Note: Some of the transactions described below involved trades that I didn't mention, please don't yell at me.
The idea that the worst thing that can happen to a team is to be .500 is so well-known, these days, we rarely even think about it. But it may be worth re-examining.
After all, the poster-child for mediocrity for many years was the Houston Rockets who, after going 53-29 in 2008-2009, finished 9th and out of the playoffs an astonishing three times in a row. Look at the Rockets, basketball intellectuals would say. Too bad to make the playoffs, too good to get a good draft pick. No-man's land.
Right at this minute, the possibility that the Rockets will finish 9th for a fourth straight year is actually not all that bad. They're 8th, 5 for their last ten, and the Lakers are closing fast. However.
The Houston Rockets have James Harden, a star to build around who is just 23 years old. They have Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. Lin, averaging 12.6-6.2, 14.5-6.7 in February, seems to be showing that , though he may not be a superstar, he certainly will be a good and productive player for them. Asik, a defensive superstar averaging 10.5 and 11.6 on 54% shooting, will keep the Rockets defense solid for as long as he wears red and white.
And while both their contracts were widely considered risks for teams that wanted to compete, possessed of a third year "poison pill", of 15 million dollars, it seemed to me unbelievable that everybody who commented on the story couldn't seem to see it another way-namely, that Houston has two great players for 5 million dollars for two years that magically morph into 30 million in expiring contracts at the end of that time. They also still have a stable of good young talent.
People will say that Houston is an example of a bad process that is still, so far, producing minor results, or perhaps a good process started after too long a wait. But another way of looking at mediocrity is to say that it is a solid team missing one big piece.
Another way of looking at mediocrity is to say that it is a team with enough talent to make trades, with pieces to use to improve.
Critics of this notion will point to the OKC Thunder, who, by refusing to be mediocre, by instead getting very bad very fast and staying there, ended in a cheap, young core that, eventually, made them one of the best teams in the NBA , and likely to stay there for some time.
The dirty little secret is that, in such a situation, you are in a race with yourself. Kevin Durant is good, but luckily for the Thunder he isn't-and certainly wasn't immediately-LeBron good. So while the Thunder enjoyed the 4th pick the year after they got the 2nd pick, and the 3rd pick the year after, LeBron immediately elevated the Cavs from a 17-65 team to a 35-47 team, and onwards, such that they went from the first pick, to the tenth pick, to worse.
While, obviously, not drafting LeBron but drafting Kevin Durant would be fine, there's also another kind of race highlighted by the Thunder's peculiar struggles. They could not win a title in time to keep their three stars and while, in the short run things look pretty good (second in the West, 42-15), I don't think there's any real doubt that they were better with Harden than without.
This is not to say that getting draft picks isn't a good strategy for a team, whether to package in trades or to use. The one silver lining of this horrible Mavs seasons will be a good draft pick, and Mavericks fans should be justly excited about that.
It's merely to say that up until now, the Mavericks have been selling the line that cap space alone is the way to salvation, or at least pursuing a course that left them with only cap space to use. But they're not doomed to this strategy.
While many Mavs commentators have given up on every Mav not named Dirk, and with good reason, the Mavs should think very seriously about whether preserving their cap space for a big fish is really better than keeping some of their talented pieces-at least for next offseason, they certainly will have to make this choice.
I can't claim to know. Talented pieces, as Houston shows, means the potential for trades. It also means that picking up someone like James Harden will matter-although Houston doesn't look to make much of a dent this year, they're also 20 million under cap next year, and recently picked up another high lottery talent in Thomas Robinson.
It's not a model the Mavs can follow, obviously. But it started, not with trying to lose, but with trying to win. Trying to amass some talent, whether to trade for draft picks or better fits, or to add somebody great too. Your Blake Griffins don't do you too much until you get Chris Paul, and that's a fact.
Obviously, the worst thing you can do is be .500 with no cap space. But just .500? With money to spend and a draft pick or two? Is that really so bad? The answer may hold the fate of the Mavericks franchise.