A lot of negative things have been said about Mark and Donnie in these pages and it’s probably true that of the writers here, I’ve been the ringleaders. However, what I’ve said repeatedly, and what I hope no one rational has themselves denied, is that Cuban and Donnie are geniuses for small, smart moves, and that it wouldn’t be hard and hasn’t been hard to field a team better than last year’s team.
The emotional pendulum has some role to play both in the complete devastation many of us felt when Deron chose Brooklyn, though that was never better than a 50% proposition and often worse, and in the euphoria currently going around that the Mavericks, who this time last week hadn’t signed anybody, suddenly had not just a team, but probably a 4-5 seed worthy team, manifested from nowhere.
It was a masterful job, and as I’ve always said, you can’t count on championships---try to enjoy your team winning games. The Mavericks are suddenly apparently one thing they’ve never really been, big, and their starting PG for the moment is a guy who does best what no Maverick besides J.J. Barea has done in years which is drive to the wind. Take it all in. Enjoy it. Look forward to it.
Likely, the Mavs aren’t done either. As of this morning, thanks to their preposterously low winning bid on Elton Brand, they have around 4 million in cap space to spend and also what’s called a "room" exception, the MLE that teams who have cap room get, which is around 2.4 million.
The best bet is they’ll use some of this to sign Delonte and look for a shooter, but they’ll almost certainly also try to pluck another gem from the amnesty tree, if anyone interesting shows up there. There’s also certainly a reason JET Terry hasn’t finalized his contract with the Celtics, and it’s presumably because of an impending sign and trade, though it’s unlikely that this will be for an impact player. And they’ve done all this without hurting future flexibility: Everyone they’ve signed, every member of this new team they’ve built, is once again gone after next year.
Which means next summer promises to be just as much a nightmare as this one, with just as much potential for a happy ending--maybe even more potential. So how does it all play out?
How the Mavericks Can Look Like Geniuses
This one is relatively simple--Short of a wildly unlikely championships, the Mavericks will not look like geniuses (or not) based on anything that happens this year. Let’s be honest about this year’s team. Can it compete in the West? Absolutely. But it’s obviously very hard to see a starting line up of Collison-Vince/Roddy-Marion-Dirk-Kaman/Brand (I’d say Brand, some think Kaman) compete with Nash-Kobe-Artest-Gasol-Bynum or Westbrook-Harden-KD-Ibaka-Perkins.
Right? I mean this team is so much better than it was last week, it should play much better defense than last year’s team (Dahntay Jones is a stopper, if he gets the PT and stays focused, Marion will be even more effective with more help, Brand is an elite post defender and a good defender in many other ways, Kaman has his moments), and rebound better, but at the moment it’s far from certain it will score better.
They have certainly added a lot more guys who can score 11 a game, a la the Spurs last year, but it’s pretty hard to see any non-Dirk player averaging even 15. Again, they’re not done, and there’s plenty of room for Roddy or Darren to take the leap, for Brand or Kaman to return strong from injury, etc. Still, there will be nights they struggle to score.
However, as much as I’ve bashed the approach the Mavericks have taken—their genius with small, smart moves is one of the reason that swinging for the fences at the cost of a perfectly good team seemed foolish, especially with the endlessly creative ways to go deeply over cap we’ve seen—it is actually true that with the Nets, Lakers, Knicks and Heat all in salary cap hell, or near it, players may actually have to consider some of the lower 48, so to speak.
Do I think the Mavericks are major players for Bynum or Paul? Not really. They can make more money where they are, and there’s no reason they won’t. Los Angeles might be tired of Bynum’s act but there’s a reason you never heard him in all those trade rumors around Gasol, Artest, Odom last year. He’s a superstar on the upswing in his career. They’d trade him for Dwight. But that’s it. And Paul seems very happy where he is.
Dwight? I doubt it. Smart money is that he lands in Houston, or, believe it or not, in New Jersey AFTER January –I’m going to guess, despite the rumors of matching funds, that the major reason Brook Lopez got a max deal was for matching salaries in trades—but if he doesn’t get to New Jersey, he can’t do it in free agency and the best way for him to make the most money is to stay wherever he is. If not, why not team up with LaMarcus Aldridge in Portland? Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in LA ( Clippers are way below cap next year, even with Blake’s qualifying offer).
Still: If the Mavericks end up having a competitive year, develop some rookies, and end up with Dwight Howard? All is forgiven and more. Annoying as he is, he’s obviously one of the top three pieces in the league to build around and unlike in Orlando, with that in place, the Cuban and Donnie small-move spectacular will make sure he’s got good guys around him. I want to punch myself in the face just thinking about it.
How the Mavericks Look Smart:
Simple: Competing this year, something no one thought they’d be able to do a week ago, will be enough. If they make some big moves next summer, even if it's not Dwight, Bynum or Paul, that will also help a lot--one of these years they have to sign a multi-year deal. Keep whoever performed well, say Collison and Brand, and add some athletic swingman. Have one or two of these draft picks, plus Roddy or Dom develop. Give somebody some trouble in the playoffs, come back next year with a real base in place for future competition.
How the Mavericks Look Dumb:
Whatever else is true, the Mavericks have once again given you a team you can't keep. The only Mavericks signed through next year are Dirk and Marion, and much love to those guys, but they’ll be a year older and they need some help. That means we have to do this all again in a year's time.
The Mavericks have signed a couple of guys who should dramatically improve the center position, but they’re both injury prone. Kaman’s played more than 60 games just once in the past 5 years. Brand played 60 last year, 81 the year before and 76 the year before, but 29 and 8 before that and has had some injuries in around half his season. Also, for all the excitement around Collison, he lost the starting job to George Hill at the end of last year and needs to re-direct the arc of his career. All of these guys individually are steals, compared to what they could be valued, but that doesn’t make them all-stars.
If the Mavericks struggle this year, whether for injuries or because they just don’t quite have the talent, there’s no telling either that they will land a big fish next summer or that they’ll be attractive to free agents, period, if they have another down year, or that if Dirk continues to decline, not so unlikely though I’d bet against it, a star will want to pair with him—or that, as the amnesty provision is a one-time deal for each team, there will be Brand’s waiting next summer if that all falls through. The Mavericks front office has once again taken a high risk gamble that is not so high risk because of their absolutely unparalleled ability to find quality players at a reasonable price, no matter what---but next year is not what they’re hoping for, you and I know it, and that window isn’t closing any more slowly.
For now, though, forget all that. It’s time to get excited. It’s time to look at a suddenly revamped defense, a suddenly plucky offense, a veteran but not SO veteran team, with some young upside and some speed. It’s time to wait for those last couple of pieces to fall into place and to expect Rick Carlisle, one of the finest coaches who ever lived, to find a way to make it all work. And it’s time, once again, to get ready to watch Dirk Nowitzki, one of the absolute masters of his craft, do what he was born to do, in our uniform, at the highest possible level.
We can say something we couldn’t say last week: It should be a fun season. Time to look ahead.