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Throwback Thursday: The Dallas Mavericks Punt On Defending Their NBA Title

After upsetting Miami to win the NBA championship, Dallas let half of its roster walk to chase future free agents. In retrospect, maybe that was a mistake.

by Mike Piellucci
Dec 22 2016, 6:20pm

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The only NBA championship banner in Dallas Mavericks history was raised five years ago on Christmas Day, more than six months after the team stunned the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. It was the opening night of the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season, and the Mavericks were once again facing the Heat, the same franchise that had beaten Dallas in the 2006 Finals.

The scene was set for a celebration—of an unlikely champion; of a franchise that had long been good, but not quite good enough; of the notion that NBA title contention could be about more than just acquiring a handful of transcendent superstars, that with shrewd moves and a bit of luck, any team could find itself raising a banner.

"That was supposed to be your victory lap," says Or Moyal, managing sports editor at Dallas' WFAA Channel 8 news. "That's when you're just supposed to look at that banner, drink it in and hope [to] kick the Heat's ass. Run all over them, get one last time to laugh in their face and say 'We got you.'"

Instead, the Mavericks were humiliated, losing 105-94 in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the final score. Dallas' star acquisition was out of shape. Its roster had been half blown-up in order to bank future money. As the season dragged on, the team would prove to be a shadow of its previous self—and in future years, the Mavericks would continue to come up short, remaining competitive but never piecing together the sort of multiple-star roster that would dominate the NBA's coming decade.

In other words, Dallas embodied much of the league in the aftermath of the 2011 lockout, a mass of clubs wheeling, dealing, and failing to keep up with the NBA's one percent, punting on the present for a shot at a better future.

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First, the banner. For Mavericks fans, it's difficult to overstate exactly how improbable the moment felt—both that the organization had finally won a title, and that so many of the key contributors to the championship run were not in the building that night.

Dallas had spent a decade moping around as the league's Charlie Brown, always lurking near the summit, only for something to snatch away the football. The Mavericks are one of only four teams in NBA history to win 50 or more games in 10 consecutive seasons; the others amassed multiple championships during their dominant spans. In 2006-07, Dallas won 67 games, tied for the ninth-most in league history—and then lost to Golden State in the first round of the playoffs.

The 2011 playoffs figured to be more of the same. Dirk Nowitzki and his motley crew of veteran sidekicks were a nice team, but appeared incapable of slaying the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, the up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder, or the seemingly indomitable Heat, all of which featured multiple stars. Only the Mavericks pulled it off, taking them down in succession, and doing it without their second-best scorer, Caron Butler.

"It was the furthest thing from a typical finals contender," Moyal says. "They had JJ Barea and DeShawn Stevenson starting games against just this super team that was supposed to run the table on everyone, and decimate everything in their path."

When they think you don't have a chance, but actually, you do. Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas' improbable win was followed by an equally weird banner ceremony. There was a video package, and speeches from Nowitzki, Jason Terry, NBA commissioner David Stern, and Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. But something was missing, and it took Carlisle to acknowledge it.

"I think it's appropriate to recognize members of last year's team who aren't with us here today," he said, before rattling off six Dallas players who had not been retained. Barea had decamped to Minnesota, Stevenson to New Jersey, Butler to the Los Angeles Clippers. Peja Stojakovic retired, and Corey Brewer got shipped off to Denver. Most damningly, Tyson Chandler, the team's defensive ballast and emotional soul, had signed with the New York Knicks.

All of this was mostly Dallas' call. Five of those six players were free agents, and the Mavericks decided to move on rather than fight to retain them and attempt a real title defense. In many ways, this was a reaction to the NBA's new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which had come out of the lockout: a beefed-up luxury tax made it far more challenging for overcapped teams to absorb outside talent.

Ostensibly, this was meant to make it harder for big-spending, big-market teams to hoard top talents; ironically, it lead Dallas to half-dismantle a squad of highly-paid role players. Owner Mark Cuban decided that salary flexibility and the ability to chase future free agents was more important than immediate continuity; "keeping the power dry" became a catchphrase for Mavs fans, as did the derivative "Plan Powder."

