Love him or hate him, it’d be hard to say that Mark Cuban doesn’t care about the Dallas Mavericks and their fans. He has reportedly lost money in the low nine figures since purchasing the Mavericks in January of 2000, and he seems somewhat nonchalant about it. For example, honoring Muggsy Bogues’ three remaining years of Bogues’ contract even though Cuban didn’t have to. In any case, a big part of Cuban’s losses during his tenure as Mavs owner has to be his ill-fated pursuit of big men to put alongside Dirk Nowitzki.
When Cuban bought the Mavs in the middle of the 1999-2000 season, he inherited a team in disarray. The Mavs hadn’t made the playoffs since 1990 while failing to finish with a .500 or above record. At this juncture, the Mavs were Michael Finley’s team with Nowitzki on the come-up and Steve Nash preparing to make some noise in the NBA. Their big men, however, left a lot to be desired: Shawn Bradley (77 G; 8.4 PPG; 6.5 RPG; 2.5 BPG; 17.0 PER), Sean Rooks (71 G; 4.4 PPG; 3.5 RPG; 0.7 BPG; 11.8 PER) and Bruno Sundov (14 G; 1.9 PPG; 0.9 RPG; 0.1 BPG; 7.8 PER). Obviously, Bradley’s blocks play a big role in his value, but if you’re 7-foot-6 and can’t average that many blocks, well, you’re probably an amputee.
In any case, in his first full season of ownership (2000-01), Cuban had the following center-eligible players: Bradley, Christian Laettner, Juwan Howard, Wang Zhi Zhi and Obinna Ekezie. This collection of bigs was so dissatisfying even Dirk started games at the five spot. However, some sliver of hope came the following season when the Mavericks shipped Howard, Donnell Harvey, Tim Hardaway and a 2002 first round pick to the Denver Nuggets for Nick Van Exel, Avery Johnson, Tariq Abdul-Wahad and talented big man Raef LaFrentz.
LaFrentz, selected third overall in the 1998 NBA Draft, averaged 12.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per contest in his first three seasons with the Nuggets. Before being traded to the Mavs, LaFrentz was averaging 14.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and an excellent 18.9 PER in 51 games. He finished the season with 10.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.2 blocks per game and a 15.8 PER in 27 games (25 starts) for the Mavericks. He was the only NBA player to amass 100 three-pointers and 200 blocks in the same season. In eight 2002 postseason games, LaFrentz contributed solid numbers — 11.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and a 16.1 PER.
LaFrentz was a player that could not only block shots, but he also had a nice offensive game, able to score from the inside and beyond the arc. He wasn’t afraid to bang inside and always gave a strong effort. However, that all said, was it a smart move for Cuban to re-sign LaFrentz during the offseason to a seven-year, $69 million contract?
His $7.3 million salary made him the fourth-highest paid player on the Mavs behind Finley ($12 million), Van Exel ($11.1 million) and Nowitzki ($10.1 million) the following season. You can justify Finley’s contract as him being “the man” for the Mavs, Van Exel for being a very productive veteran, and Nowitzki for being the young gunner with big-time potential. But LaFrentz? He could block shots and shoot a little from long-range, though he wasn’t great at it. We found the true answer to LaFrentz’s value when he was traded after only one complete year with the Mavericks, as he was shipped to the Boston Celtics with Jiri Welsch, Chris Mills and a 2004 first round pick for Tony Delk and Antoine Walker. Raef who?
A hole was left for a couple seasons at the center position until the 2004-05 season when the Mavs came armed with the newly signed-and-traded Erick Dampier. On August 24, 2004, Dampier, Dan Dickau, Evan Eschmeyer and the rights to Steve Logan were traded to the Mavs from the Golden State Warriors in exchange for Laettner, Eduardo Najera, two future first round picks and the rights to Luis Flores and Mladen Sekularac. Dampier signed a seven-year, $73 million contract with his first year salary ($7.7 million) the fourth-highest on the team after Finley ($14.6 million), Nowitzki ($12.6 million) and Alan Henderson ($8.3 million; oops), besting more productive players like Jerry Stackhouse ($7.4 million), Jason Terry ($7.5 million) and Josh Howard ($0.9 million; rookie contract).
What did Dampier do to be worthy of such a contract? In 2003-04, Dampier averaged 12.3 points, 12.0 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and a 20.1 PER. Other than his blocks average, all stats still remain career-highs. In seven seasons prior, Dampier only had one solid season (1997-98; second season in NBA) when he averaged 11,8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and a 14.0 PER. In case you were wondering, those points and rebounds represent the second-highest average for Dampier’s career. Needless to say, there wasn’t much of a sample size that validated the huge contract Cuban was giving up. However, after two seasons of small ball, Cuban felt it was time to go big once again and he spent for one of the top big men available during the 2004 offseason.
