I became a die hard Mavericks fan in 2002 at the height of the "Big Three" era featuring Nowitzki, Nash and Finley. Even after losing 4-1 to the Sacramento Kings in the conference semifinals that year, the team looked poised to do big things. And with Nowitzki as the centerpiece, the Mavs would go on a run of 12 straight playoff appearances, including two trips to the Finals. As a high school student, I would often show up to class sleep deprived after staying up late to watch Dallas win a shootout in Seattle or Oakland.
As the Nowitzki era in North Texas unfolded, the other Dallas team was mired in mediocrity. The Cowboys went to the playoffs once between 2000 and 2005 with a team led by Quincy Carter. It wasn't until 2006, with the Mavericks coming off their first Finals appearance that the Cowboys even found their franchise quarterback.
Both franchises experienced their share of tough playoff luck in the succeeding years--there was the Mavericks' collapse in the 2006 Finals, Romo coming up short of the goal line in Seattle the same year or the disappointment of the 2007 first round exit of a historically successful Mavs squad. But in 2011 as a veteran Mavs squad and the city of Dallas celebrated an NBA championship, the Cowboys were regrouping from their first losing season in years.
The two organizations have had similar success since but their records masked two remarkably different philosophies. Just as Jerry Jones -- famous for wheeling and dealing picks -- got religion about the draft, Mavs owner Mark Cuban apparently said "screw it." Just as important, Jones has passed on making big contract offers to veteran free agents while Cuban has made free agency the cornerstone of his team building efforts.
It was almost like through some supernormal event, Jones and Cuban had switched brains during a Freaky Friday at American Airlines Center. The NFL owner famous for overspending and making a big splash on Draft Day became more disciplined and -- barring the Mo Claiborne trade in 2012 -- has let the draft come to him. The NBA owner known for accumulating assets to flip in shrewd trades was obsessed with clearing space on the cap sheet to go after star free agents.
The results, four years later? A rebuilt "Great Wall of Dallas" has a 35-year-old Tony Romo talking about playing several more years for the Cowboys. And the decision of center DeAndre Jordan to renege on a verbal pledge to the Mavs has the team contemplating tanking and likely has Dirk Nowitzki one step closer to retirement. Nowitzki isn't a superstar at the power forward position anymore at age 37 but he probably could have played two more years in a reduced role for a good team. The only way that happens now is if Dirk is traded to a playoff team.
How did that happen? As another Moneyball contributor has noted, there are no shortcuts in building a team -- certainly not in the NFL but not in the NBA either.
A team like Dallas can recruit all the star free agents in the world but we saw over the past years that those players don't join a roster that's been cleared of other basketball talent. As a Mavericks fan, I convinced myself the team would get Dallas native Deron Williams (nope), disillusioned Laker Dwight Howard (nah) and disgruntled Clipper DeAndre Jordan (not quite). The only serious free agent to come to the team was second-tier star Chandler Parsons, who wanted to step out of James Harden's shadow.
Similar bets on free agency had ended in disaster for Jerry Jones but because of successful recruitments -- Jerruh gave big time contracts to the likes of Roy Williams, Marion Barber and Jay Ratliff. The kinds of guys that were productive on their second contract but not their third.
Jones needed his son Stephen to keep him from signing over the hill veterans with big names. And he needed Jason Garrett to convince him to build through the draft, where the Cowboys have found talents like Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and DeMarco Murray. Those picks turned into the kind of players whose production outproduced their contract.
Just like in the NFL, the only players who consistently outproduce their contracts in the NBA are those on first round rookie deals. But while Jones identified and promoted scouting guru Will McClay, Cuban has overridden his own talent evaluators in pursuit of the master plan -- that's how the team ended up trading back for Shane Larkin and extra cap space instead of taking the Greek Freak Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2013. In three other drafts since his team won the title, the Mavericks either moved back in the draft or traded their pick entirely.
He apparently hasn't had anyone in his front office with the smarts or the force of will to convince him not to bet the farm on the whims of a 26-year-old. In the NFL, teams like the Cowboys lose out on big contracts handed to declining players. For the Mavericks, the biggest loss was the opportunity cost of pursuing players who were never going to seriously consider the team in the first place.
The Mavs looked like they learned from being spurned by Dwight Howard and Andre Iguodala in 2013. They added Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis -- not franchise players but decent enough as complementary players next to Dirk Nowitzki. But two years later, Cuban had emptied out the roster again in pursuit of Jordan. All for naught. By the time Jordan had shown his word was worth nothing, the other quality free agents had been snapped up.
As much as the phone calls from Romo and Bryant helped in the initial recruitment of the Clippers big man, Cuban could have used a Stephen Jones in his front office a whole lot more over the last few years. Not a recruiter, but someone to caution him against risky free agent pursuits in the first place. If Cuban has learned anything from the past half decade, it should be that the draft might be a crapshoot but free agency is an even tougher lottery.
If Dirk is adjusting to retired life while Romo is still throwing touchdown passes in the playoffs, Cuban will have himself to blame.