Less Money Then, More (Dirk) Money Now

Two summers ago when free agent Dirk Nowitzki left $20 million dollars on the table, it was an admirable leap of faith and trust. It spoke to Nowitzki’s generosity and selflessness. But it was also a branch from an international tree. Dirk Nowitzki wasn’t American born. His development outside of the United States left him naive to a capitalistic ideology that advocates making as much money as you can.

The basic philosophy was this: if Nowitzki takes a huge pay cut it would then allow Mark Cuban to bring in players and build a championship team around him. It’s a good theory on paper but the practicality of it was always hit or miss.

There was a recent precedent for Nowitzki to lean on. Tim Duncan took a pay cut. The Spurs are the gold standard of organizations, not just because of leadership and talented players, but because they are brilliant talent evaluators. They understand who fits well within their particular structure and how they can manage their assigned roles. It’s easy to take less money for a team that has not missed the playoffs in almost 20 years.

2015-16 Salary Salary (per game played) Points FG% PER
Kevin Garnett $8.5 mil $223, 684 (38games) 3.2 47% 12.3
Tim Duncan $5.25 mil $86,065 (61 games) 8.6 48.8 16.9
Dirk Nowitzki $8.33 mil $111,066 (75 games) 18.3 44.8% 19.0

This past season, Dirk Nowitzki was paid like he had one foot out the retirement door, as if he has regressed into old man Dirk and was only giving the Mavs between 8-10 ppg.

No more. Nowitzki signed a deal to pay him $40 million over the next two years. If Dirk completes the contract, he and Kobe Bryant will be the only NBA players to  have played 20 years with the same franchise. There is more irony. Bryant was drafted with the 13th pick by the Charlotte Hornets and traded to Los Angeles. Dirk was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 9th pick and traded to Dallas.  Dirk will be 40 years old by the end of his contract, three years older than when Bryant stepped away from the game for good.

The fact that Nowitzki was trusting Cuban to build a contender around him when that has never been Cuban’s specialty only spoke to Nowitzki’s blind trust. In Nowitzki’s 18 year career, the Mavs have missed the playoffs three times. They have  lost in the first round 8 times, lost in the second round four times and lost in the Western Conference Finals once. Or, to put it another way, the chance of Dirk Nowitzki  getting to the WCF in year 19, based on his past experiences, are 16%. His chances of losing in the first round are 44%.

The Mavericks were hoping to lure free agents Mike Conely and Hassan Whiteside to Dallas. Both players re-signed with their teams which left the Mavs plenty of room to re-sign Dirk for a price more aligned to his value.

Nowtizki led the Mavericks in 2006 to 60 wins but they gagged in the NBA Finals after they led the Miami Heat 2-0. The Mavs couldn’t handle getting punched in the mouth, they rarely fought back and they lost the title in front of their fans.

The Mavs 2011 title was what happens when a door opens and you walk right through. The naked arrogance of the Miami Heat led them to believe Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd were far beneath their level of talent. This gross miscalculation delivered Nowitzki that one beautiful thing he had yearned for ever since he was drafted in 1998.

The summer following the Mavs title, one that sent LeBron James into seclusion, Mark Cuban broke up the team, giving the Mavericks zero opportunity to defend their title.

There is an irony here no one wants to discuss. NBA players are the only labor force asked to devalue their worth so owners can enrich theirs. The players are supposed to be socialists so the owners can be capitalists.

It all comes down to this: Dirk Nowitzki was operating on conviction when he took less money, believing  Cuban would build a contender. He made $8 million dollars per year in 2015-16. He made the same amount of money as Brandon Jennings and he made less than Lance Stephenson.

The Mavericks were an awful defensive team in 2014-15, and in a greedy superstar loving moment, they signed Rajon Rondo which wrecked their offense, screwing them further. They slotted into a lower level playoff seed that only meant they would be tossed in the first round of the playoffs in 2015.

This year the faces were different but what changed? Mark Cuban chased DeAndre Jordan and enticed him into a max deal, promising Jordan the offense would run through him. It was humorous. Had Cuban ever seen Jordan play? He’s a great, great pick and roll defender, shot blocker, rebounder. His specialty is put backs and having a good time. As the summer walked itself back, Jordan’s maturity and leadership, which registers about 2 out of 100, showed. He held the Mavs hostage with his yes, no, maybe. It was just a reminder how careful you have to be when throwing money around. Jordan didn’t deserve the payday the Mavs were offering. And, neither did Dirk Nowitzki the year before. One should have been less. One should have been more.

The Mavs replaced Jordan with Zaza Pachulia who had a nice year (8.6 points, 9.4 rebounds) but is not who you want in the playoffs. Before the 2015-16 season started, party loving Chandler Parsons had knee surgery. Richard Jefferson committed to the Mavs only to de-commit and partner up with LeBron James. All the Mavs had to work with in 2015-16 was a very different and soon to be injured Deron Williams, a coming off an Achilles injury Wesley Matthews, an inconsistent Parsons and a poorer than he should be in the wallet Dirk Nowitzki. Not to mention, the always snickered about (around the league) Raymond Felton.

So what did the pay cut get Nowitzki besides admiration and respect? It got him a first round appearance in the playoffs and nothing else.  This year the Mavs repeated last year’s history, lingering at home in April.

But patient Nowitzki who did his part was compensated when Cuban’s plans blew up in his face. Cuban was supposed to rebuild the team with the Nowitzki pay cut, bring a couple of 27 years old on board. It’s one more reminder that Dirk Nowitzki did a loyal thing two years ago.

The cautionary tale for athletes is trust. Owners want you to trust them when they slash your earnings and yet they refuse to do the same. NBA owners repeatedly negotiate for the suppression of players salaries. Cuban was happy Nowitzki took less. Cuban got the benefit, Nowitzki got the playoff pain. Cuban himself lost zero dollars in the deal, in fact he made money because he didn’t have the fat luxury tax bill had he signed Nowitzki to his worth of $13-15 million.

And so it is the last two years of Dirk Nowitzki and the promise that could never be delivered on and the money he will never, ever see, lost to him because he trusted Mark Cuban to make the Mavs great. This summer he trusted Mark Cuban to live up to his word and honor Dirk Nowitzki, not just for the past and his achievements, but for the future too.

 

photo via llananba