Recently, Mark Cuban wrote a very revealing and intriguing blog post on the Dallas Mavericks’ recent offseason maneuvers. This was brought to my attention by Matt Moore’s insightful reaction to Cuban’s post. As they are really great reads, I would highly recommend reading both in their entirety before proceeding. Cuban’s post is here at BlogMaverick.com, and Moore’s article is here at CBSSPORTS.com.
The central theme of both is the conundrum of what to do with an aging superstar, and how that decision may impact short- and long-term team building. Is it best to trade him for draft picks and other young assets, tanking for the hope of the next draft superstar and sacrificing current success for future gains? Or to take a win-now-at-all-costs approach and milk the value of that star for all he’s worth while you can? Or alternately, choose a middle ground in an effort to have your cake and eat it, too?
In 2011, under Masai Ujiri’s competent guiding hand, the Nuggets successfully delayed facing this music when confronting the departure of Carmelo Anthony, who was abandoning Denver not due to nearing the twilight of his career, but rather for his desire to play for a worse team under a brighter (and more lucrative) media limelight.
Thanks in large part to receiving a hefty handful of assets in exchange for Melo, Denver could plausibly choose the third way and opt to stay competitive (and, in fact, improve) while undergoing a fairly significant retooling process. And it worked pretty well – for a while.
But this summer the somewhat tenuous threads which had held the Nuggets’ unconventional “success without a superstar” project together finally began to unravel, as Ujiri departed for Toronto, Josh Kroenke fired George Karl, and Andre Iguodala – their prized pickup from the previous offseason – split for the team who beat them in the first round of the playoffs (with the added shady innuendo of his allegedly secretly confiding in Warriors coach Mark Jackson – during the series – about his dissatisfaction with the Nuggets’ tactics).
The flood gates seemed to burst open, and in their wake Josh Kroenke and Tim Connelly – or as they’ve come to be known in the comments section, “KronCon” (h/t RMC reader “Bricks”) – made a series of rapid-fire moves. Each of these was by no means disastrous, and all could be seen as reasonable deals in their own right, ranging in quality from redemptive (the hiring of Brian Shaw) to thrifty (signing Nate-rob on the cheap) to dubious (the acquisition of Foye).
Taken as a whole, however, this suite of moves comes across as a hastily assembled patchwork which could be seen at worst as desperately plugging holes in an increasingly unstable dyke, or at best as making sub-optimal but necessary adjustments for postseason success. And from what I’ve seen, the resulting roster is regarded by nearly all – irrespective of positive or negative opinions about the new front office’s decision making thus far – as a fairly confusing jumble (I’ll politely refrain from using a phrase beginning with “cluster”) which we won’t be able to fully make heads or tails of until we see this team on the court and get the opportunity to observe how the rotations, chemistry and system shake out.
But of course, most Roundball Mining Company readers are all too familiar with the events of the 2013 Nuggets offseason, and the main reason for recapping them here is to set the stage and frame the context of the specific tatement Cuban made which, to me, strongly resonates with issues the Nuggets will be facing this season and beyond:
Culture is very important to the Mavs. Your best player has to be a fit for what you want the culture of the team to be. He has to be someone who leads by example. Someone who sets the tone in the locker room and on the court. It isn’t about who talks the most or the loudest. It is about the demeanor and attitude he brings. It is amazing how when the culture is strong, the chemistry is strong. When the Mavs have brought in players that didn’t fit or buy in to our culture it created on the court and off the court problems. Its possible to handle one guy who may not fit it. It’s going to have a negative impact on your won and loss record if you have more than one.
Our culture is one of the reasons I won’t trade Dirk.
When you turn your team upside down and try to figure out what the culture of the team is, you take the greatest risk a team can take. Dirk sets the tone for our team. He works as hard, if not harder than anyone… That mindset. That selflessness. His work ethic is something I want to be in place long after he has retired. But to do that we have to transition with him, not in a void.
It is when Cuban says things like this, that you’re forced to simply say “He gets it.” The Lakers don’t have much of a culture besides “winning.” That’s a function of their payroll, their fortune, their access to talent on and off the court in building teams. But so many NBA teams squander their lives away by pursuing only basketball concepts rather than by building that culture. Certains teams have. The San Antonio Spurs, for example. The Miami Heat under Pat Riley are another. Say what you want about the way he brought the Big 3 together in Miami, but Riley sold LeBron James on taking his talents to South Beach by preaching a winning culture, and by sticking with it. You don’t hear word of James’ cronies running the joint like they did in Cleveland. And that’s for a reason.
Too often teams overlook what building a program does for you. It’s true that often that goal is compromised by the lack of a superstar like Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki. But we’ve seen teams with good culture rise from the ashes much faster than those without who squander their years in mediocrity.
Riffing off the bolded statements above (all emphases mine), and using them as a lens through which to examine the Nuggets, here are some observations and questions about what the team has now become, and going into the future, what its trajectory and fortunes might be:
The fact that this post raises more questions than it answers is at least in part a function of the Nuggets not yet having clarified in concrete terms where they’re headed. And as hard as it is right now to get a grasp on what exactly this new incarnation of the team will end up being, the matters of culture and identity will certainly prove to be very important to the Nuggets’ immenent and future success. It’s undeniable that Denver has taken some major risks (some, perhaps, more out of necessity than their own choosing), but whether they promise to continue or threaten to unravel the (relative) success the team has had over the last decade remains to be seen.