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The NBA Conference Finals, "The Big 3", and how the Dallas Mavericks fit in

May 23, 2012; Philadelphia, PA USA;  Philadelphia 76ers point guard Lou Williams (23) does not understand what this photo has to do with the Dallas Mavericks. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE
May 23, 2012; Philadelphia, PA USA; Philadelphia 76ers point guard Lou Williams (23) does not understand what this photo has to do with the Dallas Mavericks. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE

Tonight, the Boston Celtics face the Philadelphia 76ers in an exciting game seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Be sure to check back here, by the way, by 8 PM Eastern Time and chat it up in the Eastern Conference semifinals Game 7 game thread. To all the recently "outed" lurkers: stop by, say hello, make friends. Remember that just because there's no Mavs game on doesn't mean there is nothing happening at Mavs Moneyball!

Anyway, after tonight, the NBA will find itself suddenly down to its final four. It's May Madness, June Jubilation, Summer Spasmodic-behavior, whatever. Now, in a one game, winner-take-all situation, anything is possible, but chances are the popular pick will probably be that the winner and eventual opponent of the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals will be the Celtics, naturally the victor there headed to the NBA Finals to have the honor of facing whoever comes out on top in the Western Conference Finals double-buzzsaw matchup of the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. Good luck Eastern Conference!

Philly fans, don't fret, I'm not discounting you, this is all just building to a segue.

What is, perhaps, notable about those four hypothetical finalists, if we are looking for common ties and a possible blueprint in the copycat world of sports, is that they all have some version of a "Big Three", a super-trio of stars.

Boston, of course, made their big splash in the summer of 2007, when they traded for Ray Allen on draft night, and a month later put together a blockbuster trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett. A year later they were basking in championship glow.

This may have inadvertently set the stage for the complete and utter insanity that was to take place in July of 2010, when the Miami Heat landed their three All-Stars in a whirlwind 24-hour period. Coincidentally, both Wade and James had their previous seasons ended by none other than those Boston Celtics. Did they decide then that the only way to defeat Boston's three-headed monster was to create one of their own?

Meanwhile, the Spurs and Thunder were putting together their big threes the old fashioned way: the draft. For both squads, the key piece required both great fortune and a high tolerance for bad basketball, and resulted in two franchise cornerstones, as well as, for one team, a slew of trophies that may soon be added to yet again. For Spurs fans, all this talk about "super-teams" is probably old news. They've had theirs for a decade now.

So, what does all this have to do with the Mavericks? Well, it's been a poorly kept secret that, at least at one point in time, Dallas was a legitimate option as the location for the assembling of another super trio, made up of incumbent hero Dirk Nowitzki, local legend Deron Williams, and superstar center Dwight Howard. Or, since the NBA loves movie-crossover promotion so much, let's call it the possible "assembling" of Norse God Dirk Nowitzki, unfrozen war hero Deron Williams, and giant green monster Dwight Howard, all joining forces with eccentric billionaire inventor Tony Cuban. Brian Cardinal can be the guy who shoots arrows that I'll pretend I don't know the name of(it's Hawkeye).

I think it's safe to assume that Mark Cuban wanted this assemblage, or one like it, and that such a possibility was not an insignificant factor in his motivation behind letting a sizable chunk of the championship team of the 2010-'11 season depart via free agency. I guess the question(s) that remain are, does he still want this? Should he want this? Does Dallas still have any real shot at this dream scenario?

Okay, so...I can't actually answer that. Any of it! I don't know what Mr. Cuban truly wants, and there are enough variables yet unsettled that no-one is close to being able to make a very accurate guess about where Williams and Howard are going to end up at this point.

Still, as the franchise faces an offseason that likely represents the beginning of an extremely important transitional phase in its lifespan, and with no Maverick game on the schedule for months, discussions like these are the only nourishment we Dallas fans have. Or didn't you notice the dozen "offseason plan" fanposts to your right?

So, to reiterate, it seems pretty reasonable to say that Mark Cuban wanted his own big three. I'd wager that his plan, initially, was for that big three to include Tyson Chandler, if not as a plan A, then at least as a strong plan B after Dwight Howard. It was reported that the team tried very hard to work out a high-salary, one year deal for Chandler, which would have kept him in town long enough to see if Dwight Howard was a real possibility, and if not, bring him back. That plan didn't work out.

