Ex-Mavs coach Nelson wins $6.3M in arbitration against Cuban
Thursday was Mark Cuban's 50th birthday and a day of hearty celebration for Don Nelson.
That's because Thursday was also the day that a Dallas-based arbitrator ruled that Nelson will indeed receive nearly $6.3 million in deferred payments from his time as coach of Cuban's Dallas Mavericks.
It's like a pimple on his behind for [Cuban], but [$6-plus million is] a big number for me ... It's good to know I'm going to get it.
Retired judge Glen M. Ashworth rejected Cuban's claims that his former coach should have to forfeit some or all of that amount because he breached his Mavericks contract in returning to the Golden State Warriors.
Ashworth instead ruled heavily in favor of Nelson's breach-of-contract claim against the Mavericks' loquacious owner, dismissing Cuban's counterclaims that Nelson violated a noncompete clause in his contract as a Mavs consultant when he took over as head coach of the Warriors in August 2006. Cuban's contention that Nelson used "confidential information" from his stint as Dallas' coach to lead Golden State to a historic upset of the 67-win Mavericks in the first round of the 2007 playoffs was also rejected.
Yet Cuban insisted after the ruling that "there was no downside" for him to take Nelson to arbitration because he would have been required to pay a similar amount to Nelson even if they had parted amicably.
"I got exactly what I wanted out of the deal -- the true facts of the situation," Cuban said via e-mail. "I feel a lot better knowing that under oath [Nelson] said that [during Dallas' NBA] Finals games [in 2006] that he was meeting with [Golden State's] GM and helping the Warriors work on their draft plans. [And] that he and his lawyers had started discussions more than a month before he took the job, not days as he said publicly.
"Unfortunately, according to the arbitrator, because I held back about $25,000 in [consulting] payments as I tried to understand the situation, I am obligated to pay him the deferred money he was to be paid. Basically I pay him the exact same amount I would [have paid him] had this not happened.
"I can live with that. It was all worth the hassle to find out what really happened."
Nelson's lawyer, San Francisco-based John O'Connor, had a different view, calling Ashworth's decision "not so much a legal defeat for Cuban as it was an old-fashioned ass-whuppin'." According to O'Connor, Nelson must now receive $6,276,638.46 in one lump sum from Cuban as opposed to gradual payments through 2012.
The ruling granted Nelson, who turned 68 in May, just under $1.96 million in overdue deferred compensation, nearly $147,000 in interest on overdue payments and almost $4.2 million in present-day value of future deferred compensation to reach that total.
Reached at his offseason home in Maui, Nelson told ESPN.com: "It's a good day. I'm relieved it ended the way it did. I didn't think I would lose and I didn't think he would win, but you just never know when you go to court.
"It was kind of a silly case. It's like a pimple on his behind for [Cuban], but [$6-plus million is] a big number for me. I don't feel like I've won the lottery because I've already earned that money, but it's good to know I'm going to get it.
"It's not the way I wanted this to go. I wanted to be the Red Auerbach of the Dallas Mavericks [after coaching], but that's not what [Cuban] wanted. The good news is all this has forced me to continue coaching and I'm really enjoying working with Mully [Warriors vice president of basketball operations Chris Mullin] and being back with the Warriors. I'm having fun again and that's the way it should be. It's all working out great and I'll probably end up doing something [in a franchise patriarch role] like I thought I was going to do in Dallas."
Ashworth's ruling came just over a month after Nelson and Cuban -- who were barely on speaking terms in Nelson's final months with the franchise -- were reunited for three days' worth of testimony at an arbitration hearing in Dallas in June. Nelson said he and Cuban had limited interaction at the hearing beyond a few awkward meetings "in the men's room."
The Cuban-Nelson relationship -- after they combined with stars Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley to transform the NBA's laughingstock franchise of the 1990s into a perennial 50-win team -- began to unravel during the 2003 Western Conference finals. They clashed over Nelson's reluctance to play Nowitzki again in that series after the 7-footer suffered a knee injury in a Game 3 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, leading to a showdown before what wound up as a crushing Game 6 defeat at home in which Nelson told Cuban that he would have to fire Nelson if he wanted Nowitzki to play.
The relationship deteriorated further during that offseason, thanks to contentious contract negotiations which ultimately resulted in Nelson agreeing to coach the Mavericks for three more seasons and serve as a consultant for five years beyond that. But the relationship only got worse when Nelson stunned his players and his boss by abruptly canceling practice before the Game 5 in Sacramento that eliminated the Mavericks in the first round of the 2004 playoffs, which was followed by Nash's free-agent defection to Phoenix just two months later.
Late in Year 2 of the coaching extension, with even Nelson admitting that the club was responding better to assistant coach Avery Johnson and with just 18 games remaining in the regular season, Nelson and Cuban reached an agreement that would immediately install Johnson as head coach and pay Nelson his full '05-06 salary of $5 million.
Cuban initially proclaimed Nelson to be the Auerbach-inspired "godfather" of the Mavs after his coaching resignation, but the wedge between them only widened. Nelson claimed that Cuban never used him as a consultant, ignoring his e-mails and barring him from attending training camp, practices and from flying on the team plane. Cuban countered by saying that Nelson forced him to institute a ban because of Nelson's "negativity" regarding Johnson and the Nash-less team he left behind.
Ashworth ultimately ruled that Cuban breached the contract first by withholding consulting payments starting on July 1, 2006. Cuban inherited the $6-plus million in deferred payments when he bought the team in 2000 from the previous ownership group headed by Ross Perot Jr.
Nelson's $6.3 million takeaway was termed in Ashworth's ruling as an "interim award" which becomes final when both parties sort out attorneys' fees. But there is no means for appeal in this case, effectively ending almost two years of legal haggling between Cuban and Nelson.
The one area they still agree on is a shared fondness for Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, son of the elder Nelson.
Donnie Nelson has continued to work as Cuban's No. 1 confidante since his father left the organization -- Nelson was even offered the Mavs' coaching job before the hiring of Rick Carlisle, as ESPN.com reported in May and thus was intentionally excluded from testifying in the case by both Cuban and Don Nelson.
"I would have been bitter had I lost, but I can hold no grudges," Don Nelson said. "I'll just be as cordial as I can [to Cuban] from now on."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.