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What Can The Cowboys Learn From The Mavericks?

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This week, folks who are blanket fans of all four of Dallas' major sports franchises are thinking little about the Cowboys, choosing instead to bask in the glow of the Maverick's first world championship. I would be remiss not to lead off by congratulating the Mavs and their fans, or to fail to direct you to SBNation's excellent Mavericks' site, Mavs Moneyball, and their wall-to-wall coverage of the clinching victory and, just as important, the post-game festivities.

Given that both Dallas-based franchises are owned by quotable, attention-getting owners, its been an easy matter to tease out comparisons between the two since Mark Cuban purchased a majority share in the Mavs in 2000.  Both Cuban and Jones have been expert at branding and marketing their respective franchises--and the more curmudgeonly amongst us would say that developing a brand has often been more important to them than developing a winner.

Because both clubs have placed a high premium on marketing, each has a gallery of glitzy, big-name roster additions to its credit. On the Mavs' wall, Nick Van Exel's bust stands next to that of Jerry Stackhouse; they stare across at Joey Galloway and Terrell Owens. Such players have served their purpose magnificently: they boosted ratings and ticket sales--but they did little to bring championships to Dallas. In the past decade plus, both franchises boasted glitzy, offensively-minded teams that often lost to tougher, gutsier and less-talented squads.

These teams have been an extension of their owners' personalities. Both Jones and Cuban have served as the mouthpiece for the organization, and received an inordinate amount of attention, often due to their petulant behavior--the oft-fined Cuban has matched every one of Jones' drunken declarations about Bill Parcells, and then some--or childish need for attention. Men who have been obsessed with marketing and glitz have naturally been drawn to stars, and been willing to dole out big money for offensive stars who make long touchdowns or flashy dunks, but aren't necessarily good defenders or teammates. 

Think back to Don Nelson's bang-bang Mavericks teams. In two out of three years (2001 and '03), they lead the league in offense and were second-to-last in defense. When Avery Johnson took over the coaching reins in 2005, the team--with the same core players--became more balanced, largely because Johnson stressed defensive want-to. Nevertheless, the Mavs lost in the 2006 NBA finals because they weren't yet mentally tough: they folded after blowing a 13-point lead in the last six minutes of game three.

This year, all was different. The Mavericks' long-overdue victory has come as the result of key philosophical shifts in the ways they--and Cuban--have gone about their business. Throughout this season's glorious playoff run, the Mavs played tenacious defense, made several remarkable fourth-quarter comebacks, and embraced a team concept. Every man on the roster was willing and able to fight like hell for however many minutes he played in a given game and to sacrifice personal stats for the greater good. The 2010 Mavericks weren't the most "talented" team on the floor in most of their playoff series, but they were the most skilled. And they were winners.

Throughout all of this, Cuban has been present, celebrating the win with his players, but comparatively silent. At some point in the last decade, he seems to have learned that he can't buy a championship and that billionaires don't always get their way. Perhaps more importantly, he appears to have learned that winning markets itself, that, by assembling a bunch of lesser-name winners who play hard and fight for each other, the whole can become greater than the sum of its parts, and that substance beats style. In the aftermath of the victory, The Ticket's Bob Sturm tweeted: "Why have I allowed Jalen Rose and Chris Webber under my skin? Of course they are obsessed with Miami. Fab 5 loved style, not substance." And how many championships did that earn the most talented team in college basketball?

As Cowboys fans, we have winced whenever we see Jerry on the sidelines, holding court in front of the media, or insisting on a traveling road show in lieu of training camp. Most troubling has been the sense that he values style over substance--that he identifies more with Deion Sanders and Terrell Owens than with Dat Nguyen and Kyle Kosier. The Mavericks recent championship shows that teams composed of Nguyens and Kosiers make the sacrifices it takes to win games. Certainly, a champion needs a lead dog, a Dirk Nowitzki. But it only works if he's willing to make those sacrifices as well.

I think the Cowboys' current core of leaders--Jason Garrett's "Right Kind of Guys"--conduct themselves in precisely this way. Many of us have opined that Garrett brings this sensibility to the table. So, the uncertain variable here is Jerry Jones. I'm hoping Jones watched his fellow Dallas franchise's playoff run intently, as further proof of the power of Garrett's message: that substance--working hard every day, being mentally tough, focusing on process--will always trump style in this, the greatest of team sports.

This is the lesson that Mark Cuban has learned. Yeah, that's right, he's the guy hoisting the championship trophy and prepping for Thursday's victory parade.