Editor's Note: Front-paged... for ass biting.
Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Goran Dragic, Jeremy Lin, Kyle Lowry. And now Jason Kidd. That's the train of NBA starting point guards that the Mavericks have been denied in the last five or so days, and it now appears to be chugging along to the not-so-far-away stops of absolute incompetence, and worse, potential irrelevance.
As a Mavs fan for only 10 years, I've never been in this position of looking over the edge of the cliff and seeing the abyss stare back. Dallas has had 11 straight seasons with 50 wins and a playoff appearance. After you do it so many times, you just assume the 12th is a gimme. But it's not. We've reached an "explosion point," the critical moment when our lack of good assets and talent finally outstrips our capacity to sustain winning, and the bad decisions and neglected priorities of our past finally come back to bite us in the ass.
All teams with a long-term star player or core will go through major transition at some point, but the Mavericks' long-term inability to draft or sign cheap, young, long-term help for Dirk Nowitzki the last several years, and not their release of Tyson Chandler and others, has them in this predicament today. Other organizations like the Spurs, Celtics, and Lakers have been successful in this regard, hitting home runs in the draft (Parker, Ginobili, Bynum, Rondo), trades (Garnett, Gasol), and free agency (Allen, Artest, and now Nash) to surround their hometown stars (Duncan, Bryant, and Pierce). The Mavs have had no such luck, with the most significant offseason signing being the signing of Jason Terry as Nowitzki's longtime sidekick and second option after Steve Nash's '04 departure. The rest of Dallas' offseason achievements have been trades -- Jason Kidd in 2008, the Wizards deal that netted Brendan Haywood, DeShawn Stevenson, and Caron Butler in early 2010, and the highway robbery of Tyson Chandler from the Bobcats later that year.
It was understandably upsetting to see our championship team blown up last year after such a magical run, but my belief in the Mavs' ability to pull off these sorts of deals sort of bolstered my faith that we would still succeed. I was delighted when we signed Lamar Odom, Vince Carter, and Delonte West -- on paper, the team was very good assuming they could fit the pieces together, and these were the exact sort of veterans that would keep us competitive before a major run at a marquee free agent. It was possible to marry competitiveness with sensibility and financial flexibility. I agreed wholeheartedly with Cuban's seemingly well-crafted and carefully considered strategy -- it would be painful in the short term, but worth it later on. I kept this view through most of the dreadful regular season and was even slightly encouraged when the Mavs had an extremely good stretch of play before the All-Star Break. Unfortunately, everything fell apart after that point (most notably the 9-in-12 stretch) and the Mavs barely hovered over .500 the rest of the way. Things were interesting early in the Thunder series with Dallas having a chance at a 1-0 lead (stifled by Kevin Durant's miracle 18-footer) and then a close Game 2 loss. At that point, it was clearly over. I was disappointed, sure, but like a lot of us, my attention was firmly turned to the upcoming free agency period and Deron Williams.
And now, I don't know what to think. To me, Williams' decision to stay in Brooklyn wasn't a huge surprise. Media outlets and various "sources" had claimed he was leaning that way for weeks and it was obvious he could make more money there. In the end, the Nets just seemed like the more desperate team in that race which, when you really think about it, is odd. Sure, they are a team moving into a new glamorous market with a brand new billion-dollar arena, they made that dumb Gerald Wallace deal and gave up the No. 6 pick, and didn't want to lose D-Will after trading serious assets for him last year. But shouldn't Dallas have been just as desperate for him, if not more? Mark Cuban had basically sacrificed a chance at defending our title for him, Donnie Nelson had stated on numerous occasions the goal was to catch a "big fish," and Dirk Nowitzki, our lone aging star, had basically openly pined for someone, anyone who could play to come and help him out after the sweep at the hands of OKC. Brooklyn, conversely, would still have been okay without Deron Williams. They had an incredible amount of cap space and young assets to start rebuilding on the fly. Sure, it would have been disappointing to open the Barclays Center with no superstar, but the shiny glow of newness can put a positive spin on anything and it would be forgotten soon. In any case, it's clear the Nets felt otherwise, since they went out and signed Wallace to a $40 million deal and then proceeded to trade for Joe Johnson, who is a good shooting guard, but has also long been the owner of the most ridiculed contract in the league. Dallas, despite their trade-savvy ways, never seemed to consider options like these to try and attract Williams. I don't blame them for balking at the insanity of some of these contracts, but it seemed ridiculous to not turn some of our few assets -- like Roddy Beaubois, Lamar Odom's contract, maybe even Shawn Marion or Brandan Wright -- into a player of relevance to help convince D-Will we were for real. Yes, it would have eaten up room for Dwight Howard next year, but shouldn't we have worked on securing Williams before we considered that? And given the Mavs' proven ability to find trades, couldn't that have been resolved later anyway? Then again, maybe these routes were tried and failed, and bringing in ol' Fin-Dawg as a consultant and "ass-kicker" was just the best way to go.
