Cuban's approach: Brains over bankroll

DALLAS -- For a few days, it seemed like Mark Cuban had suddenly morphed into a fool or become fat and happy after finally reaching the NBA mountaintop.

Why else would the Dallas Mavericks' win-at-all-costs owner willingly let a big man widely recognized as the heart and soul of the franchise's first championship team walk?

On the eve of Tyson Chandler signing with the New York Knicks, Cuban clearly articulated in an email to ESPNDallas.com how the new collective bargaining agreement shaped the Mavs brain trust's master plan, which made financial flexibility in the near future the top priority. Cuban added that he still believed the Mavs would be "in a position to compete for a championship" this season, which caused some skeptical eyeballs to roll.

It didn't take long for it to become clear that Cuban wasn't just giving lip service to the quest to defend the throne the Mavs claimed over King James and Co.

Within 36 hours, the Mavs had agreed to terms with former All-Star shooting guard Vince Carter and somehow turned a trade exception acquired by bidding Chandler farewell into reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom, with both additions arriving in Dallas with contracts that fit the franchise's plan.

Maybe you don't like the moves, but give Cuban credit for backing up his words with swift, decisive actions.

This new CBA has actually provided an additional spark for Cuban's competitive fire. He doesn't like all the new rules -- as evidenced by his nay vote -- but he loves the challenge of figuring out the new system on the fly and finding loopholes to exploit for the Mavs' benefit. He built a perennial contender with cash and creativity -- oh, and a pretty good German centerpiece -- and now he's fired up to keep it rolling under a new business model with cash much less of a factor.

"Right on," Cuban said. "I would rather win a battle with brains than money."

Right now, Cuban is like one of those geeks who gets the latest version of a video game and spends every waking moment for the next few weeks trying to be the first of his friends to figure out all the cheat codes.

While studying the legal language in a CBA would be a pretty good cure for insomnia for most folks, it's fun for Cuban. This is a guy who takes great pride in being out in front of the NBA's statistical revolution in the last decade and built the Mavs' title team in part via almost laughable loopholes. (The corpse of Keith Van Horn's career included in the Jason Kidd trade? Erick Dampier's instantly-vanishing final year of his contract for Chandler?)

Cuban is confident that he and Donnie Nelson, his longtime right-hand man in basketball matters, have a good forecast on the near future on the NBA and will be in great position to maximize the Mavs' potential for the rest of the Dirk Nowitzki era and well beyond.

The best-case scenario -- and the one that will generate the most hype over the next eight months, or at least until the trade market settles -- would be for one of the 2012 free-agency big fish to sign with the Mavs and allow Nowitzki to slide into a co-star role as he approaches the twilight of a Hall of Fame career.

Cuban clearly comes off as a genius if he gets Deron Williams or Dwight Howard. It's just not a superstar-or-bust plan, although the Mavs will take their best swing. Without naming names, Cuban admits that the odds are against Williams or Howard becoming Mavs -- and Chris Paul is already off the market after committing to the Clippers for next season.

This is about allowing the Mavs to be "opportunistic," which might be Cuban's favorite word that's fit to print.

If the Mavs made the necessary investment to re-sign Chandler, Cuban is convinced that Dallas would have been helpless to do anything but watch the team's aging core deteriorate over the four- or five-year length of the contract. It would have meant Dallas' decision-makers sacrificing flexibility to keep the championship band together.

Then the Mavs got lucky that the Lakers were looking for a place to dump Odom after their Paul blockbuster deal got swatted by commissioner David Stern. The Mavs had been trying to use their trade exception to get Samuel Dalembert, a Chandler-type big man minus the incredible intangibles, before jumping on the chance to get one of the game's most versatile forwards.

"If you would have told me that we would have been able to maintain cap flexibility and trade Tyson for Lamar, I mean, I would have said, 'When and where?' " Nelson said. "And that's no disrespect to Tyson at all, because without Tyson on this team we don't have the same success last year. But flexibility is so imperative to the long-term health of our franchise, that that is essentially a no-brainer."

For the record, my vote would have been to keep Chandler and try to maximize the three remaining years of Nowitzki's contract (and perhaps his prime) with a proven championship formula.

For some reason, however, Cuban and Nelson never called for my advice. Same goes for last offseason, when I shared the popular opinion that the Mavs would have been better off dealing Dampier's disappearing contract for low-post beast Al Jefferson and his bulky contract instead of an injury-prone center. In hindsight, the Mavs might have gotten that one right after all.

Cuban and Nelson have made some mistakes over the years -- cough, Steve Nash -- but they're also the brains behind one of three franchises in NBA history to run off 11 straight 50-win seasons and just delivered a championship to Dallas.

There's a decent chance they know what they're doing.

Considering that a banner will be raised to the American Airlines Center rafters on Christmas Day, they've at least earned the right to prove themselves right.

Let the guys have a little fun.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.