The Mark Cuban Era in Dallas

Posted on October 17, 2007 by

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Mark Cuban became the majority owner of the Dallas Mavericks towards the end of the 1999-00 season (the deal was approved by the NBA on April 11, 2000).  The team Cuban purchased was just finishing its 20th season in the Association. In those 20 years the Mavericks had won 40% of its regular season games.  In only six seasons did the Mavericks win more than half its games, and the 50 win barrier was only surpassed twice. In sum, the Mavericks were historically a bad team. 

With Cuban in charge, though, the Mavericks have been outstanding. Across the past seven seasons the Mavericks have won at least 52 games every time, with an average record of 58.1 victories per season.  Only the San Antonio Spurs have done better (59.0 average).  So what’s been the key (or keys) to this team’s success?

The Dallas Star

When looking at a team you have to start with the “star” or the most productive player.  And on the Mavericks, the star is Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki was drafted by Milwaukee in 1998, but then traded that night to Dallas (for Robert Traylor).  So he was in Dallas before Cuban bought the team.  In fact, he’s the only player who has been with the Mavericks since Cuban took over.

Before Cuban arrived, Nowitzki didn’t do very much.  Across his first two seasons in the league he only produced 4.6 victories (in fact, after two years Traylor had a higher WP48).  But beginning with the 2000-01 campaign, Nowitzki has been very good.  Across the past seven seasons Nowitzki has produced 114 wins and posted a WP48 (Wins Produced per 48 minutes) of 0.261.  Given that the team has won 407 games, 28% of the Mavericks regular seasons success can be linked to its star player (and for those interested, Traylor finished his career with exactly 10 Wins Produced).

The Supporting Cast

Having one great player is important, but it takes more than that to be successful. You also have to employ a great supporting cast.  In the discussion of the Pareto Principle I reported for each team in 2006-07 two sets of Wins Produced numbers.  First I noted the Wins Produced from the top three players on each roster.  And then I noted the Wins Produced from the non-top three players (or the supporting cast).

Last year the Houston Rockets had the best supporting cast, with the non-top three producing 26.7 wins. In contrast, the non-top three in New Jersey only offered -0.7 wins.   So the range in non-top three production is quite large.

Although in general we see a fair amount of variation in supporting cast production, that’s not the story when we look at the Mavericks in the Cuban Era (2000-01 to 2006-07).  From Table One we can see that the non-top three in Dallas have been consistently good.

Table One: The Mavericks in the Cuban Era

In low point for the non-top three was Cuban’s first year, when the supporting cast in Dallas produced 17.5 wins.  The best year was 2005-06, when the non-top three offered 23.7 victories.  Comparing these results to what we saw in 2006-07 for all teams, the Mavericks’ worst supporting cast – seen in 2000-01 – would have been the 6th best non-top three in the Association last year. 

Let’s give some more perspective on the quality of the supporting cast in Dallas. The Phoenix Suns had the second best record in the NBA last year.  But only 8.5 victories in Phoenix could be tied to its supporting cast. Almost everything the Sun did last season was linked to the play of Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, and Amare Stoudemire.

If we consider the best team of all-time – the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls – we again see that it was the top-three that led the way.  Only 15.4 victories on that team could be tied to its supporting cast (the rest were produced by Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, and Scottie Pippen).

In sum, top teams don’t always have great supporting cast.  But in Dallas, a great supporting cast has been the one constant.   Cuban, and of course his management team, have consistently assembled a large collection of above average performers.  And the names in this collection have not been constant.  No, despite significant roster turnover (remember, Nowitzski is the only player to stay with the team throughout the Cuban era), the Mavericks consistently employ a number of players who clear the average WP48 mark (average is 0.100).

The Past Two Years

This collection appears to have peaked across the past two seasons.  In 2006 the Mavericks came quite close to winning the NBA title.  And then last year, the Mavericks finished the regular season with 67 victories.  Although this mark was the best in the league, the first round of the playoffs went quite badly.  After six first round games against the Golden State Warriors, the Mavericks season was over. 

Although the playoffs didn’t work out as planned, the 2006-07 regular season was quite successful.  In fact, it was the second most successful regular season in team history.

Okay, wait a minute. They won 67 games and that’s the most in team history.  So wasn’t last year the best Mavericks team in the history of this franchise?

In reviewing the Phoenix Suns last Saturday I noted the practice of evaluating teams by looking at efficiency differential [or offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency (or points per possession minus points surrendered per possession)].  The Mavericks in 2006-07 posted a differential of 7.8. This was quite good, but it was actually bested in team history by the 2002-03 squad (which had a 8.2 differential).  It was also bested by the San Antonio Spurs in 2006-07.  So the Mavericks last year were not “the best” team in franchise history or the Association.

Still, they were quite good and actually a bit better than the team that reached the Finals in 2006.  When we compare the rosters in 2005-06 and 2006-07, we see that the changes to the team – or the players added and lost – were not why the Mavericks took a small step forward in 2006-07 (and I would emphasize “small step”).

Table Two: The Dallas Mavericks in 2005-06 and 2006-07

The players the Mavericks added to the roster last year combined to produce -0.1 wins, with no player offering more than 0.9 Wins Produced.  In contrast, the players removed from the roster had produced 10.5 wins in 2005-06.  Dallas was able to overcome this loss because every player who returned (except for DJ Mbenga who only played 79 minutes last year) played better in 2006-07.     

Going Forward

In all, the 2006-07 team employed six above average performer in the regular rotation, with three players (Nowitzki, Josh Howard, and Erick Dampier) clearing the 0.200 mark.

This next season will start without Dampier, who is currently hurt.  The Mavericks, though, have added Eddie Jones to the mix.  E.Jones, as I noted last season (in this table), has been consistently above average throughout his career.  Additionally the team added Trenton Hassell.  Hassell is below average, but an upgrade over Greg Buckner.

In sum, if the improvements we saw last year remains, it’s possible the Mavericks will be a bit better this next season.  And if that happens, Cuban’s team will contend for the eight consecutive season. 

So will the Mavericks finally win a title?  In a few days I will post my forecast where I will manage to say much in general but little that is specific (in other words, I will talk like an economist). 

In the meantime, let’s ask this question: Does Cuban get credit for the recent success of this team?  Well, that’s hard to say.  There are a host of coaches and players who deserve quite a bit of credit.  And I would also note the impact of Wayne Winston.  Since The Wages of Wins came out I have gotten to know Winston (creator of the adjusted plus-minus system and University of Indiana profess0r), who works with the Mavericks. Maybe the team’s success is not due to Cuban, but rather Cuban’s former college professor.  In fact, I like that story.  Professors should get more credit for their student’s success (and of course, none of the blame for their failures).

– DJ

For a discussion of other teams see NBA Team Reviews: 2006-07

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The equation connecting wins to offensive/defensive efficiency is given HERE

Wins Produced and Win Score are discussed in the following posts

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say