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The Dallas Mavericks, Truly Deserving…

And there it is… after 11 years of Mark Cuban being basketball’s (sports?) most iconic, outspoken, bad boy owner, his franchise has finally come away with the prize.  And good,

Mark Cuban

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

he deserves to win.  Has any owner – other than the eponymous James Dolan – spent more money on his franchise over the last decade?  No, probably not, and unlike Dolan, Cuban has done some very heavy lifting when it comes to advancing the NBA generally and his franchise’s status in north Texas specifically.  While Dolan has continually embarrassed basketball, bringing scandal and incompetence to one of the league’s premier franchises, Cuban’s greatest (only?) crime is caring about his team so much that he bitches and moans from the sidelines, in the press room, and on his blog (well, until recently that is…) – well… that and he’s got a thing for overpaying plodding centers (maybe he’s just been trying to find the “next” Shawn Bradley?).  Meanwhile, he built one of the NBA’s premier arenas, has been beloved by his players and has presided over a team that has won 50 or more games every season in which he’s been the owner.

That’s what Cuban has been responsible for: establishing the Mavs as a premier franchise, one of the NBA’s elite teams, who we expect to be in the playoffs every year.  It’s hard to remember now, but the Mavs used to be like the TWolves, or (gulp) the Clippers, a team you just expected to be bad.  In the ten years before Cuban bought them, they won 40 games exactly once (his purchase season).  They lost a lot.  In 1992/93 they lost 71 games.  The following year they lost 69 times.  It was that offseason that they drafted a young point guard out of Cal.  Kid by the name of Jason… Kidd.  But despite Kidd, the Mavs continued to lose and eventually they traded him.  They were known as losers, a laughing stock as a franchise, and a team nobody expected to amount to much.

Cuban changed all of that.  No, not single handedly, but if we’ve learned anything from James Dolan, Donald Sterling and Bob Johnson/Michael Jordan, it’s that organizational incompetence resonates from the top.  It is no different with organizational strength.  Cuban has been on the cutting edge of basketball’s stat movement, he’s invested in the very best facilities, and he’s spent to get the very best players.  Cuban’s club has won 620 games over his full 11 seasons in charge, more than any other team in hoops except the Spurs, and that success starts at the top.  Mark has brought the Mavs to the mountaintop and this year, they managed to scale the peak.  No owner deserved this title more than Cuban.

Speaking of deserving, you have to be happy for Rick Carlisle.  I’ve long thought that he got a raw deal in Detroit.  His first year in charge of the Pistons, he won 50 games and led them to the second round.  The following year, he again won 50 games and this time he went to the Eastern Conference Finals, but then in a Riley decapitating Van Gundy kind of move, Joe Dumars canned Carlisle for the suddenly available Larry Brown.  Brown’s a legend, and he did lead the Pistons to a title, but it always seemed like Rick got a raw deal.

His star was bright however and Larry Bird believed in him, so he was quickly hired to lead the Pacers, where he again drew the short stick.  He took over a young talented team and in his first season in charge they won 61 games.  They lost in ECF to his former team, still the following year were seen as favorites.  But on November 19, 2004 his Pacers defeated the defending champion Pistons in the Palace of Auburn Hills.  The same Pistons team that he had coached only two years before.  The same Pistons team that had somewhat unreasonably tossed him aside.  The same Pistons team that had defeated his Pacers in the playoffs the previous Spring.

Carlisle’s Pacers won handily.  The budding rivalry between the two teams got chesty, a skirmish broke out… and a fan tossed a beer on the combustible Ron Artest.  And that was it.  That was the end of Carlisle’s championship aspirations in Indiana.  He dragged that suspension laden team to 44 wins, which might have been his most impressive coaching feat ever, but the baggage of the Malice in the Palace was too much for the franchise to overcome.  Carlisle lasted two more years, but eventually a parting became in the best interests of both parties.

Carlisle’s star somehow, some way, was diminished.  When Cuban hired him, it was reported as an underwhelming, uninspired choice, which is bizarre given how professional sports franchises give second, third, and even fourth chances to coaches with far worse records than Carlisle’s.  It was not – however – an uninspired choice.  Once again, Cuban was ahead of the curve and Rick Carlisle was just the man to lead a Mavericks team centered around one superstar and eight role players.  The Mavs victory is going to be presented as a return to old fashioned team first basketball.  It’s the lazy narrative: “The Mavs are the good old fashioned team who bested the evil superstar laden Heat.”  It’s a lazy narrative and it’s also a narrative that diminishes what the Mavs actually accomplished.  The Mavs aren’t a return to anything, they are unique in the annals of NBA history.  A team that won with only one great player: Dirk Nowitzki.

The closest comparison might be that Pistons team that haunted Carlisle.  They won without any superstars, but they also had five players who likely start on this Mavs team.  Their starting five was perhaps the deepest in recent NBA history and what they lacked in upper echelon talent, they made up for in the next tier.  That’s not the case with these Mavs.  What they accomplished is all the more impressive.  Picked by many pundits as the most likely first round upset, the toppled Portland, swept the two-time defending champs, demoralized the young upstarts from OKC, before exacting their revenge form 2006 by extinguishing the Heat.  They did it by riding a player unfairly maligned in recent seasons, a player no longer considered among the elite, who clearly was this year’s best player.  They did it with hard nosed team defense.  And they did it by moving around the court, swinging the ball and knocking down open shots.  They were a true team and they deserve to be celebrated as such, but don’t try to harken back to something noble in past, because these Mavs were more interesting, more unique than that.

From top to bottom, these Mavs were truly deserving of the crown.

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