Now, Dwight Howard is signed through next year, and, barring some major out-of-the-blue development, extremely unlikely to join the Mavericks in a trade this summer(Dallas just doesn't have enough trade assets). Does that mean Dwight Howard is out of the teams' plans? I don't see why he would be.

Similarly, if Deron Williams decides to take his talents to a "beach" other than Dallas, does that spell the end of all the big three talk? Not necessarily. At the start of this past season, it was supposed to be Deron and Dwight as the big name free agents available. After Dwight opted in, now you have he and Chris Paul atop next year's potential FA-class.

If Cuban wanted his big three, and he was willing to wait a year for it, why wouldn't he wait another year? Until he comes out and says "yeah, that was a bad idea, I'm not going to try to do that now", why should we assume his plan has changed at all?

Here is my contention: Dwight Howard, Deron Williams, and Chris Paul are targets(the ones we know and/or can reasonably infer). Howard is the ideal fit for Dirk, someone who rebounds and defends and does a lot of the things Chandler did to help the team win a title, only better. Paul and Williams are elite playmakers, and the type of players that can play off Dirk in pick and roll situations, and would take over as go-to guys as Dirk winds his career down and eventually retires. They are all marquee names who would bring in major revenue for the organization. In short, they are franchise-changers. Until their futures are settled, pretty much any player the team elects to employ, short of someone else who is a franchise-changer, is probably going to be viewed as a stopgap, short-term solution. In other words, they're going to keep the powder dry.

So, if your offseason plan for Dallas involves trading for someone with a huge longterm contract? Might want to rethink that. If it involves signing a good but not franchise-changing player like Roy Hibbert or Eric Gordon, etc? Possible, but not likely. The longer the contract, the more obstacles created in the pursuit of a true star. This isn't an absolute, but think of it as a general guideline. Cuban and Donnie are terrific at finding creative ways of adding talent, as over a decade straight playoff appearances should attest, and they will continue to be aggressive, using a combination of their few tradable assets(Odom, Carter, Marion, Roddy), the amnesty clause, and cap space freed up from expiring contracts, to retool the roster. That being said, the approach will very likely be a two-pronged one that ensures as little guaranteed money as possible committed past next season(going to non-franchise players, anyway). The new CBA, the landscape of the NBA itself, and the fact that Dirk can't play forever I think have changed the way Cuban believes he must approach organizing his team. Not radically so, but somewhat.

That brings me to the final question here: is the big three blueprint really a good one?

Celtics total salary: $88,011,842

Big three salary: $46,543,334

Spurs total salary: $73,655,325

Big three salary: $46,781,038

Heat total salary: $80,290,662

Big three salary: $47,557,000

All three teams commit over $45 mil alone to their big three, and for all three that represents well over half their teams' respective total salaries. I believe, for the record, that all three are also over the luxury tax threshold for this season; something that the new CBA will severely penalize if continued. Although they aren't in the conference finals, the Lakers and Knicks have similarly constructed teams; highly-compensated trios that make up half the payroll.

Maybe the easy assumption is to say "get three superstars and it doesn't matter much who else is on the roster", which of course is a simplification. I'm not sure how easy it is to fill out a roster under this blueprint. Miami was extremely, maybe impossibly lucky to get a threesome that included the best player in the NBA and another who could be argue is the second or third best. Yet, they've had their share of struggles, as the supporting cast has been a pretty abysmal failure. That's a problem. When you have so much money committed to just three guys, you have little wiggle room with the rest, and if you miss on those key reserve signings(like Mike Miller), you're kind of stuck.

I'll say this, though, and I'm sure I'm not the first to say it: if Dallas tries for a big three, or even a big two, I hope they can take some lessons from the San Antonio Spurs. San Antonio continues to renew and revamp their stockpile of young talent, through the draft, and otherwise(signing Gary Neal, snatching Danny Green off the waiver wire) which provides them with cheap players to either supplement their stars, or trade for other assets. This will only be more useful as new luxury tax restrictions kick in next year.

As great a job as Cuban and Donnie Nelson do(and, lest this be construed as a complaint, I'm certainly extremely happy, and appreciative, to have them), I don't know if they'll be able to rely on crafty sign-and-trades, and leveraging talent-swaps by taking on extra salary, to quite the extent they have in the past.