Commentary

Harris-for-Kidd pays delayed dividends

Mavs expected quick returns but found stable passer in future Hall of Famer at point

Updated: December 2, 2009, 11:25 AM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

Angry e-mails flooded Mark Cuban's inbox after the Dallas Mavericks' last trip to New Jersey.

It disgusted Mavs fans to watch Devin Harris dominate the team that made him the centerpiece of a trade package to acquire a point guard a decade older than him, regardless of Jason Kidd's Hall of Fame credentials. The Dallas fan base was split on the blockbuster deal when the Mavs pulled the trigger in February 2008. The deal, which included eight players and also sent a pair of first-round picks to New Jersey, got a collective thumbs-down after the Mavericks made another first-round playoff exit.

Harris' 41-point, 13-assist show in the blowout win over the Mavs last December -- the type of night that allowed him to earn his first appearance in the All-Star game -- rubbed salt in open wounds.

As the Mavs make their annual stop in New Jersey -- where the Nets will set an NBA record for futility with an 0-18 start unless they pull off the upset Wednesday night -- this seems like a good time to reopen the debate about the boldest personnel move in Mavericks history.

So, how often do the anti-Kidd, pro-Harris rants pop up in the inbox these days?

"Not in a long time," Cuban said with a smile. "Not in a long time."

No disrespect to Harris, but there are no regrets within the Mavericks organization about the trade. But make no mistake: The deal didn't work out as the Mavs' brass hoped or anticipated, either. At least, it hasn't yet, as the window for that possibility was extended when Kidd signed a three-year, $25 million extension this summer.

It was a win-now move that didn't pay immediate dividends in the standings or playoffs. The Mavs were 35-18 when the trade was made, then went 16-13 with Kidd before a first-round, five-game playoff exit.

"I thought it would improve us more that season. No question," said Cuban, who had to pay an extra $17 million in salary and luxury tax because of the deal. "It didn't, but that's ancient history."

So is Avery Johnson's tenure as the Mavs' coach, which is no coincidence.

After Johnson was fired following that first-round loss (to the New Orleans Hornets) in the '08 playoffs, Johnson tried to publicly distance from the trade. But the deal was made in an attempt to save Johnson's job after his controlling ways alienated his key players, especially Dirk Nowitzki, who was frustrated that the Mavs had become a grind-it-out, half-court team that had to work hard for every shot.

The logic was that Johnson, who had given Harris some play-calling responsibility early in the season only to yank it away, would trust Kidd to run the offense. That never happened. And it was obvious it wouldn't when Kidd watched the first crunch-time moments after the trade from the bench in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

The trade did work for Dirk, though.

Nowitzki respected Harris' ability and liked him personally, but he longed to play with a pass-first point guard. Harris is at his best creating his own shot off the dribble, not setting up his teammates. Kidd ranked fourth in NBA history in assists at the time of the trade and has since moved up a couple of notches to second.

If Kidd didn't come to Dallas, it's unlikely that Nowitzki would be so firm about wanting to be a Maverick for life. With Kidd around, the big German doesn't have to carry the burden of being the Mavs' primary leader and playmaker, roles that never came naturally to him.

"The reality is that we had a whole lot of scoring and our best passer was Dirk," Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said. "He's the guy you want taking the shots, not creating shots for other folks. That was a group that was missing a quarterback in the worst way."

Added Nowitzki, who signed off on the deal before it went down: "We wanted a little more leadership in the backcourt, somebody who knows how to lead a team, pass the ball, get everybody involved. We got one of the best passers there ever was."

The Mavericks got off to a slow start last season under new coach Rick Carlisle, but their performance improved significantly once Carlisle handed the play-calling reins to Kidd in the middle of the season. Cuban and Co. were encouraged enough by the progress to make re-signing Kidd the top priority of the summer.

Keeping Kidd in Dallas for another two or three years was always part of the plan, even though the Mavs took a lot of criticism for trading their point guard of the future for one in his mid-30s with only one-and-a-half seasons remaining on his contract. Kidd's age (36) isn't much of a concern to the Mavs, because they believe his combination of a big body (6-4, 210) and savvy instincts will age well, especially since his game doesn't rely much on athleticism.

"It was definitely important to re-sign Kidd," Nelson said, "but we felt that he had the kind of locker room and the pieces around him that we would have a good chance to do that."

Not that Cuban was taking any chances. He traveled to New York to visit with Kidd the first minute allowed by NBA free-agency rules. The T-shirt-loving billionaire even wore a sport coat for the occasion, a symbol of his seriousness. He wasn't about to let Kidd go elsewhere and put the Mavs in jeopardy of giving up a 2010 lottery pick to New Jersey.

Kidd was also a key part in the Mavs' recruiting pitches to other free agents, such as Shawn Marion, Drew Gooden and Tim Thomas, all of whom cited the desire to play with Kidd as one of the reasons they signed with the Mavericks.

"What player doesn't want to play with a guy who creates shots for you and has the leadership, toughness and ability to make plays at the end of games?" said Nelson, who will have the salary-cap flexibility to pursue an impact free agent next summer. "Who doesn't want to play with a guy like that?"

Perhaps, like the Hall of Fame point guard, the Kidd/Harris deal will age well in Dallas. If nothing else, the naysayers' arguments against it aren't nearly as convincing as they were the last time the Mavs visited New Jersey.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at tim.macmahon@espn3.com.

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