Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Are the Mavericks rebuilding? Reloading? Do they even know?
Another week has passed, during which time they went 2-2, and the Dallas Mavericks still stand at seven games under .500, no closer to either getting back into contention or falling completely out of the race.
As the trade deadline approaches and serious decisions about the future of the franchise appear imminent, the team, from an emotional standpoint, seems more locked into trying to make a playoff push than ever. The locker room rhetoric and on-court effort does not suggest even a hint of folding, especially from leaders and longest-tenured Mavs Shawn Marion and Dirk Nowitzki, who is fighting an individual battle to get his own season back on track. If there was any positive to take away from last night's loss to Atlanta, it would be that he looks like he's getting closer.
The coaching staff and front office echo the overall sentiment of the players: they want to win. Tanking is not in the cards, if you take them at their word, and to put it more precisely, neither is trading away guys for draft picks or cap space, i.e the kind of moves that would concede the season.
For all you paradox-enthusiasts out there, don't take me too literally, but this seems like a case of the irresistible force(the desire to win) against the immovable object(the team's talent and circumstance, which have put the playoffs far from reach). The inevitable impasse may leave the team with a record somewhere around .500 but on the outside of the postseason looking in. As has already been said by me and most everyone else, that's a problem.
One season in purgatory might not be such a big deal, of course, but this problem is starting to appear much larger than could have been predicted. The issue isn't simply that they had some bad luck with injuries and/or age-related regression: this is about the perception the organization as a whole seems to have, versus the reality of their position, and before I am condemned for the conceit that I know better than the professionals in charge(I don't), allow me to clarify and expound my case.
First, some historical setup. As I'm assuming most of you know, Dallas won the NBA championship in 2011. Almost immediately after this, several major things happened:
1) The lockout, which finally ended with the signing of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement
2) The decision to let Tyson Chandler, as well as a few role players from the title team, leave through free agency
3) The re-signing of coach Rick Carlisle
Most of these things, and especially Chandler, have already been discussed ad nauseam. For many, letting Tyson go was a highly controversial, if not deplorable action. Certainly, being upset is understandable, now more than ever. At the time, the reasoning seemed to be this: Dallas won the title with an expensive, aging team, and committing the requested salary to Chandler under the new CBA would have left the roster inflexible, thus locking them in to a group that the front office had deemed unlikely to conjure the same kind of playoff magic again. Meanwhile, the following offseason was set up to have one of the best free agent classes in years, led by three All-Stars who had all expressed interest in Dallas at one point or another, including a Dallas native who had personally visited the Mavs locker room after an NBA Finals game.
We can all make arguments about the likelihood of what was to come to pass with the benefit of hindsight. Frankly, it's a futile effort. My stance is and has always been that letting Chandler walk was an acceptable, calculated risk, for all the reasons stated above. But it was unquestionably a risk.
I don't think Dallas is in the situation they're in now(and I'm not referring to their win-loss record) because they let Chandler go. I think Dallas is in the situation they're in now because of almost all the decisions they made after letting him go.
Keep in mind, while Dallas was wrong about Deron taking better teammates over better money, and about Chris Paul and Dwight Howard not opting in to the final years of their respective contracts, they weren't wrong about everything. The CBA has forced teams to make choices they wouldn't have previously. Houston is a testament to this. Under the old CBA, James Harden would probably still be with the Thunder, Omer Asik would probably still be with the Bulls, and Jeremy Lin would absolutely still be with the Knicks.
So, as predicted, the available talent pool was more voluminous than in years prior. However, to take advantage of this, Dallas armed themselves with cap space, and little else. The 2011 first round draft pick was traded for Rudy Fernandez, in an effort to save money and roster space. Rudy Fernandez was then traded, along with young swingman Corey Brewer, for what was essentially nothing, in an effort to save money and roster space. The 2012 first round pick, the highest in years, was also traded, and once again, the primary impetus appears to have been financial.
Another first rounder, one that Dallas has yet to be good enough to merit, was traded away for Lamar Odom, in what might be the biggest disaster move of Mark Cuban's tenure, when you examine all the other teams that profited by it. That same first round pick brought Jordan Hill to the Lakers and then helped bring James Harden to Houston. The trade exception L.A. received allowed them to bring in Steve Nash. All the while, Dallas was unable to motivate Odom, and also unable to ship his expiring contract off for anything of even minute value.
The trade for Odom speaks to my next point: the feeble attempt by Dallas to have its cake and eat it too. Mark Cuban has famously said "we don't rebuild, we reload". A terrific soundbyte, to be sure, but as a strategy it is nebulous, and the results are as confusing as the terms. Certainly, with Dirk here, and Carlisle at the helm, one can understand why the club believes it can be competitive. However, when you lose half of your title team in one offseason, and nearly the rest the following one, a rebuild is about as good a description as any, and if you are plugging these holes with discarded veterans on short term deals, at what point does reloading cost you rebuilding?
Cuban signed these guys because he didn't want Dirk to finish out his career mired in mediocrity, but the irony seems to be that that is exactly what he's guaranteeing. Even as the walls come tumbling down, and Cuban insists "the bank is open", the noise around the league signals that Dallas will, for the third trade deadline in a row, be observers and not participators. With respect, I am highly dubious. The players will always want to play, and win, but by not selling high on the few assets the team has, Dallas wastes its chance at acquiring more, and may simply end up right back in the spot they were last year, when they didn't want to overpay for the guys they could afford, and they couldn't afford(meaning trade chips) the guys they wanted.
I know Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson are smart. I know Cuban understands that being the last team out of the playoffs is the worst thing one can possibly be(he's said it plenty of times). What I don't understand is why his actions of late are allowing the club to be just that. Is his desire to do right by those who have done right by him(Dirk, Carlisle, etc) holding the team hostage?
I'm just an outsider, so what do I know, but if the best scenario turns out to be paying O.J. Mayo $10 million+ a year, or paying max/near max money to Josh Smith or a Smith-equivalent, then the "shoulda paid Ty" proponents will have their best and loudest argument yet. Of course, one wonders exactly how good a Chandler-led Dallas would be without a healthy Dirk(and if you need refreshing, go look at those two weeks between Christmas and mid-January back in '11), but that's all irrelevant, anyway.
There is still time to turn this thing around. And by around, I mean straight, emphatically down. Because being a bottom feeder isn't what's going to drive Dirk and all of us mad. It will be waiting around, hovering at the 40 win mark for years, just to be that bottom feeder eventually. That's what will do it.