Last week, in my pre-draft/pre-free agency post "The Waiting Game," I painted an optimistic picture of the Mavs' future based on my longtime belief in Cuban and Nelson's ability to "make things happen," as Rick Carlisle likes to say. More than any time prior, I now question that belief. Cuban and Nelson are undoubtedly smart. They are what you would call basketball academics, men who are highly attuned to changes in the game, have an encyclopedic knowledge of players and strategies, and are increasingly focused on cutting-edge issues like new methods in training (cryotherapy anyone?) and statistical analysis. But I think even they would admit that a crucial reason for their success in building competitive teams the last decade has been the sky-high payrolls that Cuban has OK'd during his ownership. Many of the trades that brought in impact players were salary dumps on the part of other teams. Jason Terry was extended, at age 28, on a six-year deal even though Cuban had, only two years earlier, balked at a similar extension for a 30-year-old Steve Nash who was, in nearly every way, a superior player. Management signed Erick Dampier to a long-term, high-salary contract that he didn't deserve and then similarly assured Brendan Haywood he would be the starter, signing him to a six-year $55 million deal. These are just some of the examples of questionable front office decisions, ones that Cuban -- today -- would almost certainly deem stupid moves. In reality, these were stupid moves all along, even in the old CBA environment. The only difference? The fact that the Mavericks could spend their way past them. Despite the financial commitment to Jason Terry, we were able to go out and get other high-priced wing players like Jerry Stackhouse, Shawn Marion, and Caron Butler. We acquired Tyson Chandler after already paying Brendan Haywood a starter's salary. These kinds of moves, ones that we've relied on historically to improve our team, are simply untenable in the new CBA environment. The cost of avoiding these decisions, changing our ways very suddenly -- and doing it without any long-term foundation already in place -- is what you are seeing now.
Rationally, this seems both smart and necessary. To a lot of fans, it might be satisfying to hand out long-term deals to guys like O.J. Mayo or Nicolas Batum to make the team more competitive in the short run. This would, however, just be an overreaction to the painful failure to land Deron Williams and would undo all the suffering we've already endured by letting our championship team walk. No drastic moves made today are going to change what we let go. In the words of Rick Pitino, Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea "aren't walking through that door." The only viable strategy now, as unpalatable as it sounds, is to stay the course, carefully avoiding stupid decisions, stocking assets, and being ready to take advantage of situations that present themselves.
Of course, the main reason this is so emotionally difficult to accept is the sight of our glorious leader, No. 41, aging and alone, with no one to "go to war with" him anymore. He is the one precious resource we have left and to watch his prime wash away like this is tough to accept. I often feel -- in a Bill Simmons-like sort of mindset -- that even if we wouldn't have won any more titles or gotten any better over time, we should have kept our championship team together because that's what you're supposed to do. Even if Terry and Kidd and Chandler and Dirk grew old and decrepit, at least they would be together. Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson, it seems, weren't persuaded by this view, and I can't say I blame them in the least.
There have been many stances taken on our front office's roster management this summer. Some, like andytobo's, have been more exasperated and critical of Cuban and Donnie's "mistaken assumptions" and willingness to sit back and do nothing, just hatching up the next pie-in-the-sky superstar plan. We do, after all, have to field a team every year and offering every non-superstar a one-year deal isn't exactly making Cuban the "cool owner" in the NBA anymore. Others, like Alan Smithee, have preached the virtues of patience and fiscal responsibility and contended that it's better to do nothing than to do what the Nets and T-Wolves and so many others are doing -- doling out big-time cash to not-so-big-time players.
I empathize with both these viewpoints and while the frustration of this summer has been immense, deep in my mind I don't believe that the damage is long-lasting. We will, no doubt, be significantly weaker this season, but at least we are positioned correctly to have options for future growth, something that can't be said of most teams in the league.
We'll be hiding out for the winter ahead, biding our time, lying in wait. And then hopefully one fine day, some unsuspecting opportunity will wander into our path.
And we will pounce.