|Cuban suggests keeping Chandler long-term may have put Dallas over the cap and luxury tax. (Getty Images)|
LAS VEGAS -- It's been a weird 13 months for the Dallas Mavericks. Not long after raising the Larry O'Brien Trophy as 2011 NBA champions, their typically big-spending owner, Mark Cuban, morphed into Nervous Nellie.
Well, maybe that's a bad choice of words, given Cuban's past entanglements with someone named Nellie. But the point is the owner who epitomized the sky's-the-limit spending philosophy under the previous rules has flipped 180 degrees to a sky-is-falling strategy.
And you know what, it's working.
Working, you say? Cuban purposely cleared massive amounts of cap space for a run at Deron Williams and/or Dwight Howard and went 0-for-2 for various reasons in and out of his control. He wound up with a modest free-agent haul in O.J. Mayo and Chris Kaman, traded for Darren Collison and Dahntay Jones, and plucked Elton Brand off amnesty waivers. But in the new world order of the NBA's financial reset and more restrictive collective bargaining agreement, Cuban was simply playing the cards he was dealt -- or, rather, the cards he helped deal. The deciding factor will be whether his interpretation of what the new landscape means is correct, and I wouldn't bet against him.
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Despite his unprecedented posture of restraint in the months that have passed since Dallas' championship, I wouldn't count on Cuban being quiet and timid -- maybe strategic is a better word -- for much longer.
"I just think there's a different approach," Cuban told CBSSports.com during an interview at Summer League, which wrapped up Sunday in Las Vegas. "You see what's happening with teams that are up against the financial limits and it's impacting their behavior. But we haven't seen what's going to happen with the trade limitations and things like that -- not being able to do sign-and-trades, all that kind of stuff."
For a deep-pocketed owner who's always been willing to trade and deficit-spend his way to success, how is this new model better? Why would he fight for a system that stops him from spending and trading?
"Is it better? It's just different," Cuban said. "The rules are the rules. Look at Chicago -- they got rid of three really good rotation players because of the new CBA. Look at New York -- they weren't able to match on Jeremy Lin. Under the old CBA, it would've been a no-brainer. And that's before the trade limitations and different team-building impacts come into play, and those don't start until next year. There's some teams that just are oblivious to them that I think it's going to hurt, but we'll see. Maybe I'm wrong."
Don't bet on it. Cuban was always the renegade willing to spend and take on bad contracts to keep his payroll high and his team's success constant, because that's what the rules allowed. League negotiators admitted during the lockout that the old luxury-tax system didn't have the intended effect of suppressing the payrolls of the top-spending teams, and Cuban's Mavs were Exhibit A in the conference room during all those months of negotiations.
So when Cuban traded Tyson Chandler to the Knicks and replaced him with what essentially was a one-year (failed) flier on Lamar Odom, it was by design. Cuban had planned for several contracts from that 2010 championship team to expire at the same time, and though he didn't know at the time exactly how the new rules would look, he knew they wouldn't be kind to an old team that was going to be not only over the cap, but over the tax in two years.
"If Tyson would've done a two-year deal," Cuban said, "we wouldn't have done that trade."
Next summer, the kind of sign-and-trade arrangements that have sent Chandler, Marcus Camby and Raymond Felton to the Knicks -- and Steve Nash to the Lakers -- won't be permitted for teams that are over the $4 million luxury tax "apron." Further, teams that encroach on that apron will be limited to the smaller, $3 million mid-level exception in free agency and otherwise would face a payroll freeze at $4 million above the tax. Even with the league projecting a $75 million tax line in 2013-14 -- the first year of enhanced tax rates and prohibitions on tax teams doing sign-and-trades -- the high-payroll teams simply can't keep piling on year after year.
"The financial side isn't the big hurdle," Cuban said. "That's just money. It's the flexibility. I don't want to be in a position where I can't do a sign-and-trade for somebody if that can help my team. I can't get a free agent because I have no cap room -- all I have is $3 million -- and I can't do a sign-and-trade. The trades are limited to 125 percent [in matching salary], so you can't be that team that takes on a bunch of bad contracts. ... That's how we've always done it, taking somebody else's mistakes."
So was it a mistake to clear cap room for a run at Williams and not get him? Not so much. Even though Cuban could only offer Williams a four-year deal with 4.5 percent annual increases -- about $24 million shy of the five-year, $98.75 million deal Williams signed to stay with the Nets -- Cuban said he felt at one point he was close to landing the All-Star point guard.
"Yeah, actually I did," Cuban said. "But it was more a question, I think, of what can you do in this CBA and he felt more comfortable with what Brooklyn was doing. ... He just liked what they were doing as a team better in the short term, and that's his choice."
