Six months after winning the 2011 NBA Finals, the Dallas Mavericks let Tyson Chandler walk in free agency. It was an unusual decision, to say the least. They were the first team since the Chicago Bulls in 1999 to pass on a title defense. Losing an All-Star center and future Defensive Player of the Year for nothing would seem like a devastating blow, but the Mavs had a plan. They were creating future salary cap space because “flexibility” would be key in the new CBA.
Instead of trying to improve themselves after winning a title, Dallas started shedding players and giving away draft picks. Mark Cuban wanted financial flexibility for the summer of 2012, when Deron Williams, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul were all up for free agency. Two years later, he got Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis and Sam Dalembert instead. The best analogy for what happened comes from the game of hearts: Cuban tried to “shoot the moon” and missed.
In hearts, there are 14 cards worth points: the 13 hearts (2-A) and the Queen of Spades. If you finish with one of those cards in your hand, you receive a set number of points. At the end of the game, the player with the fewest points wins. However, you can also win by collecting the maximum number, called shooting the moon. If you finish with all 14 penalty cards in your hand, your point total gets reset to zero and everyone else receives a huge penalty.
When you’re trying to shoot the moon, you play the game backwards. While the other players are trying to ditch the penalty cards, you’re trying to acquire them. It’s a go for broke strategy: there’s no bonus for finishing even one penalty card short. Once you commit, you’re locked in for good. If you already have seven penalty cards, you might as well go for all 14. By that point, you’ve come too far to go back.
The same dynamic occurs when an NBA team tries to clear the cap space to sign multiple max-level free agents. All of a sudden, the rules of team-building are reversed. Instead of acquiring assets, the goal is to give them away. Players on long-term deals become expendable, contracts to shed in order to become more financially flexible. Clearing the decks isn’t easy, but it can be done if a team is willing to strip itself of almost all its players.
For the Mavs, that meant watching Chandler sign with the New York Knicks. They weren’t willing to compromise their cap space in 2012, even for the player who had been their missing piece. He was the defensive-minded center they had always looked for: an elite rim protector who could cover for Dirk Nowitzki’s defensive lapses. The year before Chandler came, the Mavs lost in the first round. The year after he left, they lost in the first round again.
That’s the great irony of their situation. In clearing the cap space to sign a max-level free agent, Dallas lost what made them appealing to those same free agents in the first place. They ended up replacing Chandler with Lamar Odom. A year after their title, they were swept out of the first round as the No. 7 seed. That summer, Deron Williams took one look and passed. There wasn’t enough talent on the roster besides Nowitzki.
Unfortunately, by the time they lost out on Williams, it was too late to go back. They rolled their cap space into the summer of 2013, when Paul and Howard would be available. That meant looking for undervalued assets in free agency and signing them to one-year contracts. However, more often than not, if you sign a bargain-bin free agent to fill a big role, you are inheriting another team’s problem. That’s what the Mavs got with Darren Collison, OJ Mayo and Chris Kaman.
And while first-round draft picks were becoming incredibly value under the new CBA, Dallas was giving them away to save cap room. In 2011, they traded the No. 26 pick (Jordan Hamilton) for Rudy Fernandez, who ended up signing in Spain. In 2012, they traded down to the No. 24 pick (Jared Cunningham) before dumping him a year later. This year, they traded down from No. 13 to No. 17 (a huge loss in expected value) to save a tiny amount of cap space.
Heading into the offseason, the Mavs had been in a two-year holding process. They couldn’t take on any long-term salaries in trades or free agency and they hadn’t added any talent in the draft. At that point, there wasn’t much they could even offer Howard or Paul. “Plan Powder” was cart before the horse thinking at its finest. They were coming off a 41-41 season and their best player was 34. Dallas wasn’t exactly the type of situation that great free agents flock too.
Losing out on Howard was the death blow to Cuban’s plan. There was no other star Dallas could hang their hats on; they had to commit to a rebuilding process. They signed three new starters -- Calderon, Ellis and Dalembert -- to multi-year deals. After reaching the cap limit, they signed Wayne Ellington, Brandan Wright and Devin Harris with various exceptions. Paradoxically enough, they had more options available in terms of building their roster once they went over the cap.
Right now, it’s hard to gauge exactly how good the Mavs will be next season. With so many new pieces set to play together, there will be a lengthy adjustment process. They’ll also be depending heavily on three players in their late 30’s -- Dirk, Vince Carter and Shawn Marion. At best, you have to put them behind six teams in the Western Conference. They will have more cap space in 2014, but they won’t be much more appealing than they were in the last two summers.
All in all, it’s not much of a pay-off for breaking up the only championship team in franchise history. While Dallas wasn’t likely to repeat with Jason Kidd and Jason Terry aging rapidly, they could have built a contender around Dirk, Chandler and Marion. Size is the great equalizer in the playoffs. That core isn’t any worse than the Indiana Pacers (Roy Hibbert, David West and Paul George) or the Memphis Grizzlies (Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley).
Being flexible is only as good as what you do with it, as the Mavs found out. The Atlanta Hawks have been widely praised for dumping Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, but they haven’t actually improved their team either. The Los Angeles Lakers will be lucky to sign one free agent of Howard’s caliber next year, much less two. Every once in awhile, taking one step backward can help you take two forward. Most of the time, though, you just keep on going backwards. Shooting the moon rarely pays off.