The NBA free-agent season was five days away, but the back of
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's jersey signaled that he was
once again on the make: Instead of a number under his name,
there was a dollar sign. As Cuban stood along the first base
line after being introduced at the Reebok Heroes celebrity
baseball game last Saturday night in Dallas, he was approached
by Kenyon Martin, the New Jersey Nets' power forward and his
teammate for the evening, who, as a restricted free agent, was
not yet allowed to talk to prospective suitors. Martin made a
public show of raising his left hand to prevent eye contact
with Cuban--while sticking out his right hand to shake. It
might not be the last time the two grip and grin in Big D.
Cuban is back in business, dealing for draft picks, stockpiling
talent and angling for the NBA's biggest catch: Shaquille O'Neal,
who has demanded that the Los Angeles Lakers trade him. Having
put together a roster of overpriced Antoines and Antawns that
flamed out against the Sacramento Kings in the first round of the
playoffs, Cuban might have chosen to recover in solitude.
Instead, on the morning after the Mavs' last defeat, he began
taping of his reality TV show, The Benefactor. For three weeks,
12 hours a day, he weighed which of 16 contestants would get $1
million according to rules he made up as the game went along. It
went so well that ABC shifted its release from this summer to the
fall, when the nine episodes will air in the prized hour before
Monday Night Football.
"One time I told the contestants, 'I'll give you $1,000 if you
can tell me in 15 minutes why you are special,'" says Cuban.
That's an offer he may be posing to prospective acquisitions
before the free-agent signing date of July 14--albeit with an
extra three or four zeros tacked on to the offer.
Cuban followed up that act by pushing his way to center stage at
Madison Square Garden last Thursday. On the eve of a draft in
which he had no first-round choice, Cuban acquired the No. 5 pick
from the Washington Wizards, along with guard Jerry Stackhouse
and forward Christian Laettner, for Sixth Man Award winner Antawn
Jamison. Then he and the Nellies--coach Don Nelson and his son,
president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson--spent the next
24 hours making multiple calls to every team (all, ultimately, in
vain) offering myriad packages including Stackhouse, forward
Antoine Walker and their newly acquired lottery pick. "Everything
they're doing," said a Western Conference executive who had
spoken repeatedly with Dallas, "is aimed at making a run at
That run seemed all the more likely when Dallas drafted Wisconsin
junior point guard Devin Harris, then sent a future first-round
pick to the Utah Jazz for the No. 21 selection, 7'5" Russian
center Pavel Podkolzine. One or both could be sent on to Los
Angeles as part of a deal for O'Neal; or Dallas could re-sign
free-agent point guard Steve Nash, include him in the package
going to L.A. and hand the Mavs' quarterbacking duties to Harris.
After making the trade with Washington, Cuban sent his team
psychologist (a full-time position on the Mavs) to test the top
picks for the personality traits most associated with NBA
success. Harris ranked at the top. Cuban was especially impressed
that Harris made a smooth transition to college after having his
spleen removed between his junior and senior seasons at Wauwatosa
(Wis.) East High.
Harris may succeed without his spleen, but the Mavs aren't going
anywhere without improving a defense that ranked 28th in points
allowed (100.8 per game) and 27th in opponents' field goal
percentage (45.9). That's just one reason the trade for a shot
blocker like Shaq makes sense. One rumored deal included Nash and
All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki, who, while vacationing in Europe,
received a reassuring e-mail from his boss. "I told Dirk we are
not trading him," Cuban says. Under no circumstances?
"Absolutely, positively," he says, "we are not trading Dirk
Cuban and the Nellies agree that a deal involving Nowitzki and
Nash would still leave them short: If the Lakers couldn't
overcome the Detroit Pistons with O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, why
should Dallas believe it could prevail with O'Neal and Michael
Finley? At this point Cuban has to wait for L.A. to make the
first move, anyway. The Lakers will try to hire Rudy Tomjanovich
as their coach and hope he can repair the rifts between 1) Shaq
and Kobe and 2) Shaq and management, which has refused to give
O'Neal a two-year, $60 million extension past 2005-06, when he
will be making $30.6 million as a 34-year-old. If peace can be
made, then Shaq will be off the table; if it can't and Shaq
forces a trade, then the Lakers must come to the Mavericks and
other teams seeking offers. Cuban clearly believes he could
handle the issue of Shaq's extension. "I can't name names," he
says, "but if I had one of the top two or three players in the
league, I certainly would want to keep him a Maverick for as long
as I could."
