Mark Cuban talks trash better than any suit in the league. Most of the time it's harmless, though sometimes he crosses the line and on occasion he wades into deeper waters than he can deftly navigate, but when it comes to riling up opponents, Cuban is the Kevin Garnett of NBA owners, and Daryl Morey should probably take a page from another Texas team's playbook and let Cuban be Cuban.
But Morey seems less inclined than Gregg Popovich to take these insults in stride, and as Tim Cato detailed yesterday, he recently let loose his own barrage to Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski:
Our teams have had great chemistry, and it's something we believe in. Hey, if Mark believed so much in chemistry, he wouldn't have busted up a title team for cap room. He's trying to reunite a lot of those people now, bringing back the center [Tyson Chandler] from that title team. Maybe he's got some chemistry religion recently. He's tripled his analytics staff. If he's equating analytics with not caring about chemistry, well, he's tripling down on it.
It's pretty clear from Cuban's recent comments that he's embracing both analytics and the vaguer notion of "chemistry," but Morey's comments boil down to a much less vague point: he thinks the Rockets are a better team.
But let's be clear: If the money's equal between the Rockets and Mavericks, I think players are picking Houston. Every time. For Dwight [Howard], I just don't think it was a hard choice between us and Dallas. If you want to win, you're going to want to join our organization.
To a point, Morey is correct. If Dwight Howard's goal was to maximize the number of regular season games won in the 2013-2014 season, then he made the right choice between Dallas and Houston. But when evaluating GMs and owners, thinking about the longer-term picture is both more important and more difficult. So, which team has more cause for optimism? Is Cuban or Morey building the stronger organization?
Morey's arguments rest heavily on chemistry, which he equates with roster stability, pushing back against the idea that Houston is any different than the other Texas teams in this respect:
From the fact that Cuban contends Houston shuffles players in and out without regard to loyalty, that the Rockets are forever angling to recruit good players in pursuit of someone better, Morey wondered this: How did it differ from Dallas' model.
"We have a core of two players - Dwight Howard and James Harden - who we are going to build around and never trade. San Antonio has had three core guys who they've done an unbelievable job of building around, making a lot of changes around that core. We had Tracy McGrady and Yao [Ming] and we made changes around them. And Mark's had a core of one [Nowitzki], who was there since before he bought the team."
It's true that outside of Dirk and Rick Carlisle, Dallas has seen a lot of change. Much like the Rockets, who've had 51 players since 2011, the Mavericks have seen entire rosters of players come and go since their championship, with 49 different players making an appearance on the roster over the last four seasons. To put those numbers in context, the Spurs have had 31 and the Hornets have had 39, so at first pass it doesn't seem that roster churn on its own has strong implications for team performance. But in terms of team turnover, Morey is correct that the Mavericks and the Rockets look pretty similar.
The similarities Morey points out are only surface deep, though. In the midst of all his player shuffling, Morey has yet to demonstrate that he's capable of convincing a star in his prime to stay. Though Cuban took a lot of heat for busting up a title team, he's shown (with Dirk and with Jason Kidd and even Jason Terry) that he's capable of fostering long-term relationships with superstars and key role players. Howard and Harden have only been in Houston for a combined three seasons, during which Morey has traded away high-profile acquisitions like Jeremy Lin and Ömer Aşik after very brief stints in Houston, getting very little in return and sometimes giving the impression that he thinks of players less as human beings and more as names on his fantasy team.
In drawing a somewhat misleading contrast between analytics and chemistry, Morey and Cuban are arguing that there's more to building a great franchise than can be captured in the box score. They're both right. Identifying talent and convincing players to come to your team are both important, but it's just as important to convince them to stay (often for less than they're worth) and to persuade them to do things that aren't captured in individual stats, things like playing team defense, a task at which Morey's organization has had some notable failures. There was plenty to dislike about Dallas's defense last season, but it's unforgivable that a team anchored by Howard and Aşik in the paint would barely crack the top half of the league's defensive efficiency ratings. James Harden's regression on that end of the court is well-documented, and at least one defensive specialist thinks the organization bears some of the blame for that:
See, I don't cringe, because I remember him in OKC. In fairness to James, yes, [his defense] has been terrible, but what are the principles in Houston? I'm very disappointed in their team concept. That's what I don't see. So, if there are no rules and regulations, how do you hold anyone accountable?
This is ultimately why I think Dallas has a brighter future as a franchise than Houston does. Morey is one of the greatest analytic minds in basketball today, but he hasn't yet shown that he's capable of laying the bedrock necessary for the long-term health of the franchise. All franchises have ups and downs - just ask Mark Cuban - but Cuban has demonstrated he can keep a franchise player for the long haul at a discount and that he's capable of building the sort of organization that gets more than expected out its players rather than less. Just ask the Spurs.