Commentary

Mavs rebuilt with savvy moves, luck

Starting with deal for Kidd, Dallas methodically added pieces for return to NBA Finals

Updated: May 30, 2011, 3:25 PM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

DALLAS -- The Jason Kidd trade was, first and foremost, an admission that the Dallas Mavericks' core wasn't good enough to return to the NBA Finals.

It was also an attempt to save Avery Johnson's job. And, at least for a few seasons, it was a failure.

"I'd make that trade 100 out of 100 times," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said defiantly, months after the immediate results indicated it might not have been such a good idea.

The Mavs shipped promising young point guard Devin Harris to the New Jersey Nets as the centerpiece of the package for Kidd before the 2008 trade deadline.

Dallas also included a few spare parts and two first-round picks and paid Keith Van Horn to pretend that he intended to come out of retirement, a requirement to make the salary cap numbers work. It was a deal that cost Cuban approximately $30 million.

[+] EnlargeJason Kidd
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireJason Kidd has played a key role in the Mavericks' return to the Finals, even though his return to Dallas didn't pay immediate dividends.

For the first few years, the return on that investment was a grand total of one coaching change and one playoff series win.

Fast forward to these NBA Finals. The deal suddenly doesn't look bad at all, considering that Kidd played a critical role in giving the Mavericks a chance to finally win a championship, five years after their 2006 Finals flop against the Miami Heat.

"It didn't pan out right away with the J-Kidd thing," said Dirk Nowitzki, who pushed his bosses to pull the trigger on the blockbuster trade. "We lost in the first round a couple of times, but I think now we see what kind of leader he is on and off the floor, what kind of floor game he plays on both ends of the floor, and he's been phenomenal."

Dealing for Kidd represented the Mavs' first major move in remodeling the roster after they blew a 2-0 lead against Dwyane Wade's Heat (and the officiating crews, many Mavs fans and members of the organization would add).

Nowitzki and Jason Terry are the only players remaining from the 2006 Finals roster, and Terry's role has changed from starting point guard to shoot-first sixth man. The Mavs have completely changed the supporting cast with a series of moves.

The Dallas front office has been "opportunistic," which might be Cuban's favorite word that is fit to print. Cuban and Co. have been creative. The billionaire has been willing to spend. And, in some instances, the Mavs have been lucky.

"A lot of it is working your butt off -- you and your staff -- but a lot of it is being at the right place at the right time, too," president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said. "Just like the sport of basketball. You prepare, you have your training camp, you do everything you can, but at the same time, you have to play well at the right time, be injury-free and things have got to break for you a little bit."

The Mavs made a lot of moves since their previous NBA Finals appearance. After four years of frustration, they finally paid off this postseason.

Here is a look at how the Mavs, with the Kidd trade as the key transaction, have renovated their roster in the past five years:

The All-Star break blockbuster: Josh Howard had to go, plain and simple. His teammates no longer trusted him, the welcome worn out by a long list of poor off-court decisions and inconsistent effort on the floor.

Fortunately for the Mavs, Howard had an eight-figure expiring contract that was extremely attractive in the market leading up to the 2010 trade deadline.

They pulled the trigger on a trade with the cash-conscious Washington Wizards on All-Star Saturday. After the dunk contest and other events were done at the American Airlines Center, Cuban stood outside the Mavericks' offices and raved about the trade that they made.

The return for Howard and three reserves who also had expiring contracts: two-time All-Star small forward Caron Butler, big man Brendan Haywood and shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson.

It was an awkward fit at first for Butler, who was squeezed into the shooting guard spot for the final few months of that season. But the Mavs adjusted their starting lineup this season to feature Butler at his natural small forward position, a move that paid off with a 24-7 start before he ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee.

It's a shame that Butler is expected to be sidelined through the Finals. The Mavs could use his rugged defense against LeBron James, plus he served as a capable co-No. 2 scorer with Terry.

But the deal is still paying dividends for Dallas.

Haywood re-signed over the summer for a guaranteed $42 million over five years. He expected to be the starting center, but he's become one of the NBA's best backup big men, peaking during the playoffs after originally struggling to adjust to the reserve role.

Stevenson was included in the deal as a throw-in, as Washington wanted to dump his salary of $4.1 million this season. He's become a valuable piece of the Mavs' core. He's started at shooting guard most of the season, falling out of the rotation upon Rodrigue Beaubois' return from a broken foot at the end of the regular season.

When Stevenson is on, he's a deadly spot-up 3-point shooter. That's hit-and-miss, however. His defensive presence is a constant. Stevenson doesn't usually play heavy minutes, but his rugged defensive presence sets a tone for Dallas.

The big upgrade for Chandler: The Mavs hoped to use Erick Dampier's instantly expiring contract to land a "big fish," to borrow a term from Lil' Nellie. Oh, say, maybe one of those superstars they'll see in Miami.

That didn't happen, but the Mavs still managed to use the unique contract to make a major improvement.

Dampier, a high-dollar disappointment during his six-year tenure in Dallas, had value last summer because he didn't hit the incentives to guarantee the final season of his contract. That meant his $13 million salary could simply be wiped off the books by any team that dealt for him.

