Mark Cuban has been waiting 19 months for this meeting.
This was the opportunity Cuban had in mind when he made the controversial decision to value creating salary-cap space over keeping an aging one-time title team together. There were two Plan A’s in his post-lockout grand scheme: Dwight Howard and Chris Paul.
Cuban declined the chance to participate in the face-to-face recruiting for fallback plan Deron Williams last summer, infamously choosing to film Shark Tank episodes instead and perhaps intentionally sabotaging the process because he had his heart set on a Plan A superstar. Cuban and the Mavs’ contingent never got the chance to sit down with CP3, who committed to the Clippers after the arrival of Doc Rivers in L.A. They’ll finally have Howard’s full attention during the Mavs’ presentation today in L.A.
In a way, Cuban has been waiting 13 years for this opportunity. He prides himself on being one heck of a salesman, and here’s his biggest chance to prove it as an NBA owner, the first time he’ll sit down with a superstar free agent and have the financial freedom (with a little tweaking still to do) to offer a max contract.
A pretty good pitch won’t work. The Houston Rockets, in particular, have too much to offer.
Cuban and the Mavs’ contingent, which will include graying superstar Dirk Nowitzki, coach Rick Carlisle, president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson and perhaps others, must blow Howard away. They’ve got to get him to believe in a two-year plan and big dreams about the possibilities after that point.
The Mavs must convince Howard that their franchise is uniquely qualified to foster long-term happiness for him. That’s the challenge, and it’ll come down to selling him on the three C’s: culture, coaching and comfort.
A look at how the Mavs can hammer home each point:
Culture: Howard knows the numbers by now: 12 consecutive playoff berths, 11 straight 50-win seasons, two Finals appearances and one glorious championship run. He'll surely be reminded of those figures. That remarkable run of recent history gives the Mavs front office credibility that they can build and sustain a contender around a superstar.
They know how to win in Dallas. It’s the ultimate intangible.
But they can’t rely on history with Howard. They have to make him believe it can happen again with him as the centerpiece.
Nowitzki’s brilliance was the biggest factor in the best era in franchise history, but the Mavs can’t fool Howard into thinking that a 35-year-old will continue to play at a Hall of Fame level for several more years. But Dirk’s all-I-wanna-do-is-win attitude is a huge part of this pitch – and not just because he’s the anti-Kobe as a teammate.
Nowitzki’s willingness to re-sign with the Mavs for a drastically reduced salary next summer makes building a contender around Howard possible. It puts the other constant from that long run of success – a smart, hypercompetitive management team – in position to be aggressive.
A championship culture comes down to consistently and creatively finding ways to field a contender. The fact that the Mavs’ Finals teams had only two common players demonstrates that the front office’s ability to adjust.
The fact that the Rockets have only one playoff series win in 16 seasons indicates that Houston has a problem in this department. Clutch City was a long time ago, you know?
However, a history lesson in how the Mavs pulled off the Jason Kidd trade isn’t going to cut it with Howard. Cuban and Nelson have to paint a picture for Howard on how their opportunism can work with him as the franchise centerpiece. They have to sell him on several different potential scenarios to acquire talent to complement him.
Can the Mavs convince him the potential here is more enticing than the Rockets’ ready-made roster? Can they use the ultimate intangible to get Howard’s imagination racing?
Coaching: This is by far the Mavs’ biggest basketball advantage.
The Mavs can’t claim they have a better roster than the Rockets right now. That’d be a laughable lie. That’s why Cuban is pumping up the two-year plan.
But only one team in the Howard hunt has a proven championship coach. Rick Carlisle needs to be a superstar in this meeting.
Howard’s nightmare last season with the Lakers plays to the Mavs’ strength here. He’s weary after Mike D’Antoni refused to make any schematic adjustments to feature him, stubbornly continuing to pound a round peg into a square hole.
Carlisle, widely recognized as one of the most creative coaching minds in the league, will show Howard exactly how the Mavs intend to make him an offensive focal point. He’ll diagram exactly how Dallas can use the unique threat of the best shooting 7-footer in NBA history to get Howard high-quality touches in prime scoring territory.
This is about much more than getting Howard the ball in position to score, though. It’s about putting Howard in position to win championships.
As far as mismatches go, this might not be quite as drastic as when Hall of Famer Kevin McHale and benchwarmer Carlisle practiced against each other as Celtics teammates, but it’s close.
OK, Houston’s McHale is a better coach than Carlisle was a player. But when it comes to playoff series wins, the scoreboard reads Carlisle 11, McHale 0.
Carlisle’s job security should also be appealing to Howard, who is sensitive to enhancing his reputation as a coach killer. Carlisle is a year into a long-term extension and a major part of the Mavs’ decision-making. His fingerprints, for example, are all over selecting Shane Larkin with the 18th overall pick.
McHale doesn’t have that kind of input in Houston. And he certainly doesn’t have that kind of security, as he enters the final guaranteed season of his contract. If Howard goes to Houston and the Rockets don’t contend right away, then what happens?
There aren’t those kinds of uncertainties with Carlisle, the only proven championship coach whose team has entered the Dwight sweepstakes.
Comfort: The buzz coming from Howard’s camp recently is that his decision would be all about basketball. Just remember Howard’s postseason comments about having the right to be happy.
Howard wants to be loved. Cuban can’t wait to shower him with love.
There will be parts of the Mavs’ pitch that play to Howard’s goofy, fun-loving personality. Cuban will crank his charm up to 11, extolling all the things the Mavs to do make their players’ lives as easy as possible, from being the first NBA team to have catered meals in the locker room to having a sports psychologist on staff.
The Mavs are the only franchise that can make Howard "The Man" and ease the pressure that typically comes with that job description.
Nowitzki is more than willing to serve as Howard’s sidekick while still carrying out the dirty-work tasks of being the face of the franchise. For example, when someone has to serve as the locker room spokesman after a tough loss, Nowitzki will step up.
Cuban will also make sure the heat never gets too hot on Howard. The billionaire has been known to manipulate the media by creating firestorms at convenient times. He did it when Josh Howard made a fool of himself; he’ll definitely do it if times get tough for Dwight Howard.
The Mavs also have a marketing plan in place for Howard, whose Q rating has taken a huge hit over the last year and a half, starting with The Indecision in Orlando and continuing in the harsh spotlight what many consider the most disappointing season in Lakers history.
If Howard wants a TV show – reportedly part of the pitches from the Rockets and Lakers – Cuban owns a whole channel.
Howard wants to be loved. Cuban has a plan to help that happen with a winner.
After 19 long months, he finally gets to let Howard hear it.