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Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Updated: January 27, 2:17 AM ET
Mark Cuban was smart in free agency

By Tim MacMahon
ESPNDallas.com

DALLAS -- Mark Cuban insists that no grand conclusions can be reached based on this condensed version of an NBA regular season.

"There's nothing you can take from anything that happens this season," Cuban said. "Absolutely nothing. Nothing."

That's wrong. We've already seen enough from the Dallas Mavericks to know that Cuban went the right direction with the defending NBA champions once the lockout was lifted.

It definitely wasn't a popular decision to basically push Tyson Chandler and others into leaving via free agency. It was just a smart one.

Tyson Chandler
It would have only been a matter of time before things got ugly in Dallas if Mark Cuban had paid Tyson Chandler big money to stay.
There will be a warm, fuzzy feeling in the American Airlines Center for Wednesday night's ring ceremony, when former Mavs fan favorite J.J. Barea will be back in town with the Minnesota Timberwolves. But Cuban was wise to separate sentiment from reality when making difficult decisions about his franchise's immediate and long-term future.

Nobody would have blamed Cuban for keeping a championship team intact to attempt another title run. In fact, he would have been applauded for making the major financial commitment it would have taken to keep the team intact.

Well, Cuban would have been applauded initially, at least. Hindsight would have been hell when the Mavs deteriorated into the Western Conference version of the Detroit Pistons, a longtime contender that has plummeted into irrelevancy the last few years.

Make no mistake, it would have only been a matter of time before things got ugly in Dallas if Cuban paid what it would have taken to keep Chandler from accepting the New York Knicks' four-year, $58 million deal. The aging Mavs couldn't afford to pay a complementary player -- even a great complementary player -- superstar money.

Once that decision was done, it made no sense to make multi-year commitments to anyone else. Save as many pennies as possible to make a run for a superstar (or two) this summer.

Look at the core of the title team. Not counting Chandler, the best players are now 38, 34, 33 and 33 years old.

It's amazing that the Mavs won a title with Dirk Nowitzki as the lone star last season. It would have been delusional to believe that the same core could have formed a dynasty as Dirk nears his golden years.

We won't just ignore 10 All-Star seasons and the fact that the man was the NBA Finals MVP just seven months ago because Nowitzki played mostly mediocre basketball for the first quarter of this season. The big German has earned the benefit of the doubt in Dallas, so let's assume he'll be back in All-Star form pretty soon after his personal training camp ends and he rejoins the Mavs on the court.

But the decline comes for everyone, especially guys who have logged more than 40,000 minutes. It won't be too long before Dirk isn't capable of being the best player on a legit contender.

What if he's the second-best player? That might have a nice ring to it for the Mavs, so to speak.

How about the third-best player behind an elite point guard and dominant big man both in their primes? That parade route in downtown Dallas could become a well-worn path.

Those scenarios are certainly possible because Cuban was so stingy after studying the new CBA. At this point, the odds of the Mavs landing either Deron Williams or Dwight Howard this summer seem pretty good, especially if neither change addresses before the trade deadline.

(Magic GM Otis Smith's dismissive talk about Howard having to take a "$30 million haircut" to leave Orlando sounds tough. It also ignores the virtual certainty that Howard, who would have to take a four-year deal with smaller raises to leave Orlando instead of signing a five-year contract to stay, will get another max contract at the ripe old age of 30.)

The odds of the two biggest fish in this free-agency pond joining forces in Dallas -- well, it's more than just a pipe dream.

"You guys make it seem like we're just going after two guys," Cuban said. "That may not be the best decision. The whole idea is to win championships, not to win the summer."

Whatever. Those two guys are at least Plan A, B and C, although the Mavs will put plenty of thought into other alternatives in case they swing and miss.

Oh, and about winning championships. A popular opinion is that the Mavs pretty much passed on an opportunity to defend their title, opting to wait a season to renovate the roster around Dirk.

That opinion seems to have picked up steam during Dallas' 11-7 start, which includes only a couple of victories over teams with winning records.

Never mind that the Mavs haven't missed Chandler much, if at all. The big man deserves credit for changing the defensive culture in Dallas -- an even bigger challenge for him with the Knicks -- but the Mavs are even better on that end of the floor this season.

Sure, scoring is down around the league because of the post-lockout grind, so feel free to shrug off the fact that the Mavs haven't allowed a foe to score 100 points for a franchise-record 15 games. But that doesn't discount the Mavs' ranking as the NBA's third-stingiest defensive team.

Scoring points has been the Mavs' struggle, something that has rarely been said during the Dirk era. The hope is that Nowitzki will get healthy and in a groove and the Mavs can manage the minutes on all those old legs and peak in the playoffs again.

Maybe that happens. Maybe the Mavs revert to one-and-done form. Maybe the result will be somewhere in the middle.

No matter what happens in the next five months, the Mavs' championship window should be open for years to come.

Nothing wrong with that.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.