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Post-Powder: The Case Against Trading Dirk and Tanking

Plan Powder lies in ruins, a failure in results and debatably in concept and execution. Dallas simply did not have either an enticing enough roster or enough cap space to attract the big fish(es) necessary to avoid a total rebuild in the post-Dirk Nowitzki era and ensure contention for another ring for Dirk and crew. It hurts, and finger pointing is going to continue for a long time.

If we’re being practical, we should stop expecting a superstar to come next summer either. Realistically, looking at the abundance of quality stars with early termination offers -- mostly on contending teams -- and the rising stars with restricted free agencies, the likelihood of any one of these star free agents leaving their situations (or being allowed to leave their situations) to come play with a 36-year old Dirk Nowitzki is probably very slim. Without a healthy bit of luck and barring a drastic decline by Dirk himself, it is highly unlikely we will be able to get anyone here to make Dirk the second-best star on the team for the rest of his career.

For those of us who (finally) accept this fact, we end up dividing into two camps:

- CAMP #1: Those who think we should trade Dirk and blow it up now.

- CAMP #2: Those who think we should keep Dirk and keep trying to build the best team possible regardless of our chances at another ring or other superstars.

To most "objective" outsiders and pundits, the arguments of Camp #1 seems obvious, and Camp #2 seems foolish, quixotic and overemotional. They argue that Dirk is too nice and loyal to ask for a trade and will suffer regression towards mediocrity in silence like a loyal soldier, and that asking him to do this is unfair to him and merely prolongs the inevitable rebuilding. They argue that the "mediocrity treadmill" is the worst place to be, and Dirk is too good to keep us from being a high lottery team, but without someone younger to take the weight off his shoulders, Dirk is too old to carry a team into contention by himself. And they might be right in every one of these arguments.

However, there are also more rational arguments in Camp #2’s favor as well:

1.) Dirk is still Dirk.

For starters, until Dirk has actually demonstrated a major regression at the thing he does best, contention is not out of the question at all. And so far he hasn’t, even though his final box score does not necessarily seem as dominant as it once was. The past two years have had some troubling age-related health scares and conditioning issues, but when healthy, Dirk can still be dominant and is arguably as good as ever.

In the month of March last season, when he finally got healthy, Dirk was shooting a 54.8% FG% and a Calderon-esque 46.8% from 3 point range. Even counting the first few months of recovery and awkward shots, for the whole year, Dirk STILL shot better in both categories than he did during his "prime" years in 2002-2005. His three point shooting was actually the third highest year of his career at 41.4%, and over two percentage points higher than the championship year. His per minute rebounds, blocks, assists, steals and turnovers were ALL better than the championship year.

My point: as long as Dirk is Dirk and Dirk is healthy and he has someone to get the ball in his hands, we can contend with the right team around him. Now, the "health" part is going to require a bit of luck, but it is not out of the question for Dirk to stay healthy.

2.) Who needs more superstars when we have Dirk? Just build a great team.

Dirk-era Dallas has never been built on multiple superstars or even the need for a clear #2 option, at least not since the Nash-Finley era. And yet we’ve always contended. Why do we need to change now?

Missing out and getting rejected by superstars burns. We feel unwanted, undesirable and unloved. But if Dirk is still Dirk, do we really NEED a second star to contend? In 2011, we won on the virtue of pure team basketball and high quality, veteran role players who did not make many mistakes. Besides Dirk staying healthy, the other half of this equation is putting together a team around Dirk that, like the championship team, is greater than the sum of its parts. This has been lacking the past two years, for a variety of reasons. But most of those problems are now gone from the team and we need to move on and try to recreate the magic of 2011, if not the exact same team.

Jose Calderon is a fantastic building block for such a team, bringing a high basketball IQ and an offensive leadership as solid as almost any point guard in the league. Calderon was 4th in assists per game (7.1), 2nd in assists to turnover ratio (after Chris Paul) and 1st in three point shooting, and 16th in wins produced per 48m in the league last year. He’s a smart, savvy player who makes few mistakes, keeps things in control and gets the ball where it needs to go – in other words, he’s a perfect complement for Dirk. He’s not as daring or crafty or defensive as Jason Kidd in 2011, but will arguably be more productive and efficient. Calderon has played on some awful teams in Toronto for years, and one can imagine his game improving even more with a better cast around him. Our zone defense can also cover some of his defensive deficiencies, an important factor that needs to be considered when building the rest of the team.

Last year’s team had serious chemistry and ball distribution issues, contributing to Dirk shooting fewer shots per minute than any season since 2002, and fewer shots per game than any season since 1999-00. Even the highest monthly average FGAs last season, 14.3 in March, is 2 shots less than any year since 2001. This is why his final box score took a hit. Hopefully Calderon can help fix this problem.

We’ve also picked up some reliable veteran pieces in Devin Harris and Wayne Ellington, and we still have proven if aging veterans like Shawn Marion and Vince Carter who have shown stretches of flashback dominance at times last year. In case anyone here undervalues Marion, Marion led the team and was ninth in the league in wins produced per 48 minutes – still two slots ahead of comparable rising superstar "glue guy" Kawhi Leonard. Hopefully we can pick up some quality big men like Samuel Dalembert and retain frontcourt sparkplug Brandan Wright. We also have some interesting young pieces also who will hopefully improve and contribute in big ways.

For 2013-14, on paper it does not look at this point like we would do much better than the 7th seed, especially considering the quality of Western Conference teams a tier above us. However, with a hopefully healthy Dirk, the improved (or at least more stable) frontcourt and hopefully a more complementary defensive starting/closing center, who knows?

