Sports

GARY WASHBURN | SUNDAY BASKETBALL NOTES

If you want Mark Cuban’s opinion, all you have to do is ask

He remains the most entertaining owner in the NBA, and he’ll offer his thoughts on anything, making him one of the most transparent figures in sports.

Mark Cuban can always be seen at his team’s games — often giving an earful to the officials.
Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Mark Cuban can always be seen at his team’s games — often giving an earful to the officials.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban conducted a 13-minute interview last Wednesday without having to utter the “D-word,” as in DeAndre Jordan, who committed to signing with Dallas last summer only to back out at the 11th hour, avoiding Cuban’s calls and texts in the process.

It was a regrettable incident for the Mavericks, who targeted Jordan as the centerpiece of their offense, hoping the Clippers center would embrace an increased role and sign with a club from his home state. It didn’t work out, and Cuban, understandably furious at how Jordan handled the situation, has moved on.

That doesn’t mean he has become less visible or less opinionated. Cuban still travels to every road game, cheering on the club in his Mavericks hoodie, screaming at officials and offering hugs after victories.

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He remains the most entertaining owner in the NBA, and he’ll offer an opinion on anything he is asked, making him one of the most transparent figures in sports.

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Cuban was asked about the firing of Kevin McHale by his rivals, the Houston Rockets. Cuban has had very public feuds with Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, especially when the Mavericks nabbed swingman Chandler Parsons from the Rockets with a mega-deal in July 2014.

“I like Kevin, I feel bad for him personally, but the rest of it? Whatever,” Cuban said. “I mean, we’ve been in a high-expectation position before. We go to the Finals, we started 0-4 [in 2006-07], and it’s ‘what’s wrong?’ and we came back to win 67 games and lose in the first round.

“So I’ve said it before, the hardest thing for an NBA owner to do is hire a coach. The easiest thing to do is fire a coach. The reason it’s hard to hire a coach, coaches are great at date-face, they know exactly what your weaknesses are and they know exactly how to sell to those weaknesses, so it’s really difficult to pick it right and it’s 90 percent luck.”

Cuban recently signed his coach, Rick Carlisle, to a five-year extension.

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“If the hardest thing to find is a good coach, you marry him, you put a ring on it,” Cuban said.

Asked about the escalating salary cap that will kick in next season with the new television contract, Cuban said, “It’s going to change a lot. More from a strategy perspective, it makes the value of draft choices go through the roof because they’re pegged at a certain price. Minimum contracts will go through the roof. Anybody that signs for the mid-level, the value goes through the roof.

“It’s going to be a lot of tough decisions. And in reality, if everything sticks to the projections that we come up with, the cap will go down after that. So that changes what you do as well.

“It will be really interesting. There will be some guys that will get way paid. When guys are making $30 million-plus, it’s going to be tough to have more than one of them.”

Cuban said he has no issues paying players such exorbitant salaries because that is the price of a championship.

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“What’s a championship worth?” he said. “I always look at it as a team. The biggest mistake people make in this business is they say this player is worth ‘X.’ That’s never the case. When you insert that player as one of 15, if he can increase the value of [the team], he’s cheap.

“I remember back when we [acquired] Erick Dampier [in the middle of a $49 million contract] and everybody said we were idiots. Without that big body, we don’t go to the Finals, and we still should have won that Finals if it weren’t for three blind mice [i.e. the officials].”

And finally, Cuban offered his thoughts on Deflategate, as a nonbiased observer, of course.

“As an owner, it was obvious to me it was up to Roger Goodell to take the heat and take the responsibility,” Cuban said. “He handled it masterfully. The fact that it got reversed is irrelevant. The NFL always loses their court cases the first time. Always. And then they end up winning after it doesn’t matter.

“I don’t know if [Tom] Brady lied or not with the whole phone thing, but the reality is it’s all about the good of the game, and that’s what Roger’s responsible for, and that’s what the owners pay him so much money to do.

“It’s not about Brady. It’s about how you manage the golden goose, and that’s what he’s trying to do. I give him credit for taking all the bullets.

“I don’t know the NFL, and I’m just guessing, but he ain’t doing [expletive] without getting feedback from all the owners.”

