season. How far off were they, really?
From a Marc J. Spears column last year, it seemed they were a hell of a lot closer than anyone might have thought.
"Chris Paul was all in for joining the Mavericks as a free agent in 2012, but he wanted a commitment Dwight Howard also had interest, sources said. Howard, however, remained indecisive about his future in Orlando and wasn't ready to commit to Paul."
It's impossible to create odds based on that single paragraph. Maybe the paragraph itself was exaggerated. Chris Paul would soon be traded to the Clippers, and committed to the team long-term this off-season, something that may have drastically changed his outlook. There's no mathematical figure or advanced stats algorithm representing the likelihood that the Chris Paul and Dwight Howard duo would join Dallas. But the NBA was seemingly turning into a league where the new normal featured several superstars teaming up together, and the Mavericks provided an established coach, a veteran superstar, and the flexibility to sign them both.
I hate to run down this hypothetical path, but imagine a Dirk/Dwight/CP3 trio in Dallas. Sure, it's only three players - but couldn't you argue that's a better combination than even the big 3 of Miami? It covers point guard and center, and provides elite rim defending and shooting - all problems that the Heat have struggled with despite going to three straight Finals. I promised to look at both sides, and though the plan never came to fruition, it's easy to understand the temptation of a plausible big 3 in big D.
Looking back, it seems the proper move would have been to rebuild on the fly, building up assets and emphasizing the draft. But is it really any surprise that the businessman Mark Cuban, who has earned and lost more money than any of us will own in our lifetimes through myriad investments, would take a gamble on nabbing the two superstars?
Dwight ruined it all, leaving Dirk, an empty roster and a lot of cap space. A gambler's mentality, after betting big and losing, is that they will win it all back with the next roll. Unfortunately, a strong push at Deron Williams fell apart after Brooklyn threw up two middle fingers at the new CBA (and, might I add, continue to do so).
The back-up plan behind Deron netted the Mavericks a plethora of one-year contracts while keeping cap space for next year. After investing two off-seasons and the full 2011-12 season into this plan, it made sense that Donnie and Cuban would want to see it through. At this point, I'm sure they were already starting to realize their errors...looking forward to the 2013 offseason, it was clear that other teams could provide BOTH the cap space and the talent to entice Dwight, not just a single, aging superstar.
But the Mavericks were in too deep to reverse directions. Give them credit -- changing their minds at this point would have just been a waste of time. Trading away young talent like Corey Brewer or Jordan Hamilton can't be reversed. Their path had been chosen.
Cuban shed some light on this year's off-season strategy during in an interview last week: "We struck out with Dwight, but we knew that was a longshot anyway."
On one hand, it's proof that the Mavericks finally figured out that a hitting two or three singles is just as sure a way to drive in a run than swinging for the fences. They were, in a way, forced to give Dwight the best free agency pitch they could. After chasing him for two years, there's no reasonable way to back out in the moment of truth -- but as a "long shot", they planned to field the best team they could even if he didn't take his talents to a northern Texas metropolitan area.
On the other hand, merely letting the Dwight saga play out hurt their the team. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Andre Iguodala was "hours" away from singing with the Mavericks until the Warriors were able to sweep in at the last second. He explained more in his press conference:
But here [Golden State] they never spoke about Dwight. My agent and I kind of knew they were in the mix, but they never spoke about Dwight, which kind of showed that ‘we’re going to handle that separately from the way we’re trying to handle you.’ Which I felt was a key to the process.
Make no mistake -- after missing out on Dwight, the Mavericks rebounding as well as any team could considering the free agency market. But realizing the Mavericks missed out on Iguodala hurts. How many other free agents were lost in the past two years, in a single-minded effort that immediately eliminated talented, non-superstar players who were burdened by large contracts? Tyson Chandler could be described as merely the first victim.
Now, in a post-Dwight-to-Houston world, everything comes full circle. The Mavericks failed to double or triple the "money" they started the 2011 off-season with -- in this case, money being represented by the years left in Dirk's prime. As Dirk shows impending basketball mortality, the Mavericks can no longer afford the high roller's table and are forced to double down with lesser free agents. Monta Ellis is a gamble; more specifically, a backcourt with him and Jose Calderon is a gamble. But Dallas has no choice, unless they wish to waste the few great years Dirk has left on a rebuilding process that's at least half a decade away from showing any sort of results.
Not all is lost. It's true, the Mavericks are bound to win one of these gambles eventually -- so why not Monta? Devin Harris at the veteran's minimum was pure thievery and could pay countless dividends. Samuel Dalembert isn't exciting but may surprise some people who just assume he's old and washed up. Perhaps most importantly, the men of the front office have acknowledged they could use another voice behind the scenes, represented by the signing of Gersson Rosas. As a Houston alum, he's sure to know a thing or two about drafting -- if only to set up a major move.
Next year, the huge expiring contracts of Dirk and Marion come off the book. With Dirk saying he's giving Dallas a huge home-town discount, the Mavericks will have room to continue to improve the roster and hopefully add a couple players that could help take Dirk on one last run. As long as Dirk is still kicking, by no means is it over.
Acknowledge the gambles that brought the Mavericks to the situation they're in, and learn from them. But also remember why they were made and what they represented. There are two sides to every gamble, two paths. It's a shame the Mavericks weren't on the right one.
And to think I thought it was bad losing my twenty dollars.