Plan Powder went about as well as you'd expect following the lockout. The regular season was a blur of minimal prep time and condensed scheduling, a killer combination for the Mavericks' veterans. "About 10 to 14 days [after the lockout ends], you're at training camp and it's go-go-go. That's hard for anyone to endure," says Bryan Gutierrez, who covered the team for ESPN's TrueHoop and ESPN Dallas. "You've got older guys like Dirk, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry just seeing that schedule and there being one stretch of, I believe, six games in eight days at one point.

"Rick Carlisle obviously was like 'We're going to punt during the stretch of the season and let these guys and rest.' When you have a team of generally older guys and you have a compressed schedule, it's a recipe for disaster."

Gutierrez remembers bad basketball across the board. NBA scoring dipped to its lowest mark since the 2003-2004 season, a time when the league had yet to tinker with its rules to manufacture more offense. Nearly every team had an out-of-shape veteran or two, like Dallas; just as many had rookies who hadn't played competitive games since February or March. More than anything, everyone was exhausted.

"I don't know how many teams had Dallas' six games in eight nights but there were, I believe, most teams or every team had a back-to-back-to-back, which is unfathomable in today's landscape," Gutierrez says. "The back-to-backs were heavy, so the nature of the on the court was bad."

Dallas' biggest offseason acquisition, Lamar Odom, came into camp overweight and beset by far more personal hardship than most realized. He never gelled with his teammates, and the constant presence of a film crew from Keeping Up With The Kardashians turned the locker room on its ear. "This isn't a championship team that's being followed around; it's now a circus with Lamar Odom," Gutierrez says.

Odom's season ended in early April, three weeks before the playoffs began, after Dallas kicked him off the team following a mid-game altercation with Cuban. The Mavericks limped into the playoffs with a 36-30 record, and were a ghastly 13-20 on the road. They were seeded seventh, and matched up against the same Thunder team they beat in the Western Conference Finals the previous season. They were summarily embarrassed, getting swept after blowing a 13-point fourth quarter lead to lose the series.

When nobody swipes back on NBA Free Agent Tinder. Photo by Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas spent the next five offseasons stripping its roster nearly bare to chase after the league's most explosive free agents: James, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Deron Williams, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge, Hassan Whiteside, Mike Conley, and DeAndre Jordan. Yet with the exception of Williams, who landed with the Mavericks five years after spurning them to re-sign with the Brooklyn Nets, the team whiffed on every single one.

"So many people talked themselves into this thing that didn't make a hell of a lot of sense: That an old team, without a lot of marketability, not in LA or New York, without any young talent or tradeable assets, was somehow going to land other superstars," Moyal says. "I thought it was just this new paradigm. 'These are the new Mavericks. They're going to be big players in free agency.'"

Dallas hasn't won a playoff series since the 2011 Finals. Along the way, the franchise has effectively burned down the wick on Nowitzki's Hall of Fame career. Other teams made miscalculations following the lockout—Oklahoma City traded away James Harden for fear of paying the luxury tax; Brooklyn loaded up with pricey veterans and peaked as a No. 4 seed in 2012-2013—but none feel as retrospectively disappointing and unnecessary as the Mavericks' championship tear down.

Dallas wasn't Philadelphia, pulling the plug on a mediocre team and embarking on a half-decade of watchable basketball to embrace The Process. No, the franchise was the defending champion, with a bonafide superstar in Nowitzki, and a group of savvy vets who knew how to play together. Odds are, they wouldn't have repeated—but given the odds of winning a championship in the first place, or somehow stumbling into a Cleveland/Golden State-like superteam, perhaps it would have made more sense to run things back.

If nothing else, it would have made that 2011 banner-raising ceremony—and everything that followed—a lot less bittersweet.

"If you want to talk about the city not getting to celebrate like it wanted to, that game - that was supposed to be your victory lap," Moyal says. "To have it slammed back in your face like that with that kind of disdain and ferocity was just such a bummer. And it set the tone for that season well, because that season was a slog. The players weren't ready, the team wasn't ready and nobody was really up to the expectations."

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