Sometimes schemes are judged on their merits by the outcomes they produce. Other times good plans can remain so regardless of their results. Often, success or failure is determined by execution.
Therefore, how should we judge Dallas’s grand experiment to acquire a second superstar to pair with and eventually succeed Dirk Nowitzki?
To answer that question, we must first recall the radical change in philosophy that was adopted prior to setting the superstar-acquisition goal. For the better part of the Mark Cuban Era in Dallas, the Mavericks have rung up large salary bills while acquiring a consistently increasing level of talent.
To be fair, the team could occasionally be accused of overpaying said talent, as they were consistently among the league's top-spending teams. However their efforts bore the fruit of perennial playoff contention and were recently affirmed by a championship trophy. That makes wholly discounting their approach difficult. Furthermore, their philosophy was routinely validated by their uncanny ability to hit home runs in the trade market.
However, with the ratification of the new CBA, this approach was made unsustainable -- and a radical shift in philosophy took place. In place of overpaying slightly above average players (something the new CBA was supposed to correct), Dallas adopted a new plan based on fiscal responsibility and cap flexibility in pursuit of a superstar talent, namely some combination of Dwight Howard, Deron Williams or Chris Paul. The latter two ultimately opted in for one more season with their current teams and thus, the quest became solely focused on Deron Williams.
To make such an acquisition, Dallas needed to rid itself of its salary commitments and would be unable to meet market rates for the free agents from its championship team. Thus, Tyson Chandler, the consensus best center in team history and heart of 2011’s squad, was allowed to walk away after declining Dallas’ reported 1 year, $20 million offer. Similarly, JJ Barera, Caron Butler and Deshawn Stevenson also were allowed to make their exits.
There are two important points to make before moving forward. One: had those four been retained, and the championship roster returned largely intact, repeat results were far from guaranteed. In the words of Jan Hubbard, there is a difference between a championship team and a team that wins a championship. The Mavericks were the latter and, at best, the fifth most talented team in the 2011 playoffs. They happened to catch fire at the right moment, giving us one of the most magical, vindicating Cinderella runs in recent playoff history. Saying so does not detract from their accomplishments.
Two: the sole pursuit of fiscal responsibility and cap flexibility are not without their own merits. In a climate that would soon punish big spenders far more harshly than previous years, avoiding the pitfalls of overspending is and will be key to future flexibility of the franchise. Thus, we arrive at the dual meaning of Donnie Nelson’s “financial flexibility is key” credo: avoidance of penalties and the means of superstar acquisition.
With these ideas in mind, Dallas moved away from its old model of roster-building towards the twin goals of financial flexibility for superstars in the long term and remaining competitive in the short term. As mentioned, Chandler, Butler, Barera and Stevenson were allowed to walk away. Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer were dumped. As recently as this week, Jason Terry was allowed to walk away. All of these moves were made with a single goal in mind.
The decisions have been framed as a gamble throughout much of the Internet by columnists and bloggers, and rightly so. It is a sizeable risk to surrender such productive pieces in the pursuit of a greater future when there is no guarantee of ever achieving that goal. In the superstar-driven NBA, and especially in the SuperTeam era, such can even be deemed a wise and necessary gamble for the franchise to take the next step and remain competitive in coming years.
Even the wisest of gambles do not necessarily constitute sound strategy. My problems with Dallas’ adopted strategy are twofold: poor asset management, and the inherent dangers of free agency.
Indeed, as mentioned, Dallas surrendered a bevy of assets in pursuit of a chance that a superstar (or two) would decide to come here. In so doing, valuable assets have been lost to a franchise that historically, has been so adept at managing them. Say what you will about the contracts the outgoing players received and whether or not you believe their production worthy of such.
Historically, Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban showed substantial resourcefulness and cleverness in acquiring talent through trades. Often, this meant taking on bad contracts, and this method would be far less appealing under the terms of the new CBA. However, the front office losing its fastball does not mean it lacked pitches in the arsenal. The Mavericks were chasing roster flexibility, but Dallas’ roster already was unusually flexible by virtue of who was running the show. However, by letting so many assets go, the roster is now woefully short of talent and nearly devoid of tradable assets.
However, all of these assets had to be relinquished in order to jump into the free agency process in a meaningful way. The downside of this plan is it doubled down in an arena where Dallas has so rarely been successful. Part of their lack of success is due to a lack of opportunity; as mentioned, the Mavericks' spending habits precluded them from participation. However, even when presented with their best opportunity in years, there seemed to be problems with their approach to Deron Williams. Perhaps Mark Cuban’s absence at the pitch meeting did not affect the outcome, but it did surrender a chance Dallas had to demonstrate a key advantage: involved ownership.
Mikhail Prokhorov and Cuban, functionally, are the same NBA owner in terms of war chests. Yes Prokhorov’s wealth is greater, but one can only spend so much money in the NBA. Dallas’s strategic advantage was squandered when Cuban opted to remain in LA to film “Shark Tank”/be closer to Deron's agent, Jeff Schwartz (who was reportedly in New York).
It doesn’t matter what the truth of the situation was; it’s perception that’s key, especially in sales. The perception that emerged in the last few days, at least publically, was of a distant Cuban and Nowitzki (in England for Wimbledon).
Further, Brooklyn was busy making a string of acquisitions to impress Deron. Yes, the Nets have painted themselves into a corner with the acquisitions of Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Mirza Teletovic, and Reggie Evans. Furthermore, there was the sexy breaking of fake-news that the Nets were still involved in Dwight Howard talks. Meanwhile, Dallas had to strip down just to have a seat at the table.
It’s hard to sell NBA players, who often lack knowledge of the nuts-and-bolts of salary implications and roster building, on the merits of cap space and flexibility. When comparing Dallas’ threadbare roster to the perception of a rapidly improving Nets squad, coupled with an already-better offer on the table from Brooklyn, the advantage shifted even further in New Jersey’s direction. Furthermore, with the squandering of one of Dallas’ key advantages, it’s easy to see how Deron arrived at his decision.
So was Dallas’ approach the wrong one? Was their plan wrong all along? It’s hard to say. Financial flexibility is no less important today than it was on December 25th when last season began. However, cap space cannot score 20 points a night and lock down the paint. Roster flexibility cannot help ease Dirk’s burden and take over for him when he retires. Dallas is not crippled, stuck with bad contracts owed to a declining roster. However, currently, they seem quite impotent -- with only cap space as their biggest means of talent acquisition. The powder is still dry, but there are now fewer bullets to fire.
The merits of the plan do not depend on Deron’s decision. Dallas began this process chasing the Nets' built-in advantage to offer more money and an extra year to Williams. They placed themselves in a position to make the pitch. If there are criticisms to be made, then the execution of the plan is the target. But it’s unknown how many, if any, mistakes Dallas made in this process, since we will never know how close Deron came to signing with Dallas.
The promise of Dallas’ adopted plan lies in its continued potential. Just because Deron didn’t make it here doesn’t mean Dwight Howard won’t next season, nor Chris Paul. Such potential offers little solace right now, but in a day, or a week, when Dallas is still at the table with top free agents, armed with the lessons learned from the failure to acquire Deron, perhaps the outcome will be different. Until then, expect more financially flexible moves like what was seen last season. Judge slowly and take comfort in the knowledge that his failure is not fatal, and the promise of the plan remains intact.
Chuck Perry blogs for WFAA Sports and Dallasbasketball.com. You can talk hoops free agency strategy with him on Twitter at @thechuckperry.