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The Spurs, the Mavs, Free Agents, and the Future

As I watched the Spurs sail through their second-round opener, making it five relatively comfortable playoff wins in a row in a tough-as-ever Western Conference, two thoughts competed in the red angry mass that is my basketball field of vision.

The first was: They’re even older than us.

That's not 100% true, of course. Sure, Tim Duncan is 36, and injuries have diminished him considerably. Manu is 34. But the real MVP of the Spurs this year has been Tony Parker who, while a Spur forever, is just 29. And, of course, key to their success is the fact that they’ve added guys like the 27 year old Gary Neal, the 23 year old DeJuan Blair, the 24 year old Danny Green and the 20 year old Kawhi Leonard.

Still, what if we’ve been worrying about age three thousand times more than we need to---does anyone think Duncan and Manu, two players older than anybody the Mavs have outside of Kidd and Vince, are done? Duncan’s diminished, sure, but that’s more because of injury than age---and his 26-10-2-2-2 last night wasn’t too shabby. Does anyone think it's time for the Spurs to turn the keys over? Do the Jazz think that?

Is this the team that was done last year, despite winning the most games in the NBA? Could have fooled me.

The second was: When was the last time the Spurs made a big free agent splash?

The answer is, they haven’t. Parker, Duncan, and Manu are all Spurs draft picks. As are Blair and Leonard, and Neal was signed as an undrafted free agent. Does this mean we should fire our own incredibly putrid draft team and hire the Spurs’ by any means possible? Obviously.

But does it cast Mark Cuban’s decisions after last year’s championships in new light? Obviously.

Here’s what we know: Cuban's big gamble is going to be right or wrong based on one thing. And that thing is not whether the Mavericks were playing out the end of their string. JJ Barea is 27. Tyson Chandler is 29. Corey Brewer, who looked pretty good at times for that Nuggets team, is 26. Could the Mavs have put a relatively young, athletic team out there for the next several years, much more capable of competing than this last one? Uh, yes.

Could they have signed Tyson, amnestied Haywood, let everybody go who was going this year, let Marion play out his contract next year, and still have some cap space in 2013 to keep building, rather than rebooting? If they'd believed that Dirk didn't need to be eased out to pasture, if they'd believe that he, like Tim Duncan, could still be competing at 37?

Uh, yes. Dirk at 20 mil, Tyson at 13 is 33 million. Cap last year was 58 mil.

Sure, it would have helped if they’d ever drafted anybody, besides Dirk (and I guess Kidd, sort of) worth a damn. But if Duncan, with plantar fasciitis, at 36, can still put up 28 in a playoff game then Dirk, turning 34, could put up 35---there’s a good reason or two to choose Duncan over Dirk in the all-time rankings, but scoring definitely isn’t one of them—and there’s a way in which the pressure management seems to feel to ease Dirk out to pasture may be very much misplaced. If we regret anything from this era it may very well be that we did not choose to trust the best player, of any sport, that Dallas has ever had (okay, Emmitt Smith obviously deserves some props), to keep on producing for us.

So the one thing Cuban is going to be right about, or not, is whether we’ve entered the era of the super teams. Whether we need a super team to compete.

I cannot blame Cuban for thinking so two years ago, or even a year ago, when everybody thought Carmelo, Amar’e and Chris Paul were destined to rule the Big Apple, when Dwight was supposed to end up with the Lakers. Now, with the failure of the Knicks, and the continued success of the Spurs and Lakers and Thunder, there’s some room for doubt.

This is, by the way, not license to revise Mavericks history to suit us. The problem with the Mavericks has always been their inability to get somebody to play with Dirk. Jason Terry, an extremely one-dimensional player, although one of the best maybe all-time, was never that person. Caron Butler was supposed to be, was obviously a little short for the job, but still could have been, perhaps.

The fact that management has failed to draft anybody besides Dirk, has failed to trade for anybody besides Terry is, probably, just bad luck. All of us want to believe that a good GM MAKES good things happen, but without a lot of luck, all you can do is what Donnie and Mark do---make smart short-term moves. It’s amazing how bad a GM Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein have been these last couple of years, eh?

The Mavs never got Manu with the 57th pick, and don’t forget that the Spurs tried to trade Parker for years before he turned into what he’s turned into. The Mavs also, by the way, never had one of the best players in the NBA get injured for a whole season so they could get the first overall pick the same year a PF named Tim Duncan was graduating from Wake Forest. In a scrapper’s league, the Mavs have had a lot of scrap, a lot of pluck, and Dirk.

But as we watch the Spurs, the only team in the NBA to have a longer streak of excellence than the Mavericks and with, sadly, a lot more to show for it, let’s remember that a big free agent splash isn’t the only way to build a team---and that 34 isn’t quite as old as Charles Barkley, and maybe Mark Cuban, think it is.