HOUSTON – Mum was the word for Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban after he lived through one of his worst NBA nightmares.
Cuban congratulated several Houston Rockets on the court after the Mavs’ season-ending 103-94 loss, then quickly left the Toyota Center on Tuesday night.
You can imagine how satisfying this series must have been for Houston general manager Daryl Morey, who has been Cuban’s favorite target for verbal jousting over the last two years. Their little beef began when the Rockets beat out the Mavs and other suitors in a recruiting battle for Dwight Howard, a dominant force during the first playoff meeting between the I-45 rivals in a decade.
The Rockets could have wallpapered the arena with the bulletin-board fodder Cuban provided over the past couple of years. However, the brash billionaire had nothing to say after Houston, which he called “not a very good team” in a Grantland interview a few weeks ago, dismissed an injury-depleted and chemistry-challenged Dallas squad in five games.
The four seasons since the Mavs’ remarkable championship run in 2011 have produced a grand total of four postseason victories, and the team has failed to get past the first round of the playoffs. Cuban made the bold decision to break up a title team that was stocked with aging veterans, determined to sign a legitimate star to pair with Dirk Nowitzki during his golden years and avoid what Cuban calls the mediocrity treadmill.
Maybe mediocre is a bit too harsh, but the Mavs have certainly been unable to make major strides forward despite Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson trying like hell.
Now, for the fourth straight offseason, the Mavs are likely to undergo major roster remodeling.
“We’ll see what happens this summer,” Nowitzki said. “I know we’ve got a bunch of free agents again. We’ll just see what happens. Mark and Donnie, as always, are going to look to make this franchise better.”
The Mavs are still searching for that star to team with Nowitzki and take the torch from the 36-year-old face of the franchise who might only have a couple of seasons left in his Hall of Fame career. The closest the Mavs have come has been landing a couple of consolation prizes who enter the offseason with major questions about their future.
One of the most difficult decisions for Cuban and Nelson this summer will be whether to re-sign shooting guard Monta Ellis.
Ellis, the first player other than Nowitzki to lead the Mavs in scoring in the last 14 years, can opt out of the final season of what has been a team-friendly contract. Ellis’ back-to-back 30-plus-point performances in this series served as a strong reminder of his value to Dallas as a dynamic offensive player who can consistently create his own shot.
But the Dallas decision-makers have to determine whether the moody Ellis, who often tested the team’s soul this season, is worth the headaches he presents and the hefty price they would have to pay to have any hope of keeping him happy. They must do so while projecting how Ellis’ game will age as the one-dimensional, undersized shooting guard hits 30.
If the Mavs opt to move on from Ellis, how do they replace his ability to create and score?
The answer to that question – not to mention the Mavs’ odds of making the series against the Rockets competitive – might be much easier with a healthy Chandler Parsons. However, the Mavs probably can’t count on their $46 million small forward being healthy to start next season.
Parsons, who became the Mavs’ prized addition last summer after Cuban called Morey’s bluff and signed the Rockets’ restricted free agent to a rich offer sheet, is facing the strong possibility of needing microfracture surgery to repair cartilage damage in his right knee that limited him to only one game in this series.
That would be a significant setback for a 26-year-old who the Mavs hope will be a foundation piece for years to come. It might also complicate the Mavs’ ability to execute their most optimistic summer plans, as the charming Parsons’ recruiting ability could be compromised by questions about his health.
Speaking of which, the Mavs certainly plan to make a strong effort to sign Portland’s All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, a Dallas native expected to explore his options in free agency. How exactly Aldridge would fit with the Mavs isn’t so clear.
Could the Mavs add Aldridge and re-sign Tyson Chandler with Nowitzki sliding into a sixth man role? That’d be an awfully tight squeeze under the cap and force Dallas to fill the backcourt in thrifty fashion. Would Aldridge be willing to play center next to Nowitzki? Would that be a defensive disaster?
Another potential prize summer target for the Mavs: Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, who multiple sources say has made it clear through back channels that he will be extremely interested in coming to Dallas. Signing the 26-year-old Jordan, a dominant physical force who led the league in rebounding and field-goal percentage this season, would mean letting the 32-year-old Chandler leave again after another one-season stint with the Mavs.
"That's up to management and what they decide to do," Chandler said of his possible future in Dallas as he enters free agency, adding that his preference would be to return to the Mavs.
The Mavs, as usual, will also surely turn over every possible rock in the trade market. Of course, that hasn’t been too kind recently for Cuban, with deals for Lamar Odom and Rajon Rondo turning out to be two of the more disastrous trades in recent NBA memory.
The bizarre end of Rondo’s blink-and-you-missed-it tenure will go down as the most memorable thing about this series for the Mavs.
Rondo never really fit with the Mavs, as the concerns about the impact of his poor shooting in coach Rick Carlisle’s flow offense quickly manifested and were never solved. The hope of a “Playoff Rondo” sighting was crushed after his poor Game 1 performance and the appearance he gave up in Game 2.
The Mavs and Rondo made a mutual decision to part ways the next day, sources told ESPNDallas.com, framing the reasoning as a back injury as a favor to try to help the four-time All-Star point guard save face.
The truth was that the Mavs didn’t want Rondo, who was going to be replaced in the starting lineup regardless, pouting and rubbing off on other players, Ellis in particular. Essentially, the Mavs made a drastic move in an attempt to do damage control on a chemistry crisis.
Remember Cuban’s comments last summer about how the Rockets didn’t understand chemistry as well as the Mavs? Ouch.
Nevertheless, no matter how horrible the results, Nowitzki didn’t regret the Rondo deal, which cost Dallas three players (small forward Jae Crowder, center Brandan Wright and needed-to-be-replaced point guard Jameer Nelson) and two picks, including a protected first-rounder.
“If you can get a player like Rondo, I think you go for it any time,” Nowitzki said as he walked to the team bus for the final time of his 17th season. “I don’t think anybody is looking back at that now. It was a deal that was there. It was a deal we went for it, and it just didn’t pan out for both sides, and both sides moved on.
“But Mark and Donnie always pull the trigger to make this team better. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s a gamble and sometimes it doesn’t. So you just move on afterwards.”
Cuban and the Mavs move on with nothing much to say and a whole lot of work to do.