With the Spurs becoming the first team to claim a spot in the NBA finals, there have been numerous articles praising the organization, from how it's structured to it's execution of long term plans.
As a Mavs fan, seeing so much ink lauding a team I reflexively hate is more than a little frustrating. But, if I'm being honest, over the years my Spurs hate has slowly morphed into a begrudging respect. The San Antonio basketball organization is brilliant in ways so under the radar that it's become easy to forget that they just truck along, winning 50 or more games for around a decade and a half.
One of the main reasons for this continued success, and perhaps the biggest difference between the Dallas and San Antonio basketball programs, is how each organization treats drafting and player development. Yesterday on ESPN's True Hoop, Henry Abbott wrote about how Greg Popovich and the Spurs develop young players. I really recommend reading the whole thing, but this was the defining statement in my mind:
Popovich gets the same unproven players every team gets -- in fact, he gets worse ones. The Spurs haven't had a lottery pick since Tim Duncan in 1997. Nevertheless, he plays young players relentlessly and aggressively all season long. He plays young unproven players when his team is ahead. He plays them when his team is behind. He plays them when his team is in first place and when they're in last. He plays them in all four quarters and in overtime. And, most importantly, he does it season after season.
One of the things we Dallas fans have become accustomed to is the front office's inability to draft players who are any good at playing basketball on a team level. As a result, many of us tend to discount the draft's importance.
Last year's draft is the best Dallas has had since selecting Josh Howard in 2003 and it's a mixed bag at best. Jae Crowder is an enigma, Bernard James showed some flashes but is ultimately limited, and Jared Cunningham experienced a wasted year between the developmental league and injury problems.
The last two coaches for the Mavericks, Avery Johnson and Rick Carlisle, have been quite reluctant to give younger players any sort of leash. Granted, part of that had to do with Dallas having veteran-laden squads for years, but with a few exceptions, the Mavericks have not given younger players a chance to grow.
Jae Crowder is the main exception to this rule, but he played mainly out of necessity and his minutes and role varied wildly, depending on the injury status of his teammates. I'm still not sure how to judge his season. It certainly wasn't a failure, he was a second round rookie after all, but his inconsistency does not lead one to think his season was that successful either.
The one success story to come to mind is Brandan Wright, who showed flashes for a year and a half before finally earning consistent burn down the stretch as Dallas made a final push for the playoffs. Wright forced his way into the line up with repeatedly impressive performances with very limited minutes. Carlisle kept him on a fairly short leash for most of the season, pulling him for mistakes while watching Chris Kaman struggle for consistency.
So despite having Dirk Nowitzki and an active and creative front office, the Mavericks have rolled into the 2013 off season with a mostly bare cupboard of assets and a good deal of cap room. While the latter might result in a boost this off-season in the form of new talent, the former is what really limits the Mavericks long term, particularly in comparison to our neighbors down south (this includes Houston).
Cap room will always remain an important commodity, no matter how the collective bargaining agreement changes. Where Dallas must improve is asset management, and both the best and cheapest way to do that means acquisition of young talent through both the draft and free agency.
That means no more signing of veterans well past their expiration dates with the expectation of significant roles. As the Spurs have shown, there are a number of talented, young basketball players out there waiting for their shot. Combine that talent with a coaching staff that is excellent at teaching and Dallas could eventually be in a situation much like the Spurs.
This is not a situation which evolves over night. It takes a change in culture and expectations from the ownership down to the developmental league coaching staff. If Dallas wants to regain some of it's lost footing in the Western Conference, it has to stop looking for the quick fix and commit to building, not buying, a better foundation for organizational success.