ALL THE WAY BACK

Healthy George is carrying Pacers

Paul George has become the unquestioned face of the Indiana Pacers.
Darron Cummings/Associated Press
Paul George has become the unquestioned face of the Indiana Pacers.

Paul George is sixth in the NBA in scoring, averaging what would be a career-best 25.3 points per game for the resurgent Pacers. It’s a welcome sight for basketball fans, whose last image of George was that scary injury sustained during a USA Basketball exhibition in August 2014.

Racing to the basket, George broke his right leg slamming against the stanchion. He came back for eight games last season, but there was definite concern as to whether he would return to previous form after such a serious injury.

It took months for George to trust his body again, but he has made the adjustment to playing without thinking about potential betrayal. And the time off allowed him to master his midrange game instead of depending solely on athleticism.

“It’s been a weekly thing, honestly,” George said. “I remember starting out the first preseason game and I was a little hesitant to guard because I didn’t know how well I was going to be able to move or cut or be explosive. But as weeks go by, the more confident I’m getting doing the same stuff I’ve done. It’s getting there. It’s coming around.”

George was one of the league’s emerging players when he sustained the injury. He had led the Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals, and they were prohibitives favorite to return. But with George sidelined, they failed to make the playoffs.

In the offseason, the club dealt longtime center Roy Hibbert to the Lakers for a second-round pick, signed guard Monta Ellis, and moved George to more of a power forward role, where he could be a difficult matchup. George was uncomfortable at first with the new role, but he has concentrated on his comeback and being a more vocal leader.

“Now I know what’s being expected of me,” he said. “So I come in more on a professional mind-set. Back in my younger days, I knew who the go-to guys were, where the ball was going, so it was a different approach.

“But now I want to be the leader, I want to be that guy for the team, and I have to lead by example. So a lot of the stuff I do I do because these guys look up to me, and for them to have a long career, they have to do the things that I’m doing.

“That’s showing up early. That’s being in the weight room. That’s getting up extra shots. I’ve been doing all of that now. Every year I’m adding something new to my approach to the game and it’s been working.”

George averaged less than 9 points during his six-game stint last season, but he tallied 34 in the Nov. 18 win over the 76ers, including five 3-pointers.

“I think the key was wanting to get back to the same level as opposed to just being satisfied with being healthy again,” he said. “I know where I want to go and where I want to be when this is all said and done. I just happened to have to go through a little hiccup.”

That “hiccup” was significant. He lost nearly a year of his prime, and the uncertainty was unsettling.

“It was tough, watching guys play, going through preseason training camp not being able to be out there,” he said. “It was a difficult time for me.”

With Hibbert gone, George becomes the unquestioned face of the franchise. For years, Indiana was a rugged, defensive-minded team with the lane-clogging Hibbert in the middle. Team president Larry Bird and coach Frank Vogel decided they wanted to play at a faster pace with George as the centerpiece. He embraces that.

“I’m very comfortable with that,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be in the position where I’m the guy for an organization. As a kid, I just didn’t want to be in the NBA, I wanted to be a superstar in this league.

“It’s definitely a position I love to be in and I’m just happy to be the face of a good organization. I dreamed of it, but coming from where I come from, it doesn’t happen often. It was just a blessing, that’s all I can say about it.”

GOLDEN YEARS

Nowitzki headed for a fine finish

Dirk Nowitzki just passed Dominique Wilkins for 13th place all time in field goals.
Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Dirk Nowitzki just passed Dominique Wilkins for 13th place all time in field goals.

Speaking of cornerstones, Dirk Nowitzki remains the Mavericks’ money man, helping them win eight of their first 12 games and emerge as a factor in the Western Conference. Nowitzki, 37, was drafted just ahead of Paul Pierce in 1998 and his career is winding down, but he still plays at a high level.

He is scoring at a higher clip and shooting a better percentage in fewer minutes per game. He dropped 23 points in 34 minutes in the 106-102 win over the Celtics Wednesday.

“It’s the love of competition,” Nowitzki said. “I feel like my body can still do it, still be out there and be effective, help the team win.

