As we approach the end of the frenetic opening of free agency, and with the Mavericks roster (we think) mostly set, many around the NBA are starting to assess how teams did. As we all know, in the wake of missing on Dwight Howard, this offseason has seen a shift in Mavericks strategy.
But is the new strategy the best strategy going forward? Zach Lowe's recent take on the Mavericks' offseason moves sparked some behind-the-scenes debate about what these moves really signal for the future direction of the team, both in the remaining years of the Dirk Nowitzki Era and beyond.
As a follow up to Kirk's excellent piece on the real meaning of an "asset," here are some of the MMB writers' reflections on the summer's acquisitions and the road ahead for the Mavericks.
I don't understand the argument that these signings are bad simply because they eat up future cap space. Because that was the plan before, and it clearly worked well.
Dallas is fine long-term, financially. There is a way out of the middle ground. It's called "rebuild when Dirk retires," which is essentially where they'd be if they didn't sign anyone anyway.
I totally get breaking down the Ellis and Calderon signings with their flaws. I just don't get the idea of tanking now as opposed to later. Because the difference between those is essentially, "tank now, trade Dirk and hope we're good again in 2017-2020" or "try to win with Dirk then tank when he's gone and try to win in 2020-2022."
If Dirk has another good 2-3 years left, take the draft seriously now. Keep all your first rounders, buy second rounders and stock up as much as you possibly can. If they start hitting on the draft now, they can still be in okay shape when Dirk is gone. And if they aren't? Then they tank and start fresh, which a lot of teams are doing now (and being praised for it) anyway.
Who is really advocating tanking? I think the major criticisms of Dallas isn't "why aren't they trying to lose," it's that they've signed players that aren't really assets long term.
Dallas is really only as good as their next move. And I guess I mean that in a positive way? I'm still not a fan of the Ellis signing, but once Dwight picked Houston, the remaining options weren't great. But, Dallas can still be players in free agency next summer, and/or dance partners at the trade deadline if someone is looking to dump salary.
Allocating their remaining money this offseason to Monta Ellis, instead of some (admittedly longshot) lotto ticket type signings (Bynum, Oden) isn't a terrible move in a vacuum. Ellis is a decent player, and he's probably getting about what the market says he should. However, it's a very strange approach, because it seems like the "one player away" type move, when Dallas is unquestionably much more than one player away.
Generally I just wish they'd taken a chance on somebody young this offseason. This team has been set back years in terms of roster development, because there's little upside and a lot of downside. However, they still have the capacity to add players, should the right opportunity present itself.
I think there's this balance I have to learn to strike between accepting advanced stats, which I'd love to do, and accepting the NBA-view of the new era of basketball ideology, which I don't.
It's not that I think people are wrong about the projections of what Ellis can do as a Maverick. Where I disagree is the overall value of avoiding the Monta Ellises of the world, because I think it depends on ideas about the inevitability of better uses for cap space that are the LEAST justified by recent Maverick experience.
I think we're at about the apex of an ideology that is in need of a moderate counter-revolution. That is, I think there's a false consciousness that the answer is out there, for clever GMs to seize, and it begins with giving them maximum flexibility. Which is good in theory, but in the end results in a massive fetishization of nothing. I think the Thunder are really going to regret not taking their chances with Durant--Westbrook--Harden, and I think they are the first victims of that ideology. And the Mavericks had their own version, and bet on it and lost.
They now have some good pieces at relatively reasonable prices and now the task is addressing the imbalances that plan imposed on the team---which seems a far easier task than filling the whole thing.
Cap space, like Josh says, is not an inherent good. If drafting the next Dirk were so easy, the Mavs would have drafted the previous Dirk, or any player, ever, of comparative worth. If good GMs with flexibility inevitably make teams better than the Mavs are going to be over the next two years, what happens if there are 7-10 good GMs with flexibility? Are there enough players to fill all those teams? Like I always say, if 100 valedictorians went to the same college, 90% of them aren't going to be in the top 10%.
The Mavs have an asset that will not soon come again in Dirk. I don't think he's done, but I also don't think they'll be able to do better than Ellis and Calderon with more money in next year's free agent class. Maybe that means that he is done because rebuilding around him, at this point, seems impossible.
But one thing the Mavs CAN take a wild stab at is rescuing their brand. Dwight Howard and Deron Williams both chose the team they figured was the best one at the time. If Ellis and Calderon help THIS year and the Mavs get some lucky breaks, they have a core and money. If they hadn't done that, they'd have an awful team, Dirk, and money, and I'd choose the first. If for no other reason than that if they can't do anything better with their money than Ellis and Calderon, there's no point in betting on money.
