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Free Agent Myth-Busting: Dwight and Asset Management


Two years ago, in the wake of their championship run and the lockout, the Mavericks' brass decided that the worst thing a team could be was mediocre, and that under the new CBA, cap space was the wave of the future.

Since that time, the deeply mediocre Rockets have added James Harden and are the logical choice for Dwight-which doesn't mean much, since logic and Dwight don't get along too well---and teams with negative forty billion cap space like the Nets, the Knicks, and yes, last year's Lakers, seem to get all the impact free agents.

So what gives? And what does it mean for the Mavericks' future?

Well. If the Mavericks have indeed made a tactical mistake then in both cases, and it's kind of hard right now to find evidence to the contrary, these both have to do with one thing, and one thing only-asset management.

Here's the thing. Of the many ways teams improve, cap space is only one. Although it was reasonable enough to think that new restrictions would make it a more powerful tool, and it is reasonable enough now to think of guys like Prokhorov as defying logic, the grave miscalculation on the fundamental usefulness of cap space has to do with a seldom appreciated fact about it: playing with cap space is shooting two-pointers while other teams shoot threes.

What do I mean? Very simply, all the ways to go well above the cap involve players you already own. You start by signing a guy to Bird Rights or to exceptions, or whatever. Say you get to a 70 million cap number.

Then, you stay above the cap because until you hit the salary cap apron, a ludicrously high number, you can always pull off trades or sign and trades, which, since they involve salary matching, enable you to keep a team that has 70 million dollars worth of talent. Meanwhile, teams with cap space are more or less confined to the cap number which, this year, is a 58 million. And trying to compete at 58 mil with a team at 70 mil isn't a fair contest.

Now, well you might say that big contracts to guys who don't deserve it trap a team, and there are many examples of this. But, since Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace and Andrea Bargnani have all been traded within the last year and a half, it's reasonable to wonder just how trapped is trapped.

Steeped in the Mavs' ultra-CPA culture, we all laughed at Deron Williams choosing Joe Johnson and a team which could never improve over Dirk and a team with flexibility. But then, the Nets turned Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries into Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and thanks to the exceptions that EVERYONE gets, are likely to add Kyle Korver, too.

Meanwhile, does anyone feel as confident as they felt two years ago that the Thunder, who traded James Harden for flexibility, will ever win a championship?

It's not Mark Cuban or Donnie Nelson's fault that cap space isn't turning out to be the silver bullet it was expected to be. It's not their fault that, through smart management, what most of us called "the treadmill of mediocrity", as in the case of Houston, turned out to be a heaping handful of assets tradeable for a whole bunch of draft picks, which turned out to be the best way to trade for a star player AND preserve cap space.

It's not really anyone's fault to have a good idea that doesn't turn out, so long as the mistake is realized and addressed. And it was a good idea. The Mavericks' strategy has gotten them close to two of the three or four biggest free agents of the last two years and that's not an accident. And it's very much because of their cap space, among other things.

The Dwight Howard quest is possible because the Mavericks have cap space. It's the last gasp, or should be the last gasp of "Plan Powder" which has delivered the Mavericks a couple of good chances, but left them more or less completely assetless, with no young talent, or even non-Dirk talent of any considerable skill level to either play or trade or build on. Shawn Marion is the only contract they have that might net anything and they have 1-3 players under the age of 30 who may ever turn into anything, and who certainly haven't yet.

Whichever way this one goes, afterwards, it's time for the Mavericks to change their minds. There's no shame in drawing the wrong conclusion, even if wasting Dirk's last effective years seems like a cardinal sin. The ring earned the Mavs' brass the right to gamble.

But there is now enough evidence to say it is not overall a good plan and another, one that takes seriously assets like draft picks, and talent, and expiring contracts, and desirable contracts of appreciable size, needs to take its place. Plan Powder has gotten them close, but it has also left them unable to acquire talent in anyway BUT free agency and free agency is a fickle, fickle beast.

Time for a little more balance.