“I’ve got to admit, the summers are getting harder. The getting-in-shape part, that sometimes gets a little old, but the game, when I’m out there with the guys, it’s going to always be fun, trying to win and try to show these young guys I still got it, and that’s what makes it fun.”

Nowitzki just passed Dominique Wilkins for 13th place all time in field goals and is seventh in scoring with more than 28,000 points. He has established himself as the best overseas player of all time, having won an MVP award and leading the Mavericks to the 2010-11 NBA title.

“I try to enjoy the last couple of years,” he said. “Obviously I know it’s coming to an end, but I just want to give it all I can to the game while I still can.

“I was fortunate to make enough money; I don’t have to take a job after I’m done. I can just enjoy and spend some time with the kids and eventually figure out what direction I want to head in.

“But I want to give it my all the last couple of years here to the franchise and to the game and I’ll go away.”

Nowitzki keeps up with other players who were drafted in the 1990s such as Pierce, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan. They have sort of a fraternity of old heads.

“It’s always good to see the guys who are still left,” he said. “I talked to Pierce a little bit the other day. We try to catch up a little bit. I talked to Jamal Crawford a little bit at the free throw line when we played the Clippers to see how much he’s got left and wants to do it.

“It’s fun to see those guys still be there and help those teams.”

Nowitzki’s biggest contribution to the game will be his step-back jumper from one leg. It has become this generation’s skyhook, a shot that younger players have attempted to adopt, including the Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk, who tried a step-back on Nowitzki — unsuccessfully — in Wednesday’s game.

“I think they saw it work the best when we had the championship run in ’11 and that’s why guys were like, ‘Hey, this might work,’ ” said Nowitzki. “I kind of developed it on the fly. I was losing a step in my 30s and I just wanted to find a shot where I could still be effective and create a little separation to the defender and that’s how it came about.

“I think anybody can [take] the shot. It’s not like the skyhook. I think the skyhook is the hardest shot there is in basketball.”

ETC.

Not getting money’s worth

Dec. 15 is the first day that free agents who signed last summer can be traded. The Lakers signed Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams, and Brandon Bass in the offseason, hoping those veterans would help generate a playoff push, but Los Angeles dropped nine of its first 11 games. The question for teams like the Lakers, Pelicans, and Nets is whether it’s best to hold on to veterans or deal them for assets and simply prepare for next season. Some free agents haven’t made the expected impact, such as Miami’s Amar’e Stoudemire, who has played 12 minutes this season.

Transition game in Miami

Justise Winslow has avered 29 minutes per game for the Heat.
Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports
Justise Winslow has avered 29 minutes per game for the Heat.

There is definitely a changing of the guard in Miami after the Heat traded Mario Chalmers to the Grizzlies to make room for backup guards Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson. Some core parts of Miami’s title teams remain on the bench. Udonis Haslem has played 15 minutes all season. Chris Andersen has played 13. Coach Erik Spoelstra has decided to go with younger players, such as rookie Justise Winslow, who averages 29 minutes per game. The Heat will be major free agent players next summer, with the salaries of Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Andersen, Haslem, Beno Udrih, Stoudemire, Gerald Green, Hassan Whiteside, and Johnson all come off the books. The Heat plan on re-signing Wade and Whiteside, but they will have the money to add a major free agent.

Layups

Two teams have lost key players to season-ending hip surgeries. Denver’s Wilson Chandler had surgery to repair a torn labrum, and Washington’s Martell Webster will miss the rest of the year with the same injury. Webster, who was in the final draft class to allow high school entries, has played more than 70 games in six of his 10 NBA seasons. He has a team option for $5.8 million next season that’s almost certain to be rejected, freeing up more money for the Wizards to chase Kevin Durant. Webster is a solid 3-point shooter off the bench and can add scoring, but he will have to prove he can remain healthy after dealing with myriad injuries throughout his career. The Wizards are expected to apply for a disabled-player exception in Webster’s absence.

Three of a kind

Even with Kevin McHale’s ouster in Houston, the Celtics’ championship teams of the 1980s are still well-represented in basketball. In fact, McHale, Danny Ainge, or Larry Bird has been involved in the NBA since Bird’s arrival in 1979. Here’s a look at the post-playing careers of each:

Compiled by Mike Carraggi

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.