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Things aren't so bad: James Harden edition

How does Harden to Houston change the Mavericks' math?

Every little thing's...gonna be alright
Every little thing's...gonna be alright

The Dallas Mavericks lost another free agent target, last night, as James Harden became a Rocket—assuming, of course, that the Rockets traded for him because they were willing to pay him the max deal the Thunder weren’t, and that they don’t suspect there’s a reason he won’t take it.

Of the five players linked most prominently with the Mavericks and free agency (Williams, Howard, Bynum, Paul, Harden) that now makes only one who actually became a free agent with intention to give the job market a try and long-time fans will remember that that’s exactly how Williams became a Net in the first place---intimated his willingness to try the FA market rather than sign an extension, got shipped out at equally shocking speed. Of course, Howard, Bynum, Paul and Harden will all still technically be FAs next year, but few believe any will actually consider leaving.

I have, in the past, been willing to allow that though I think all processes that don’t involve putting the best possible team out there each year are low, low percentage bets, that if there WERE a process which retooled the Mavs on the fly, this WOULD be it. I’m not going to do that any more.

In retrospect, two things are very clear. First, the Mavericks were never going to have enough cap space in the right offseason. There will be players for the Mavericks when they finally have cap space next year, and especially in 2014, but they won’t be Bynum, Paul, Howard, Williams level players (well, except for Williams, they technically will be, but probably not really), and frankly, Harden isn’t either.

Second, in order to pretend to have cap space at the right time, the Mavericks had to strip down so low, had to so demur at any opportunity to get better that they had no parts to offer in any trade. It wouldn’t have made much of a difference, but the epitome of this was trading Jordan Hamilton, a guy who, as Jonathan Tjarks has pointed out, had a better college career doing the same thing as Harrison Barnes, for Rudy Fernandez, then trading Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer for a second round pick.

Hamilton probably won’t be a star—but it was a needless move which turned young assets into nothing for the illusion of space. They also got down so low that the acquisition of Joe Johnson and his cap-killing deal was enough to trump what the Mavs could offer Deron Williams.

And it is customary in certain parts of the internet to pretend two big FA acquisitions were possible last offseason with a sign-and-trade, but NOT to notice that the Mavs’ best possible trade chip would have been a still-young DPOY of the year candidate like Tyson Chandler, if they really wanted to go in another direction—who not only would have filled Orlando’s defensive hole in the center very nicely, but meant a 180 culture shift for that team in the attitude provided for everybody by their defensive anchor, in a theoretical trade.

That’s why I loved Houston’s plan so much. They traded more or less their whole team for high draft picks in a bid for Dwight Howard, but it was a prototypical shoot for the moon, land among the stars gambit in which they ended up with boatloads of young talent. Keeping Jeremy Lamb would have been a good move, but trading him for James Harden was even better. It was win-win, and they still have Lin, Asik, Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Royce White, Jon Brockman and now Harden.

And for everyone decrying those severely backloaded Lin and Asik contracts, somehow lost in all the conversation about them was the fact that there’s little NBA teams like to do more than trade for expiring deals. In fact, the Thunder just did, and have Kevin Martin’s 13 mil coming off the books this summer. That’s right—the Thunder got Jeremy Lamb, PJIII and cap space, this offseason.

But honestly?

Accepting all that has made me happy enough to completely forget about it. I don’t know about you.

Because what’s done is done. Before it was done, the Mavericks won a glorious championship, an absolutely glorious one. Something that 2/3rds of the teams currently in the league haven’t done in the last 30 years.

They’re getting Dirk back, and maybe….maybe…at full health. There’s no question he’s going to keep declining a little bit, no question. But a Dirk who is done worrying about his knee for his while? Remember, Dirk put together the best season from a shoot-from-anywhere guy I’ve ever seen in 2011. Nobody shoots over 50% from the places Dirk shot from, and scores as much as he did. Nobody dominates the offensive side of the game so thoroughly.

Who knows—and on some level, who cares—how this team stacks up to other Mavs teams. We’re not watching any other teams, we’re watching this one. And the 7, 8, 9 new faces are like 7-9 Christmas presents. They may turn out not to be what we wanted most, but they’re exciting as hell, and finding out is the fun. It’s why we watch.

It’ll be so interesting to see if Kaman can patrol the paint with regularity for this team, and if so, what it will mean for Dirk to have the first big man next to him who can score nearly as well as he can (well, not really , but kind of). It’ll be so interesting to see Brand’s smarts and toughness do what they do for this team. We’ve never had a player like Brand. An aging lion, but a lion still.

They have a young do-it-all big guard and the first fast guy playing point—that is, the first guy who used his speed as the most prominent part of his offensive arsenal—in years and years. And they've got the first rookie-to-watch they've had in years and years. Exciting, isn't it?

The Mavericks will have money to spend, the next two offseasons, and when they do finally get bad enough, they’ll have draft picks to play with-- in the fullness of time.

They have a great coach, a great, close, tight clubhouse, a sterling organization, and once he gets back here they’ll have again the single most destructive offensive force in the league, doing his thing, pain free. And though the Thunder have positioned themselves long term, they’ve also made themselves vulnerable this year, which makes the heights more scaleable, dreams more permissible.

Forget about plans. Let’s watch some basketball.