The point of this year is not necessarily a ring. The point is building something worth keeping next summer and improving on in free agency with the discounts coming from the expiring contracts of Dirk, Marion and Carter. We figure out which holes we need to fill in free agency next summer, whether we attract a star or not. A realistic goal (an unrestricted free agent definitely seeking a change of scenery) might be Marcin Gortat to solidify our center rotation, and picking up more savvy veterans who can adapt to Carlisle’s BBIQ-reliant system and improve our depth so he can best manage everyone’s minutes to maximize the production for a group of mostly 30+ year olds. The front office seems to be moving back in this direction, and rightly so in my opinion. That's how Carlisle works best, and this system has been proven to work with Dirk to great success.

With the right mixture of ingredients and luck, a decidedly unsexy and aged but rock-solid 2014-15 team packed with veterans and chemistry and good coaching has a chance. They won’t necessarily be the favorites. ESPN pundits will not pick us to get very far without flashy talent. But they could contend.

3.) Even if we can’t win it all, we have one important long-term reason not to tank just yet

Perhaps the number one reason not to trade Dirk and blow it up again is because we really need him to do one last favor for us.

The Lamar Odom experiment was the gift that keeps on thieving. At the time, it looked brilliant – the Sixth Man of the year joining much of the previous year’s championship team for the lowly cost of a top 20-protected pick. Surely we’d be back in the top ten teams again in no time and would quickly hand over the rights to what would have otherwise probably been some poorly chosen, disappointing combo guard, right?

Well, that turned into a multi-dimensional conflagration when Lamar crapped the bed, gave up and (along with other factors) helped ruin both a top ten finish and any chance of a repeat, and we had to pay Utah off to help us get rid of him. Then our original pick, which wound up in Houston’s hands, ended up getting sent to OKC in the deal for James Harden (a possible "big fish target" for Plan Powder), who then helped Houston get Dwight Howard (arguably the biggest fish for Plan Powder).

[Ironically, this also ended up helping to screw over the Lakers in the end, in case anyone believes Lamar was simply a Trojan horse the Lakers sent over to avenge their brutal playoff sweep.]

Oh, and did I mention, we can’t trade any first round picks because we don’t know exactly when that pick will be sent out between now and 2018? So we can’t include first rounders in trades for other teams’ stars to recruit other stars to come here in free agency. If we had those rights, maybe we could have put a more realistic package together for, say, Rondo, and Howard might have chosen us instead of Houston.

The final kicker: if we don’t get back into the top ten teams before 2018, the pick becomes unprotected and OKC (or whoever owns it) gets it wherever we are. Unfortunately, by 2018, after Dirk has probably retired, we are likely to be awful and could end up giving away a #1 pick that could have changed the franchise forever.

So, it’s a disaster of epic proportions that might get worse and can be fixed by getting into the top ten teams one time before 2018, and preferably as quickly as possible. I think it is not outside the realm of possibility, although it will be no easy task. Trading Dirk now and blowing it up most likely gives up on any hope of ever resolving that pick while the damage from losing a #20-30 pick is still low. Putting Dirk with a good team around him, we can achieve at least this objective, at minimum. We should be forever grateful when they do.

4.) What’s the rush to tank? We’ll have all the time in the world in a few years.

With Dirk still performing at his usual high level, there is no reason to abandon all hope now. As long as Dirk retires a Maverick without memories of intentionally sub-par basketball and we do him justice by building a great supporting cast, he is not "wasting" his time here. Ideally, we can time our long-term contracts to expire right when Dirk retires, let everyone walk, and then be utterly awful for three to five years and rebuild around a new franchise player found in the draft lottery if we don’t have one at that point. We have all the time in the world to tank, there’s no point to do so now while Dirk is still with us.

5.) Why do people assume Dirk needs to leave to chase rings? He's got one, and leaving is no guarantee for another.

If Dirk still did not have a ring at this point in his career, I might be the first one on the "trade Dirk" train. I have no problem with ringless vets chasing rings. I’m actually all for Carter leaving to do so next summer, or for us to trade him to a contender like the one he thought he was coming to back in 2011.

But Dirk already has earned a ring, and his window is not closed to win again here either (although it’s maybe not as likely as elsewhere).

6.) The return for trading Dirk away is not worth it.

If the Boston-to-Brooklyn shipment of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett is evidence of what a franchise gets in return for a franchise player and a past-his-prime superstar, I’ll pass. I don’t want a pu-pu platter of low draft picks, scrubs, projects and bad contracts used for salary matching in return for the greatest player in franchise history. And sending Dirk to a lottery team kind of defeats the purpose of the trade. The only remotely tempting offer I’ve seen, if Dirk actually wanted to leave, would be for something like the Bobcats’ pick owned by Chicago. But even then, no.

--

If blowing up the championship team will forever be controversial, trading Dirk now has to be the only more controversial and divisive debate. However, I think Dirk and the franchise has the capacity for a few more compelling runs at rings, but maybe we need to get back to building a real team and developing chemistry first. Mark and the front office tried nobly with Plan Powder to avoid a painful post-Dirk rebuild, although mistakes were made. Luckily, it is somewhat easier to recover from the failure of Plan Powder with our cap space and the new foundation we’ve started than if we were locked in to a team in decline. It is still far too early to give up any hope, for Dirk is still Dirk and true team basketball can still win.

MFFL.

Reader Submitted

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