Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Is One Enough for Cuban?


I’ve never seen Mark Cuban happier or prouder than when he was standing behind Barack Obama at the White House earlier this month. Cuban’s title team was there, accepting accolades from the President. I was happy for Cuban. No professional sports owner has had to endure so much pain en route to a championship. He deserved to bask in that glorious moment.

Yet, as I was watching the President butcher Dirk’s name, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Mavs would ever get to go to D.C. again--outside of a scheduled game against the Wizards?

Something else I can’t answer: is Mark Cuban satisfied with just one title? Or, is he as hungry today to win another one as he was in quest of the first one? Human nature would say that he is not. However, there are those rare, ultra-competitive animals in the world of sports who are able to operate outside of normal human nature. Jordan and Kobe. Nicklaus and Woods. Brady and Montana. Merckx and Armstrong (had to work some cycling names in--sue me). They crave wins. They crave championships. They are never satisfied. They are always looking for a new edge. They don’t want to just break records, they want to put those records out of reach.

Does Mark Cuban feel that way? Does Dirk? Here’s cutting them some slack if they don’t. It was long, arduous climb for both to the top of the mountain. So what if they don’t want to summit Everest again? Isn’t once enough?

For most Mavs fans, I would say the answer is yes--once in enough. Dirk cemented his legacy with his championship. Cuban confirmed his methods. Mavs fans will die happy, especially getting a title in a year when most never thought it possible. There are few things more satisfying that that. But Jordan’s tummy wouldn’t be full--not even close. Is Cuban’s?

What makes me question Cuban’s desire at this point is the Tyson Chandler situation. I’m not saying bring back last year’s team. You can move on without Barea, Butler, Peja, Brewer and Stevenson. But short of getting Dwight Howard to move to Dallas, you can not move on with the same ambition without Chandler.

Chemistry matters in the NBA. The 2004 Lakers proved that by losing to a Pistons team that they should have blow out of the water. Even last year's Miami team showed that shear talent can't beat great chemistry. And nobody brought the chemistry of the Mavs together like Chandler. By all accounts, he was the most important chemistry add (on and off the court) in Dallas history.

This is not to say Chandler is Howard or Shaq or Kareem. But the Mavericks searched for 30 years to find a center that could play defense with a passion and an infectious spark. Chandler became the first Maverick center ever named to the NBA’s All-Defense team (and finished 3rd overall in the Defensive Player of the Year voting--something no Mavericks player at any position has ever sniffed). Dirk called Chandler the team’s MVP (obviously Dirk was the MVP, but point taken). Observers around the league agreed that without Chandler, Dallas would have had a hard time winning the title.

The annual NBA GM’s poll was released this week. Their pick to win the West? OKC got 69% of the vote, followed by the Lakers (17%), Portland (7%) and San Antonio (7%). Dallas got no votes? Does that perhaps indicate the value of Chandler? I’ve never seen a defending champion dismissed by the experts quite like this, outside of the Bulls post-Jordan.

Chandler almost single-handedly changed the defensive culture in Dallas. For years the Mavs had good teams, but could never win a title because they couldn’t play front-line defense. Every year we would hear about “the layup drill” it was for the opponents attacking the Dallas basket. Over those years, Cuban overpaid a host of underwhelming centers (Bradley, LaFrentz, Eschmeyer, Dampier, Diop, Haywood). So why not overpay the center that finally locks down the middle and helps you win a title? It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Is Chandler still a health risk? Yes. Was it a lot of money for a so-called role player? Yes, but to call Chandler a "role player" is to greatly demean the role that he played in Dallas. Would it have made the Mavs a strong title contender this season? Yes. Are they as good without him? Clearly not.

Maybe Cuban believes that last year was a lightning-in-a-bottle season. Maybe he thinks they got lucky and he doesn’t want to press that luck. The West was down, the Heat hadn’t figured out how to win yet, and a magical chemistry overcame the Mavs for a few months. Serendipity, as Jerry would say. And, maybe he’d be right about all of that.

Maybe Cuban believes that he’ll land Howard and Williams--that those two are dead-set on coming to Dallas to play with an aging Dirk and a young...well, a young...Roddy B? Maybe he’ll pull it off. I would never say never when Cuban is involved.

If saying goodbye to Chandler means saying hello to Howard and Williams, then it was obviously worth parting with Chandler. Anything short of that, however, will leave us all wondering if the Mavs could have squeezed another title out of the Dirk era. Perhaps that doesn’t matter to a lot of folks around these parts. I wish I knew if, deep down, it mattered to Cuban--or if that one trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was enough.