In a way, the stats movement is about optimization, which ideally is great. The problem is, to perfectly optimize a team, you get a lot of money, and then you spend that money on amazing superstar talent, because we all know that basketball is most individual-centric sport. But you just can't always buy that ideal talent outright. We know that. It doesn't work.
If you know that, statistically, going for the big fish nets you the greatest expected value, how do you adjust that? How do you say, "okay, well, we know this is best for us mathematically, but we still know that the odds are so low that it's probably just a bad gamble anyway. How do we adjust what we know to not make this bad gamble?"
Frankly, I don't know. There's gotta be some point where someone says, "look, I get that signing Chris Paul makes us championship contenders immediately. And I get that that value is huge. But if we have a 5% chance of landing the guy, maybe we need to stop thinking about that value and look at other options." Where do you draw that line though?
I think it's the difference between tactics and strategy. Like -- did the Mavs make the correct tactical decisions after losing Howard? Maybe? You can definitely make the argument they did.
However, the strategy that got them into that situation in the first place is what's important. You can have all the tactical genius in the world and it won't matter without the right strategic plan. The right strategy for when your best player is 32 and coming off an NBA Finals MVP is probably different than the right strategy for when he is 34 and coming off knee surgery.
I think Dallas shot the moon and missed and now they have no clear way out. That's why I felt like the Tyson Chandler thing was so inexcusable, because I was worried this exact scenario would happen. So what they have cap space next summer? No one good wants to sign here. No team with an RFA center is going to let him walk for nothing, either.
You can start to incrementally build assets through smart free agent signings (Wright) and better drafts, but that's a 2-3 year process. I guess if Dirk is down for a rebuilding process, you can keep him around. But when he's a free agent next summer, after another 40-win season, he might decide he wants to have fun and maybe play in one more NBA Finals before he hangs it up.
My initial argument, two years ago, was about the tactics versus strategy problem. In general the idea that Team A, having won a championship with an aging core, would be wiser to try to find a new generation of star than to commit totally to a team that, championship or no, had a small window. But in reality, a team that already had $30 million committed to two players (Dirk and Marion) was not in a position to pursue this strategy well. Given that commitment, the pursuit demanded getting down, otherwise, to talent zero which, as we've seen, ultimately guaranteed that they would not be an attractive enough destination to pull it off.
But now I'm with Josh. It's almost certainly the case that Dirk won't come close to another championship. But if the idea is that if they start now, they might have another championship team in a decade, is almost a best case scenario given evidence. You're throwing out an awful lot about being a sports fan to want that to start immediately. For all any of us can guess they'll get bad at just the right time, for a LeBron/Andrew Wiggins type draft, rather than at the wrong time, for a Bogut draft.
I'm not even talking about championships.
I think a full rebuild might be the only way to reach 50+ wins and get out of the first round. Getting into the Top 4 in the West again anytime soon is going to be TOUGH.
I was heartened to see in Vegas all the tanking and rebuilding advocates actually feel like you do, Tjarks, that it's not about championships, it's about being good again.
And so then we just disagree that it's going to be that impossible to imagine either winning 50+ or get through the first round of the playoffs. I mean, 50+ wins? They won 41 last year and Dirk wasn't the leading scorer in a single game until February 22nd, which was also the first game of the first two game series in which he scored 20+ (a couple days later they would lose to the Bucks, despite Dirk's 20-20, thanks largely to Monta's 22 points, 9 assists, and 6 steals).
Is it so hard to believe that THAT team would have won 50 with healthy Dirk?
I tend to think Calderon-Monta-Dalembert is an upgrade, in all three spots, over Collison-Mayo-Kaman. I look at the Spurs, who've won 25 playoff games in the last two years with an even older Tim Duncan, and with Manu falling apart (11 points on sub 40% shooting last playoffs) and I say there's still something mysterious about how teams win.
Ellis was on a 48 win team, Calderon on a 47 win team. That's about how many wins I suspect most will be estimating for Dallas. And that was when both were younger, healthier, better.
Do I hope I'm wrong about Ellis improving dramatically in Dallas? Sure. However, I'm more inclined to hope you're wrong about the Mavs not being able to do better than Ellis and Calderon with more money in next year's free agent class. Because I think one hope is a longshot and the other is about as sensible as comparing yourself to Dwyane Wade and then saying you have it all.