[+] EnlargeTyson Chandler
Harry How/Getty ImagesThe Mavericks turned Erick Dampier's contract into Tyson Chandler, who has been the catalyst for the team's defensive turnaround.

That ended up being the Charlotte Bobcats after the Mavs missed on their top targets. They settled for center Tyson Chandler, who turned out to be a perfect complement to Nowitzki as an athletic, defensive-minded, high-energy and most importantly healthy big man.

"The Tyson Chandler deal was serendipitous," Nelson said.

Nelson said that for two reasons: (1) The Bobcats reneged on a deal to send Chandler to Toronto right before the Mavs swooped in; (2) After missing 68 games over the past two seasons due to a bad ankle, Chandler arrived in Dallas with a clean bill of health.

Chandler has turned out to be every bit as good as the Mavs hoped, almost averaging a double-double while anchoring a much-improved defense and quickly emerging as the team's emotional leader. Re-signing him will be Dallas' top priority once the looming lockout is lifted.

As a bonus, the Mavs managed to dump the contracts of Eduardo Najera and Matt Carroll in a deal that was done because the Bobcats wanted to cut costs.

Adding Shawn Marion: Give agent Dan Fegan, who also represents Dampier and Terry among others, a big assist for this deal.

The Mavs wanted a defensive stopper with some offensive punch. Shawn Marion fit the bill. Fegan helped put together a complicated four-team deal to make the sign-and-trade arrangement after the 2009 season.

Marion, a four-time All-Star for who signed a max deal with the Phoenix Suns, wanted to play for a contender after spending time in post-Shaq Miami and Toronto. He got a five-year, $40 million deal to come to Dallas, which was only made possible by Hedo Turkoglu's 11th-hour decision to go to Toronto instead of Portland.

Marion has not put up All-Star numbers in Dallas. He has, however, been a central figure in the Mavs' march to the Finals.

"Anybody who still thinks Shawn Marion is overpaid is a [expletive] idiot," one member of the Mavs' front office said after Marion scored 26 points and played excellent defense on Kevin Durant during Dallas' Western Conference finals finale against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Barea bargain: He was an undersized, undrafted afterthought in 2006.

Now, J.J. Barea is a key cog on arguably the best bench in basketball and the best penetrator on the Mavs' roster. The pride of Puerto Rico averaged double digits in points over the final 50 games of the regular season and put up 8.9 points and 3.5 assists in 17.5 minutes during this playoff run.

If the Mavs knew Barea would be this good, they would have drafted him out of Northeastern. But they at least get credit for believing Barea, generously listed at 6-foot, had NBA potential.

Dallas developed Barea for two seasons and saw enough promise in him to re-sign him to a three-year, $4.8 million deal. That contract, which expires at the end of this season, looks like a major bargain after Barea has blossomed.

Stojakovic That was really a playoff move. We had time to get him healthy, and it ended up being one of those deals that click.

-- Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson on signing Peja Stojakovic (pictured)

Signing Stojakovic: The Mavericks knew Peja's three-time All-Star days were in the past when they signed him in the middle of this season, but they hoped he could help them make a postseason run.

They were right.

Stojakovic didn't really test the market after receiving a buyout from the Raptors in late January. He came right to Dallas, signing for a prorated version of the veteran's minimum.

The Mavs basically assigned Stojakovic to a basketball boot camp, putting him through drills for a couple of weeks to prepare him after the 13-year veteran had been sidelined due to a minor knee injury.

"That was really a playoff move," Nelson said. "We had time to get him healthy, and it ended up being one of those deals that click."

It's clicked for 40 percent 3-point shooting -- and a pair of 21-point games -- off the bench during the postseason.

The rest of the roster: There is hope for the future here.

Well, other than Brian Cardinal, whose value is primarily as a practice body. He's an 11-year vet who earned the right to stay after signing a nonguaranteed contract last summer.

The Mavs still have high hopes for Beaubois.

Frankly, they expected the dynamically athletic second-year guard to be a big part of this season's success, even after a broken foot sidelined him for two-thirds of the season. His confidence will have to be repaired after Beaubois struggled and was stripped of his starting role at the end of the regular season, but the Mavs certainly have no regrets about investing a late 2009 first-round pick in the little-known native of Guadeloupe, a French territory.

Maybe Ian Mahinmi, another Frenchman, will also develop into a core player for the Mavs. They signed the athletic power forward/center as a minimum-salaried free agent last summer after he spent two years with the Spurs.

Combo guard Dominique Jones, whom Cuban coughed up $3 million to take with the 25th overall pick last summer, is also in the wait-and-see category.

The Mavs are counting on significant contributions from Corey Brewer in the next couple of years. Brewer, once a mid-lottery pick by Minnesota, opted to sign a three-year deal with the Mavs after being courted by a handful of contenders after the New York Knicks released him soon after acquiring him in the Carmelo Anthony deal in February.

One could argue that Brewer's performance in Game 1 of the West semifinals has already justified his signing. In his only extended appearance of the playoffs so far, Brewer sparked a 17-4 run after the Lakers built a 16-point lead, making the Mavs' comeback possible and setting the tone for the stunning sweep.

"It's almost like we're this band of pieces that are fitting well," Nelson said, "and it's really fun to be around."

Four more wins and the fun really begins.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.

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