The whole league has been waiting. A splashy reponse from Mark Cuban, to counter what the rest of the West's best teams just did, has been anticipated for a month.
Well, guess what?
That's really not what this is.
This is not the Mavericks' desperation move. This is actually their concession speech, only without the words.
Not long after the deal was officially announced, the theory will be circulated that this is Dallas' panicked riposte to keep up with the Spurs, Lakers, Kings and -- yes -- those hard-charging Wolves from Minnesota.
In truth, the trade is more of an unspoken admission from the Mavericks that Small Ball has taken them as far as they can go in the unforgiving Western Conference. Agreeing to part with Nick Van Exel and Avery Johnson -- two of their most treasured chips -- in return for no one taller than Antawn Jamison amounts instead to a change in philosophy and the Mavericks' risky first step in the restructuring of their roster.
As recently as February, Cuban entered the trade-deadline period with a vow not to take on any significant salaries in a deal unless the move was a clear over-the-top acquisition. That's why Cuban vetoed a Van Exel-for-Brian Grant swap with Miami, on the premise that Grant couldn't be considered the missing piece to a championship. Cuban made that ruling without even knowing that Van Exel would emerge as the Mavericks' playoff hero, sparking them to the finals of an injury-strewn West.
As recently as July 1, Dallas went into the offseason determined to preserve its core four of Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Michael Finley and Van Exel and add Alonzo Mourning to the group. On the premise that Mourning would be healthy enough to supply all these things, the capped-out Mavericks saw him as the only free agent they could get who could markedly improve their rebounding, interior defense and toughness. Besides, as one team insider notes: "We've been trying to get Zo forever."
All those plans have since been chucked. The Mavericks thought they had a commitment from Mourning, who instead decided to accompany Jason Kidd in New Jersey. They tried to make a sign-and-trade swoop for Brad Miller as their Plan B, but had no chance unless they parted with Nash, something that was never going to happen. Then they came close to convincing Miami to give up Grant in exchange for Johnson, Evan Eschmeyer, Walt Williams and Popeye Jones in a deal designed to provide the Heat with some serious salary-cap relief and nothing more. Pat Riley ultimately decided that he would need a legitimate player in return, and that's when the Mavericks gave in to a reality they have seen for months but hoped to ignore if at all possible.
The Mavericks knew, even as Van Exel became a playoff darling, that they would eventually have to trade him. No one in the organization wants to -- least of all the Nowitzki/Nash/Finley triumvirate that has embraced Van Exel faster than anyone envisioned -- but the Mavericks realize they can no longer survive defensively with a Nashy-and-Nicky backcourt. Not in the new West, where the other top four contenders have all gotten deeper or bigger or starrier.
If they could have acquired Mourning, the Mavericks would have given it one last try. Maybe even with Miller. Once those options were taken away, Dallas gave into the notion that it would have to part with Van Exel and immediately sought a best-case-scenario move. The Mavericks basically began looking for a trade that would keep them at their current level of elite contender ... but provide for an opportunity to keep tinkering and molding to be something more significant in a season or two.
The result? Not a trade for Grant. Nor a move for New York's Kurt Thomas. Dallas preferred the upside of the high-scoring Jamison to fill its other big void -- at small forward -- thereby setting up Finley to operate as a bigger shooting guard as opposed to a smallish three-man. Playing Finley at the two and Jamison at the three, where both should be good rebounders, gives the Mavericks some length to compensate for the bulk Nowitzki and Raef LaFrentz are giving away, whichever of those two is forced to play center.
Replacing players who had little shot at contributing in a playoff series (Eschmeyer, Jones and Johnson) with three who will play (Jamison, Danny Fortson and Jiri Welsch) is another plus for a team that was considerably thinner on the bench than its national reputation suggests.
But let's be clear here. Even if Welsch develops into a dependable big ball-handler, and even if Fortson resurrects his career to rebound the way he has at his best, the trade still raises a number of concerns for the Mavericks:
After sporting the league's best backup point guard not named Bobby Jackson, Dallas has no backup point guard at all, with few appealing names on the list of available replacements.
The Mavericks were concerned about the physical burden Nash's body bears even with Van Exel around and will fret about it much more now. Especially with Nash entering the final season of his contract, and suddenly in a greater position to command a lucrative long-term deal to add to all the lucrative long-term deals Cuban is already bankrolling: Nowitzki, Finley, Jamison and LaFrentz.
They basically strengthened a strength (scoring) without improving a major weakness (defense). Jamison can grab six to eight rebounds nightly, and Fortson should lead the team in rebounds-per-minute, but neither is a stopper and neither is big enough to trouble the West heavyweights inside. Golden State has two decent centers on its roster (Erick Dampier and Adonal Foyle) and Dallas came back with neither one in this swap.
After the Mavericks were eliminated by San Antonio, 4-2, in the conference finals, Cuban himself said that "leadership means as much as to me as rebounding." Arguably his two biggest leaders have been sacrificed to get Jamison, who has never played one second of playoff basketball.
The leadership Johnson provided was especially valuable, because Cuban was hoping to groom him as Don Nelson's down-the-road replacement as head coach. Now the Mavericks have to hope that the Warriors waive Johnson or find another way to bring the Lil' General back.
The biggest question, of course, is whether a Jamison-led package is the best Dallas could get for Van Exel, and only time will provide that determination. How Jamison develops as a fourth wheel, making franchise-player money, makes it either a visionary move or a costly gamble. The good news: Nowitzki and Jamison are from the same draft (1998) and should form a successful and longstanding frontcourt partnership, since both are young and since both can punish small forwards down low and power forwards on the perimeter. They'll be tough to guard when they play together.
It has already been suggested, meanwhile, that perhaps Fortson -- coming to the Mavericks at an all-time low like Van Exel did -- will rebound figuratively like Van Exel did, thus making this deal a Dallas steal. Nice idea, but that scenario only reminds you that the Mavericks' last blockbuster deal worked out all wrong. LaFrentz was supposed to be the big prize in February of 2002.
Instead it was Van Exel, and that's why the Mavericks don't need to be told that they're more than one desperation move away from title contention in the new West. That's why they've surrendered their playoff heart and soul -- "I think he's their main guy," Sacramento's Vlade Divac said during the Kings' seven-game loss to the Mavs -- to embark on a new approach.
As noted above, the Mavericks still have plenty of holes to patch. But at least they're not denying it. They reluctantly broke up the Nash-Van Exel tag team because that enabled them to get younger, deeper and longer in the process.
That's not as good as beefier and tougher, which is how they were hoping to look at the end of this summer's free-agent frenzy, but it's a start. Just not the start anyone expected.