As for a certain 34-year-old future Hall of Famer and his perspective on the Mavs' evolving strategy for surrounding him with top talent toward the end of his career, Cuban said Dirk Nowitzki understands.
"Dirk will be the first to tell you we weren't getting any younger," Cuban said. "Guys can't play forever. It's not a question of if; it's a question of when. And if it's a question of when, then it's a question of how. And if it's a question of how, now you see how we decided to do it. It wasn't an accident that all those contracts expired at the same time. It was planned."
So think of what Cuban has done since the end of the 2010-11 season as a pause rather than a permanent change of direction. Cuban will still be able to chase free agents, acquire free agents in sign-and-trades and take on other teams' bad contracts. He just can't already be over the luxury-tax threshold when he does -- meaning he'll have to pick his spots. This was one of the key points the owners emphasized in getting not only financial concessions from the players, but also restrictions on how much and how often teams would be able to exceed the tax line.
"It's tougher to put finishing pieces in place," Cuban said. "And it's tougher to trade your way to a championship team if you're over the tax. You're going to have to take a step back and create flexibility in order to do the trades because otherwise, if you're already over the tax, you're stuck.
"Everybody's saying, 'Oh, there's all these people spending all this money,' " Cuban said. "There's what, seven teams that went crazy early on and spent all the money, and 23 did nothing except re-sign their own guys or a little play here or there? So I think it's dramatically changed the activities. Maybe we're all wrong and the seven teams that went crazy are right. We'll see."
Unlike the previous $1-for-$1 tax system, it isn't just a question of whether high-revenue teams can afford to spend. It's a question of how they can possibly make their team better or replace older players with All Star-caliber younger ones when they're already over the tax. Under the higher tax rates, can the Lakers afford to pay the approximately $45 million in luxury tax they'd be on the hook for in 2013-14 with their current committed salary? That's not really the right question. The right question is, how will they be able to reload their roster and remain competitive without "taking a step back," as Cuban said, to regain the flexibility to sign and trade for free agents?
That's why, after Howard gave up his right to become a free agent this summer and Williams chose to stay with the Nets, Cuban didn't respond the way he used to respond. Under the old rules, he would have wheeled-and-dealed his way to a roster flush with All-Stars on multiyear deals and just paid the bill.
Instead, he loaded up on capable players who almost exclusively were on one-year deals. Other than Mayo, who got a modest multiyear deal when the free-agent shooting guard market dried up, Cuban got Kaman, Brand, Collison and Jones -- all on contracts that expire next summer, making the Mavs a rare big-market team that will be able to play in the free-agent market.
"We've always been good at making trades and being willing to take on money," Cuban said. "Now we can do it again starting next year. We can keep a big chunk of our current team, pay them and be in a position to take someone in a sign-and-trade, where all of the other teams that are supposedly luxury destinations, they can't."
In other words, the old way of assembling a Big Three one step at a time -- as the Knicks did by using room to sign Amar'e Stoudemire, acquiring Carmelo Anthony in an extend-and-trade (now severely limited in the new CBA) and signing-and-trading for Chandler -- is obsolete.
"You can draft your Big Three," Cuban said. "You can trade for youngs and turn them into a Big Three. You can do like Houston's done and hopefully you have enough cap room and have three come together. But you can't do the progressive trading like we used to. Those days are gone."
And while Cuban's response to the new rules would seem to be dead on, they also could have the unintended effect of causing him to strike out on another free-agent target next summer. Or not. Let's explain.
If the Magic decide not to trade Howard and instead call his bluff and hang onto him for the entire season, where's he going next summer as a free agent? The team that has long been Howard's preferred destination, the Nets, won't have cap room to sign him and won't be able to do a sign-and-trade because they'll be over the tax apron. Ditto for the Lakers. Even the handful of teams that would be permitted to do a sign-and-trade would only be able to give Howard the same four-year deal with 4.5 percent raises that he could get by signing outright with a team that has room.
Translation: Unless Howard wants to take a four-year deal with the Mavs -- who were on his original, three-team list along with the Nets and Lakers -- he might decide he's better off staying in Orlando, the only team that would be able to offer him a five-year deal in excess of $100 million. It's just another potential consequence of a labor deal whose intricacies are still playing out. And how they play out will have everything to say about whether the owners will be back at the bargaining table in 2017, when either side can opt out, clamoring for the hard-cap system they wanted all along.
"Actually, it's better than I thought it would be, but I still don't think it solved all our problems," Cuban said of the labor agreement. "We're drowning in two feet of water instead of 10 feet of water. But hopefully, it gets us closer for the next time."