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No Al Jefferson Or Udonis Haslem, Rangers' Future More Uncertain Than Ever - That's How Baseball 'Go'

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The big picture outlooks of the Mavericks and Rangers have veered into disappointing territory in recent days.

You know, a lot of us make light of the way Ron Washington conjugates his verbs, but there are times where I think that he does have it right. On days like today, a DFW fan should shrug his shoulders, admit that this is the way 'baseball go,' and get on with his day. 

We like to think that sports can be our escape from reality, the light-hearted release from the stressful and mundane. Monday reminded us that sports can be both of those things, just like our real lives. It also reminded that most of what happens in this world revolves around money.

The Mavericks have quietly counted for some time now on the smart design of some of their contracts and the value therein created. About a year ago, the public began to become more aware of a piece of cute language in Erick Dampier's contract that made him something of a walking trade exception. He could be traded - possibly before this offseason, but ultimately it boiled down to just this summer - and immediately released as a result of his nonguaranteed 2010-11 contract. It seems like a fairly simple team option, but it's just so big, and there apparently is not a buyout. 

With the Mavs way, way over the salary cap, the hope for their improvement this summer revolved around trade assets like Dampier's contract. Nonetheless, there was a great deal of optimism. Several NBA teams were believed - not just by media and fans but by the Mavericks themselves - to be in such poor financial shape that they would be willing to virtually give away good players just to avoid losing even more money than they otherwise would. 

To their credit, Dallas recruited Dirk Nowitzki and Brendan Haywood back into the fold - and paid them. Mark Cuban also took a $3 million hit to bring in a first round pick. But then their possibilities for additions began to dwindle. Despite quiet protestations from the Mavericks, we all know that none of the major free agents gave them serious consideration, even if one or two privately listened to the Dallas pitch. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh were involved in a much larger game of musical chairs. Joe Johnson preferred to stay in Atlanta, and Atlanta made him their prince. The handful of other key free agents - guys like Carlos Boozer and Amare Stoudemire - chose locations with cap space or stayed put, even though most are eventually moving via sign-and-trade deals.

Two weeks ago, just prior to the free agent period, when optimism reigned across the league, I asked if the Mavericks might overreach with their assets. Word was that, in addition to wisely focusing on their own guys, they were honed in on names like James, Wade and Johnson, not Deng, Hinrich and Childress. There were articles written locally about how their assets were so strong that the club had to be very picky about how they used them. Heck, Donnie Nelson reiterated this weekend that the team still intends to be selective with the way it uses the Dampier asset.

Now, all of those options are gone. Even lesser guys like Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller who the Mavericks pursued with their exceptions are out. Most poignant at the moment, Al Jefferson is leaving the table as we speak. The Timberwolves gave Dallas an opportunity to use their chip on a young, quality player who added an important dimension but didn't fit perfectly snugly on this roster.

Just as important, he would have cost Mark Cuban a fortune. With his three-year, $42 million contract effectively doubled by the luxury tax, Cuban was facing an $84 million hit. Eighty-four million. That is a lot, particularly for a guy who the Mavs claimed was more of a luxury than a championship piece. That Cuban asked the T'Wolves to take back DeShawn Stevenson's $4.15 million for this season and - more troubling to Minnesota - Matt Carroll's $11.7 million over the next three years makes more sense, at least from the Dallas perspective, when you consider that the two contracts knock the hit down from $84 million to about $52 million, after luxury tax is considered. 

Cuban couldn't have really expected that Minnesota would accept that demand. Stevenson, OK. He is expiring and would offer some additional value as a trade piece. But adding both of those useless players and offsetting almost 40 percent of the savings from Jefferson, with just two late, conditional picks to show for him, just isn't attractive unless there is absolutely no one else able and willing to offer significant salary relief. Unfortunately for Dallas, the Utah Jazz, with their valuable trade exception picked up from Chicago in exchange for Boozer, were both.

The table has not been cleared of possibilities, but the chances of Dallas finding a way to improve their flawed roster this summer - or any time soon - are rocketing toward zero. Tim McMahon, in the aftermath of the Jefferson news, wrote about some other possibilities for the Dampier asset. He listed guys like Andre Iguogala, Monte Ellis, Danny Granger, Andre Biedrins, Gilbert Arenas and Richard Hamilton. Some of the names are still fairly interesting, and we have already discussed several of them on this site. Most are quite unlikely. But McMahon mentions that Cuban still expects to be able to pair the Dampier contract with Stevenson and Carroll clutter. Don't expect Dallas to be able to rid themselves of Carroll and pick up a high-quality player who is anywhere near worth his salary.

Cuban is going to have to make a choice between a painful additional hit to his wallet, coupled with a risky but positive addition to his roster, and playing it safer, a little cheaper, and very status quo.

Ironically, the one guy Dallas can probably have if they care to have him, the guy who may top their list of free agent targets after a run of disappointments, is Shaquille O'Neal. I say that it is ironic because O'Neal has expressed real interest in Dallas when no one in town really wants him, after years of near obsession over him. In 2003 the Lakers decided to trade O'Neal, and there was much discussion in town about whether Dallas would be better off with O'Neal than a then-young Dirk Nowitzki. O'Neal didn't want to come here then, the Mavs didn't want to give up Dirk, and the Lakers weren't too excited about trading him within the conference to a strong roster. He went to Miami instead and helped swipe Dallas' one great chance at a title.

Now he could be weighing Miami and Dallas again, with Dallas potentially offering significantly more, just as they did Haslem. This time, I would wager that most Mavericks fans would just as soon they lose out. 

And as we swivel backward and forward, we can see that Dallas has not changed an ounce since it left the playoffs meekly in the first round, and that is not a good thing. Their options are dwindling, and their near future looks a whole lot like their recent past. Donnie will have to work some unexpected magic, and Mark will have to take another big one for the team to change that.

Across town, Nolan Ryan and Chuck Greenberg are in quicksand. They won the bid to buy the Rangers over six months ago, but as obstacles rose and they struggled to fend them off, each response has seemingly put them further from their goal. Tom Hicks certainly hasn't helped, particularly since he sought a redo on the sale agreement and buyers. But it seems that the idea of placing the team in "voluntary" bankruptcy, a move that appears in retrospect to be one of impatience and one that Greenberg & Co. claimed to be very much on board with, may have been the death knell for their bid to buy the team.

If you haven't already, I would recommend checking out Mark Ganis' comments on the radio yesterday. The sale of a team in so much debt - particularly once it has defaulted on key loans - is a complicated thing, but once this moved to the bankruptcy stage, it became almost impossible for almost anyone to interpret. Most fans decided early in this process that a Chuck Greenberg group that includes Nolan Ryan was the best possible outcome and rooted not only for that outcome, but for the quickest possible route to it.

For me, the past week or so has finally sunk a realization into my head that probably should have come much earlier. This team is probably not going to be sold to Chuck Greenberg, and Nolan Ryan is probably going to be leaving the club. Jim Crane appears to be in solid position, but while he has indicated that he would be willing to retain Ryan, Ryan doesn't seem likely to stay on in his current role while working for Crane. He didn't appear likely to at the outset, and I can't imagine that recent events have helped those chances. Mark Cuban could change things if he does decide to involve himself and if he is in fact the lead in his bid. But that prospect is very difficult to gauge. 

Both teams have the talent to be competitive in the immediate future, but those who want the best for them know that major progress needs to be made - and quickly. Today, that seems pretty unlikely in each case.

That's the way baseball go.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.