Mavs turn on a dime, stay in game
Just when things looked bleak, champs brighten outlook with Odom, Carter moves
DALLAS -- This must either be the sign of the Apocalypse or the birth a new world order.
First, resident loudmouth owner Mark Cuban sticks to a self-imposed gag order and his Dallas Mavericks finally win the NBA championship with overwhelming teamwork and class that it captured the imagination of the nation.
Then when Cuban starts talking again late last week after the lifting of the league-imposed lockout gag order, it's to publicly agree with archnemesis David Stern in striking down the trade that would have sent superstar point guard Chris Paul from the poor-house New Orleans Hornets to the almighty Los Angeles Lakers.
(OK, so Cuban was probably less concerned with the small-market team losing its star the day after ratification of a new CBA designed to stamp out such moves, as he was motivated to stop cold the Lake Show, with Dwight Howard targeted next, from a title bonanza over yet another decade.)
And out of the ashes -- with the Hornets and Houston Rockets smoldering from the second collapse of the three-team deal, and the Lakers left to soothe betrayed forwards Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, their two outgoing pieces -- it was Cuban rising up and, in a matter of hours, closing a deal for the ultra-versatile Odom, Kobe Bryant's favored running mate and the one NBA player still married to a Kardashian.
Nabbing Odom only became possible because of the trade exception Dallas shrewdly finagled earlier Saturday in a sign-and-trade with the obliging New York Knicks, who then inked Dallas' beloved Tyson Chandler to a $58 million contract. And, of course, the stunning second death blow to a deal that could forever keep Paul from walking in Magic Johnson's shoes opened the Odom option.
"I mean really, to get Lamar Odom for a trade exception -- and I don't even know what that is," Dirk Nowitzki said, "we turned nothing into a great player."
Twenty-four hours earlier, Mavs fans were in a tizzy with the loss of Chandler, with J.J. Barea out of the picture and DeShawn Stevenson and Caron Butler moving on, too. Unconcerned about the financial grip of the new CBA -- and why should they be since Cuban never seemed to be with the old one -- fans quickly ruled out any chance of a repeat, a throwaway season coming soon.
Then, close to the stroke of midnight on a quiet Saturday, the NBA turned upside down. The Lakers surprisingly retreated from CP3 and Cuban, and Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson pounced.
"This was an opportunity that presented itself, and we thought it was a good idea to pursue it," Cuban said on Sunday morning. "In this league, the deals you think are going to close never do, and sometimes the best deals happen just because you are ready to say yes."
On Friday, the Mavs made a play for veteran swingman Vince Carter. He's no longer the electrifying high flyer of old, but he might find a dash of youth being reunited with former New Jersey teammate Jason Kidd, which, if nothing else, certainly makes for an intriguing pairing.
A team that some 48 hours or so ago looked like a weakened champion with key title pieces strewn across the league came to practice Sunday considerably more robust. Had the band been brought back for another go, who's to say that team, which had so much go so right, would stand a better chance of winning it all over this retooled one that's still built around the core of Nowitzki, Kidd, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion?
"We're a franchise that has proven that we can find ways to reinvent who we are. And this is another great example," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "Mark and Donnie, they make things happen. Time and time again, they make things happen. This time of year, I can't think of another owner or GM I'd want in the foxhole with me trying to put a team together. They're the best."
They again showed they are a step ahead. Cuban threw money at the old CBA because he could stand the pain. The new CBA changes the game, not only with harsher financial penalties for taxpayers -- in particular, chronic taxpayers -- but also with tighter restrictions on taxpaying teams that make trades and free-agent signings more difficult.
On the fly, Cuban has changed his M.O. The era of luxury-tax spending is dead. Cap space is the new currency. Odom's deal, $8.9 million this season with an $8.2 million team option next season, allows Cuban to continue the nosedive below the salary cap next summer for the first time in his ownership.
"It reinforces what Mark Cuban is saying about the value of cap space," Carlisle said. "In our case, a trade exception is, in effect, cap space. Going forward, we strengthen our team and we maintain our flexibility. And Mark has been pretty clear with you guys what our strategy is and we're going to stay true to it."
Carter's and Odom's favorable contract terms make them potential trade pieces in a big deal at the March deadline or next summer. And anyone paying attention knows the available coveted names that reside in Orlando, New Jersey and, for the moment at least, New Orleans.
At Friday's start of training camp, there was a palpable sense of resignation that the title team wasn't coming back. Nowitzki, entering his 14th season, would say he wished everyone could be back to a make another run but that he trusted the brain trust because he's seen them squeeze lemonade before.
And just like that, with fans hissed off and players uncertain, Cuban and Nelson changed the game. Dallas isn't without holes -- a backup point guard tops the list -- but any title talk again must involve the Mavs.
"We're a veteran team and we all know it's more about the business side, and Cuban knows more about the numbers and CBA than we all do," Nowitzki said. "He knows what he has to do to keep this franchise up top and keep this franchise competitive, so he made some nice moves and you've got to give him credit."
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.