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Dallas is experiencing the limits of Relationship-ball

When success is measured in wins and losses, what value does relatability provide?

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

In overhauling their front office for the first time in a generation, the Dallas Mavericks and Mark Cuban pushed all of their chips into the middle of the table based on an idea: basketball is a sport built on relationships.

Out was long-time General Manager Donnie Nelson, and in was a first-timer inNico Harrison – not a basketball mind, but from the executive ranks of Nike. He wasn’t a guy who lived and breathed advanced stats or was looking to crack the code of basketball in the way someone like Daryl Morey was. Harrison was someone who had spent a lot of time adjacent to the league and had developed those valuable relationships with players Cuban was now prioritizing.

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It’s not a wild stance from a bird’s eye view. The NBA has the smallest roster sizes of any major sport. The select group of guys in that locker room matters, and one guy can have an outsized influence on how a team gels.

Add to that the fact the league has gotten considerably more buddy-buddy. Sure there’s still the odd beef between players like Patrick Beverly and Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul or Jose Alvarado and Chris Paul… but friendship among players, especially star players, has never been more visible, and it’s having an obvious effect on roster building.

The biggest and most obvious example of this was the Heatles. LeBron James, Dwane Wade, and Chris Bosh plotted their coup to link up during those hot Malibu summer nights and it changed everything. Since then we’ve had players like Karl Anthony-Towns successfully lobby to add D’Angelo Russell, Jimmy Butler helped coax Kyle Lowry out of Toronto, and the Slovenian connection between Luka Doncic and his basketball mentor Goran Dragic made his addition to the Mavericks a no-brainer, oh wait…

The biggest post-Heatles example of this buddy-based roster building is definitely Kevin Durant. After winning the world’s easiest rings as a hanger-on to the dynastic Warriors, he bailed for the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn, NY and he recruited his problematic bestie Kyrie Irving to come along. The union, once thought to be a sure-fire contender, has yet to bear fruit. Not only that, it’s in disarray.

Looking past all the Kyrie-based drama that’s eternally engulfed the team, it was also the odd choice to bring in first-time head coach and former two-time MVP Steve Nash to be the team’s leader. After two so-so sub-50 win seasons and failing to even advance to the Eastern Conference Finals under Nash, getting swept in the first round in his last full season as coach, Nash lasted only seven games into the 2022-23 season before the front office decided the matchup was the bad kind of odd.

It’s troubling, then, that the Mavericks’ governor Mark Cuban, saw the Nash hiring in Brooklyn and thought it was worthy of emulation.

The rub: a bridge to nowhere

In ushering in a new relationship-forward era of Mavericks’ basketball, Cuban brought in as a package deal General Manager Nico Harrison and head coach Jason Kidd. A marketer with no NBA team building experience and a head coach whose former team won a championship three seasons after replacing him. An interesting premise, for sure.

In a 2021 interview on The Victory Podcast, Cuban had this to say about Nash and how it informed the hiring of Kidd.

“I like what Steve Nash has done in Brooklyn and we kind of emulated that with this hire…

“Nash is just a relationship person. It used to be, and I used to feel strongly this way, that having an in-game X’s and O’s expert gave you the ultimate advantage. But now I think having a relationship with the person, right? Somebody who can connect with the players, because that’s what gets them to go a little bit harder...

“You want someone that is a relationship person.”

Toxic relationships: staying together for the Kidd

The credibility of what this front office views as a value-adding relationship is testing any benefit of the doubt a surprise Western Conference Finals run might have earned them. Free agency, the area where strong relationships are supposed to matter the most, has been a bust. Any front-office relationship that existed with Jalen Brunson didn’t prevent him from bailing for the Knicks at the first chance he got. It didn’t nab a rotation piece for a team-friendly deal for the chance to be on a contender. Instead, it got a former Kidd player from his Laker days, a 35-year-old JaVale McGee on a 3 year, $17 million contract with a third-year player option. Meanwhile, Lonnie Walker has been perhaps the lone bright spot on a shambling Lakers team and he’s doing it on a one year, $6.5 million contract.

Is there inherent value in having a former all-time great player as the head coach simply because he can relate to your star player? Does that help him draw up a competent out-of-bounds play? Does it keep your star’s body language from souring the moment a teammate botches a layup? Does it win games? In Brooklyn, the team worthy of emulation, the answer was no. Is there an expectation that things are different in Dallas? With Dallas struggling at full strength against teams without their own stars or key rotation players, dropping games to sub-.500 squads, and now facing injury concerns of their own with Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith, it’s increasingly hard to see why that would be the case.

When is Dallas going to turn the page on this lackluster output, and do they even have the means to do so?