In his first season, Dampier averaged 9.2 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and a 15.2 PER. Oh, and he only played 59 games (56 starts). Regarding the big man stats, Dampier didn’t even lead the team in rebounds (Nowitzki, 9.7) or blocks (Nowitzki again, 1.5). So, not worth the money.
The following season was the magical season until it wasn’t. The Mavs finished the regular season at 60-22 and went 12-5 during the Western Conference playoffs before losing to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. Dampier did worse than his first season with the Mavs, putting up 5.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 13.9 PER in 82 games. What’s worse, he lost game starts to DeSagana Diop, with Diop getting the edge with 45 starts to Dampier’s 36. Diop was making $1.9 million while Dampier made more than four times that.
Diop averaged less stats (including minutes, 18.6 per against Dampier’s 23.6), but on a Per 36 Minutes basis, Diop stands out in blocks (3.5 versus 2.0). Considering the personnel, it seems that’s all the Mavs wanted out of the five position. In the playoffs, the Finals in particular, the team needed bodies against Shaquille O’Neal. Besides, it was always going to be Nowitzki versus Dwyane Wade to some degree in that Finals. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. At least Diop had a music video dedicated to him along the way.
The following season (2006-07), everything seemed to be rolling for the Mavs as they won 67 games during the regular season. However, they lost in the first round to the Golden State Warriors, which was a big bit of revenge for former Mavs coach Donnie Nelson who was fired by Cuban in a very public argument between the two. It seems that the big men didn’t matter that season, and neither did the big expectations and wins.
The 2007-08 season saw another first round exit for the Mavericks who were sticking with Dampier and his bloated contract. This particular season also saw Diop get traded to the New Jersey Nets along with Devin Harris, Trenton Hassell, Maurice Ager, Keith Van Horn and two first round draft picks as part of the trade that sent Jason Kidd back to the Mavs with Malik Allen and Antoine Wright on February 19, 2008.
However, during the 2008 offseason, Cuban must have been missing Diop, as he signed the former Mavs big man to a six-year, $32 million contract, which was met with some doubt and laughter considering that Diop is basically a one-dimensional player (2.8 blocks per 36) that never averaged more than 2.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 18.6 minutes and a 12.5 PER during a season. Well, the love lasted all of 34 games into Diop’s new contract before he was traded to the Charlotte Bobcats for Matt Carroll and Ryan Hollins. Yup, yet another mistake on Cuban’s part. At least the Mavericks got past the first round this year before losing to the Denver Nuggets.
For the 2009-10 season, Dampier’s contract was closing on its expiration and Brendan Haywood joined the team and produced solid stats — 8.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 16.1 PER. However, it didn’t help much as the Mavericks lost in the first round to the San Antonio Spurs. However during the 2010 offseason, the Mavericks made a trade that would change the franchise forever. No, it wasn’t a sign-and-trade for any of the much ballyhooed free agents — LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, et al.
On July 13, 2010, the Mavs traded Dampier’s expiring contract, Eduardo Najera and Matt Carroll to the Charlotte Bobcats for Alex Ajinca and Tyson Chandler. Chandler was the missing piece that fit in perfectly with Nowitzki, Kidd, Terry and Shawn Marion. Chandler led the team in rebounds (9.4 per game), blocks (1.1) and field-goal percentage (65.4%). He also finished averaging 10.1 points with a fantastic 18.4 PER, and unlike a lot of big men, can hit from the charity stripe (73.2 percent). The Mavericks went on to win the NBA title and it was all smiles and rainbows in the Big D.
However, once the NBA lockout ends, Chandler will be an unrestricted free agent and is already a high-profile target amongst many teams. Chandler recently turned 29, so is still young enough to demand a long-term deal. The question — once again for Cuban — do you overspend for a big man? (And whomever signs Chandler will probably have to overspend, let’s be clear.) All three of LaFrentz, Dampier, and Diop were (re-)signed and eventually traded, with only Dampier lasting on the Mavs for several seasons while LaFrentz and Diop were traded soon after being signed.
What will Chandler’s fate be? Will he be the final big man that Cuban pursues? If we went by history, Cuban should only focus on Chandler, but if he loses out, then what? Looking in to the past, Kwame Brown might be very rich pretty soon.