In praise of Mark Cuban?

No, really.

In the wake of his team’s resurgence since beating everyone else to the Wizards’ Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, you have to give it to the Mavericks’ maverick madcap owner.

For four years in which his team slid down the West standings, looking like it was headed for the last roundup, Cuban never lost interest, stopped going all out or winced at the millions he was losing.

Now with Butler, a reasonable facsimile of what Josh Howard once was, and Haywood, who’s younger and healthier, not to mention far more attractive as a free agent than Erick Dampier, who only lives up to his promise in contract years, they’re a real contender again, along with the Nuggets, in a conference once thought to belong to the Lakers.

I actually like Cuban, even if he has the impulse control of a newborn, can charm you one moment, go off on you the next, and should have his picture in the dictionary next to presumptuous,” having started offering to help David Stern reinvent the NBA from the day he crossed the line from boisterous fan to loose cannon, or loose aircraft carrier owner.

Nevertheless, for Maverick fans, Cuban has always been a great owner, caring nothing about huge losses, seeking only to win. His players love him. Dirk Nowitzki will be a free agent this summer but no one talks about him because everyone knows he won’t leave Cuban and Mark won’t let him go. Shaquille O’Neal always had a warm spot in his heart for Cuban, even as the Mavericks lampooned him as Fat Albert on their scoreboard TV screen.

For the press, Cuban is accessible, fun and way smarter than you about stuff he knows about, which covers a lot of ground, if not as much as he thinks.

Daffy as he is, his choices have usually been well-thought-out and, amazingly, coolly logical. He gave Don Nelson a new contract when they had already had it with each other, which was the thing to do but didn’t work out.

Nelson’s replacement, Avery Johnson, took them to the Finals and a 67-win season, Rick Carlisle, Johnson’s replacement, kept them together when it looked like they could come apart.

Nevertheless, the tide seemed to be going out on the Mavericks from their zenith in the 2006 Finals, when they won the first two games and led by 12 lead in the last 8:13 of Game 3, before collapsing.

Cuban’s emotions looked like they were part of that, a big part, or the cause. After losing Game 4 in Miami, the team abruptly switched hotels. Johnson got defensive in press conferences. Cuban went batbleep over the officiating in Game 5. After the series, even Nowitzki said the owner needed to chill out.

Consider him chilled. Well, for Mark Cuban, anyway.

He remained relatively lucid from that season to this one, even as everything went south, starting with their 67-15 finish in 2006-07, before they were undressed in the first round by the No. 8 seeded Warriors and Cuban’s former coach and new arch-enemy, Nelson.

The next season, they looked like the destination of choice for Miami’s Shaquille O’Neal, only to see Phoenix grab him first. With the Lakers sprinting away, having just acquired Pau Gasol, the Mavs then grabbed New Jersey’s Jason Kidd, completing the series of deals that almost sunk the rest of the West.

The Suns and Mavs just got it backwards. O’Neal would have been a natural fit with the Mavericks, Kidd with the Suns.

It looked like a mistake that would finish off both contenders.

With Kidd, the Mavs limped in at 51-31, were ousted in a five-game first round series by New Orleans—this time it wasn’t even an upset—and fired Johnson.

Under Carlisle, they remained respectable, if nothing more last season and the first half of this one... until Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson pulled off the trade with Washington, which was bound and determined to give its best players to anyone who’d take their big salaries.

Cleveland got Antawn Jamison. The Mavs got Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood.

In the first three weeks after their new players arrived, the Mavs and Cavs lost three games combined, and LeBron James sat out one of those.

Eight games behind the Lakers at the All-Star break, the Mavericks have been closing in, getting to within 2½ and now clearly pose a threat to the staggering defending champions.

Fortunately for the Lakers, before the Mavs can get to them, they’ll pose a threat to the Nuggets.

If Dallas and Denver finished No. 2 and 3, in whatever order, they’ll be on track to meet in the West finals, with the Lakers only obliged to deal with the winner.

It’s still the best chance the Mavericks have had recently and one more than anyone figured they’d have this season, aside from Cuban.

Of course, Cuban sees a move like this coming every season. He’s Mark Cuban, after all.

Follow Mark Heisler on Twitter at @MarkHeisler