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Mark Cuban Is In Loser Mode Showing Texts

Mark Cuban shrugs.
Tim Heitman/Getty Images

The Dallas Mavericks are in immediate danger of missing the play-in. They're in 11th place in the Western Conference with two games left to play, and they have yet to establish anything resembling a happy groove since overhauling their rotation to acquire Kyrie Irving at the February trade deadline. It's a miserable, unthinkable condition for a team that just last season won 52 regular-season games and advanced to the Western Conference Finals. The strain of taking a big organizational step in the wrong direction has been showing on the Mavericks for weeks, if not months, in the form of deflated body language, grumbly, despairing public comments, and openly souring team chemistry. The latest member of the franchise to get in on the moaning is owner Mark Cuban.

Last season, the Mavericks had current Knick Jalen Brunson around to do some of the heavy lifting alongside Luka Doncic. Brunson had a breakout year, rising from an efficient reserve to an indispensable starter to a playoff superhero, timed fortuitously to the expiration of his rookie contract. Brunson played his first four years as a professional paid like a second-round pick; by the end of his remarkable fourth season Brunson was outperforming his salary by tens of millions of dollars. The Mavs, who are otherwise low on future draft picks and limited in free agency by the NBA's salary cap and luxury tax, had every incentive to empty their wallets to re-sign him, and indeed had the all-important Bird Rights that allow a team to spend beyond the salary cap to retain their own players. The hitch is the Mavericks needed to wait until the start of free agency in order to utilize the advantages given to the home team under the league's salary structure, and meanwhile the Knicks were hiring Brunson's dad, Rick Brunson, and working behind the scenes to court Dallas's rising second banana.

Brunson eventually followed his father to the Knicks, on a four-year contract that will take him into his prime years. Notably, the Knicks were later punished by the NBA for tampering and were docked a future draft pick for having contract discussions with Brunson prior to the start of free agency. Brunson has kicked major ass with the Knicks. The Mavericks, meanwhile, tried to fill Brunson's role with Spencer Dinwiddie; when they found themselves hovering around .500 and playing miserable basketball in February, they pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal for Irving, who surpasses Brunson (and just about everyone else) as an isolation scorer but who cannot hope to address the team's defensive deficiencies, and who uhhh is not a natural choice to repair a team's cohesion and chemistry. When asked Tuesday whether the struggling Mavericks miss having Brunson around, Doncic chuckled, shrugged, and said what everyone already knows:

When asked what is holding back the Brunson-less Mavericks of 2023, Doncic zeroed in on team chemistry. "I think you don’t see that chemistry that we had before," Doncic explained, per the Dallas Morning News. "I mean, especially last year. I think that chemistry was at the top with everybody, but you know, chemistry builds and not right away, so it’s a long process.” Doncic liked playing with Brunson; Brunson is super good; his fit in the rotation and in the locker room is a hard thing to replicate, and Doncic and the Mavericks are feeling the lack.

Cuban, sensing that The Brunson Situation is still hovering over his team like a pesky storm cloud, held an impromptu press conference Wednesday, with the evident goal of sparing himself any blame for letting a key contributor get away. According to Cuban, who recited aloud text messages he says were exchanged between Mavs general manager Nico Harrison and Brunson's agent, the Mavericks made what they considered their best effort to retain Brunson, but only learned after the fact that they never had a chance. "Where it went south was when Rick took over, when the parent took over, or parents took over," Cuban lamented. "We wanted to re-sign him and we wanted to keep the season going together. We thought—because JB kept on telling us—he liked being here. JB never gave us an indication. It was only the parents that were the issue."

According to Cuban, Harrison was told by Brunson's agent that Brunson expected to pull in a contract in free agency worth $18 to $23 million per season. That message apparently came to Harrison by way of Rick Brunson, and the Mavericks, who'd only been allowed to that point to formally discuss a significantly cheaper extension of Brunson's rookie contract, didn't consider that something worth serious consideration. "We aren't gonna make a decision on JB based on what Aaron says his dad wants in July," Cuban quotes Harrison as having communicated in a text message. But it turns out to have been a fairly significant clue to Brunson's market value: The contract Brunson signed with the Knicks pays him $26 million per season.

According to Cuban, the Mavericks made it all the way to the opening of free agency under the impression that Brunson would give them something like right-of-first-refusal. "I mean, there was no negotiation. They didn't give us a number. I mean, you would think that when you're the incumbent team and you can match anything, that's the way it works. Right? You have a relationship with the agent and they want to at least give you a chance because you helped develop the player. You had him for four years. OK, let's work together." But then, confusingly, Cuban says the Mavericks had every indication as early as February 2022 that New York's hiring of Rick Brunson was going to present a major challenge. "Nico back then is saying—this is in February—'I agree with you, but I think just the New York thing is too tied to their family to overcome.'"

Notably absent from the texts shared by Cuban Wednesday is the one text you absolutely do not fail to send if you "would've paid in a heartbeat" what it would've taken to top the Knicks' offer in free agency: The one that says "we will pay whatever it takes to top the Knicks' offer in free agency." Also notably absent from Cuban's unscheduled presser is the dignity you'd expect from the leadership of a team that is still fighting for their dang playoff lives! My advice to a team that is trying to build chemistry in order to salvage a season on the brink of disaster is for at least one member of the organization to refrain from marching around in public screaming about how badly they wish they still had a guy who preferred to play for another team.

The good news for Mavericks fans is Cuban swears this time he is super extremely serious about not letting his second-banana point guard get away. "I'd love to have him stay for sure," Cuban said, of Kyrie Irving, the 31-year-old spiral-eyed journeyman who has failed to lift his team out of the toilet. "I'd love to have him. I want him to stay for sure, and I think we have a good shot. I think he's happy here. He tells me he's happy here, and I get along great with him. I think he's a good guy. All I can tell you is everything I thought I knew about Kyrie because of everything I read was 100 percent wrong." Sounds great!

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