In the meantime Cuban will focus on three fronts:
*Re-signing Nash. Cuban maintains that Harris was drafted not to
replace Nash but to extend his career by reducing his minutes to
fewer than 30 per game. The negotiations are going to come down
to length of contract: Don't expect the Mavs to guarantee more
than four years to their hard-driving point guard, who turns 31
in February. Nash, who spent last weekend at Wimbledon with
Nowitzki, was planning to return to Dallas from a two-month
European holiday on Wednesday, to begin talks with Utah, Phoenix
and Denver, as well as with the Mavericks.
*Developing the next generation. After loading up with expensive
veterans over the past couple of seasons, the Mavs have returned
to Cuban's original plan of developing young talent to complement
Nowitzki, Nash and Finley. Last year's surprisingly successful
rookies, swingmen Josh Howard and Marquis Daniels, join Harris
and Podkolzine, the enormous 19-year-old who showed up at the
charity baseball event wearing a Mavericks cap pinched
uncomfortably over the tops of both ears. The 260-pound Siberian
Shaq was the tallest and rawest of all the first-round picks,
averaging just 3.0 points in 53 games for the Italian club Varese
in the last two seasons. Podkolzine looks exceptional in
individual workouts, exhibiting a rare combination of agility and
shooting touch for someone so tall, but his inexperience renders
him all but useless in games.
*Talking trade with the rest of the league. The Mavericks are
spending yet another summer scrambling to find a
backbone-strengthening defender. While the obvious choice would
be a center, the less obvious--and therefore more
Cuban-friendly--option would be a physical forward to pair with
Nowitzki. The top two candidates would be NBA Defensive Player of
the Year Ron Artest, whom the Indiana Pacers have made available,
and the 6'9" Martin, whose demand for a six-year contract
starting at $10 million appears too high for new Nets owner Bruce
Martin is especially appealing: Not only would he fit seamlessly
into the Mavs' high-energy offense, but his defense and shot
blocking might also transform the franchise. He grew up in Dallas
and may have it in his power to force a sign-and-trade to the
Mavs. "It's not up to me," said a coyly grinning Martin as he
discussed his future in Cuban's backyard. "The Nets have the
right to match any offer I get, so I'm leaving it up to them."
The possibilities are endless. Let's say, for instance, that Shaq
forces the Lakers to seek offers, and that Nash is interested in
returning to Phoenix, where he played for two seasons before
joining Dallas, in 1998-99. Nash could go to the Suns in a
sign-and-trade for All-Star forward Shawn Marion, who could then
move with others to L.A. for the Big Prize. Whatever happens, the
game is on, and Cuban is more than happy to be in the middle of
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG NELSON MEASURED RESPONSE Cuban (far right) became a last-minute player in the draft, plucking Harris and the 7'5" Podkolzine.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (2), DIGITALLY ALTERED BY SI IMAGING
WHAT IF ...
...Cuban wins his waiting game with L.A. and gets Shaq?
GOLD RUSH Nash would likely be sent to the Lakers in a
sign-and-trade, with Dallas's top pick taking over the point.
BIG BLUE O'Neal would give the Mavs what they have coveted: a
shot blocker who can provide points in the low post.
Ian Thomsen gives his assessment of last Thursday's draft
3 INSTANT WINNERS
MAGIC Top choice Dwight Howard will soon replace Tracy McGrady as
the team's multifaceted star. Point guard Jameer Nelson will
JAZZ With loads of salary-cap space and a winning system in
place, Utah upgraded its rebounding with 6'9" forward Kris
Humphries and its scoring with swingman Kirk Snyder.
BULLS Guard Ben Gordon and forward Luol Deng join second-year
playmaker Kirk Hinrich as building blocks of a team in the
hard-nosed image of coach Scott Skiles.
3 FUTURE ALL-STARS
SHAUN LIVINGSTON His height (6'7") and passing ability should
make this Clipper the best point guard of his generation--once he
learns to shoot.
ROBERT SWIFT Having failed to achieve a quick fix at center (see
Calvin Booth, Vitaly Potapenko), the Sonics invest in an
18-year-old 7-footer with a knack for blocking shots and making
the extra pass.
DORELL WRIGHT The 6'8" forward's athleticism and zeal for defense
made him a coaches' favorite in leaguewide workouts, and the
Heat's up-tempo style will bring out the best in
3 G.M.'s ON THE SPOT
BILLY KNIGHT Whoever winds up as the Hawks' coach will have his
hands full teaching NBA basics to youngsters Josh Childress, Josh
Smith and Donta Smith.
ROB BABCOCK The Raptors picked up low-post toughness with 6'11",
280-pound Rafael Araujo, but his upside is far more limited than
the players Babcock passed up.
DANNY AINGE Having dismantled a winning team, he now must find
veteran leadership in the Celtics' locker room to help Al
Jefferson, Delonte West and Tony Allen develop.