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What Mark and Donnie Do Well or, Why the Mavs Won't Miss the Playoffs

We've said a lot in this space--especially I--about the big mistake it now seems like the Mavericks have made in supposing that the CBA meant a new reality, then watching as their three top targets fled to teams that, at least, did not feel like abiding by this new reality. There is still time for Cuban to be proven correct, and it is now also clear that there are moves such as the potential Elton Brand pick-up, where having cap space is a competitive advantage.

Moreover, while a number of tricks, such as the sign and trade, will keep this "new reality" from being quite as stark as Cuban thought it would be, now that we've had our yell, we can acknowledge that in terms of unrestricted free agents, neither the Lakers, Nets, Knick or Heat seem likely to be big movers in at least the next couple of summers, and that without those always huge free agent draws, Maverick flexibility may not be the dead end it seemed to be, in the wake of the Deron Williams decision.

And while we can argue all day about whether or not refusing to overpay for impact players qualifies as smart--or whether, as I tend to believe, you instead end up not getting impact players--two things about Donnie and Mark are certainly true. They do not sign stupid contracts, and they do have a way of getting the role players they need.

I stand by a lot of what I've said in this last week, namely, that Cuban and Donnie have not shown any ability to make big moves. Donnie became GM in 2006 and since then the two have not, in their time together, ever signed an impact free agent. Then again, it would be hypocritical of me, who has gone on record many times saying that getting an impact player through free agency is a high-risk, low-reward proposition, to blame them fully for that. It is not as if the Cavs wouldn't have loved to flank LeBron James with more talent, it's not as if the Wolves wouldn't love to give Kevin Love what he is now openly lobbying for. The free agent lottery is just not an easy game to play.

More damning is their inability to draft, including presumably this year, given the history of picks in the numbers the Mavericks were drafting, verse the history of the number they COULD have drafted at. Just in the last few years, Iman Shumpert has gone at 17 while Reggie Jackson has gone at 24; Kevin Seraphin has gone 17th, and Damion Jones 24th; Jrue Holliday 17, and, as Mavs fans will remember, Roddy Beaubois/Byron Mullins 24. Nobody's slobbering over Kevin Seraphin, who nevertheless averaged 20 minutes a game, 8 points, 5 boards and 1.3 blocks for the Wizards last year, and Serge Ibaka went 24th in 2008 (to Roy Hibbert at 17), but the point is the Mavs do not prioritize the draft and it's a self-fulfilling prophecy because they end up being terrible at it.

However, no one I think will seriously deny that while the Mavericks haven't been able to get a second star to put next to Dirk, they've done well enough, at least since Steve Nash left in 2004, and I think we can all agree that that Nash wasn't this Nash--- WITH just their one star, to win 55+ games seven times since 2001. Considering that Kobe Bryant, widely considered the finest player of his generation, won 45 or less the three years between Shaq and Bynum-Gasol-Odom, pretty hard to sneeze at that one.

They do it by making smart, small moves. You can say, and I might think, that that's one of things that was absolutely insane about their decision to rebuild through big moves, which they've never done, but I won't deny and I don't think anyone can that the trades the Mavericks do make generally work out great. I was very skeptical about the Kidd trade, initially, but it's hard to argue with it now. I was more positive about the Chandler trade, at the time, than most, and it's very hard to argue with it now. The Marion, Peja acquistions, Jason Terry for Antoine Walker, an aging, disaffected, and apparently injury prone Josh Howard for Caron Butler, DeShawn Stevenson, and a (now sadly underachieving) Brendan Haywood?

Every one a trade of not very much for solid, important contributors. And not a crushing salary among them, at least to the point that any of us spent much time wishing for cap space before now. This is how you win every year, and the Mavericks are masters of it. They have not been, they likely never will be home run hitters, and that's why it's too bad that they've chosen a strategy of home-run hitting for the foreseeable future. As a pundit noted last week, I think we can agree that slightly better GMing would have meant multiple titles for Dirk---but we can definitely agree, too, that any of 25 other NBA GMs would have resulted in no championship at all.

This year, obviously, is the Mavericks' greatest challenge, and their specific challenges are twofold. First, their cupboard is as bare as it has ever been. There's no way they can play credible defense with the team they have now, and there's literally only one person on the team who can score. Obviously, they're required to add more players before the season starts, but unless they add some actual impact ones they are definitely headed for the first lottery of Dirk's career. But I don't anticipate that, because as long as they have Dirk, as long as they're willing to spend a little cash, I do trust them, 100%, to put together a team capable of at least making the playoffs. It wouldn't take much.

Yes, we're currently starving to death. But replacing an increasingly erratic Jason Terry, who had one of the worst basketball minds on the Mavericks and who couldn't play defense, and replacing the least-well scoring PG maybe in the history of the NBA--these are not impossible challenges. Elton Brand and Ramon Sessions could do it. One of the rookies or one of the young guys turning out could really help. And Dirk having a bounce back year would seal the deal.

The other problem, however, is ringchasers. Sometime in the last five years, we stopped being able to count on players being greedy which, on the surface, seems like a good thing. We also have apparently entered an era in which all great players only want to play with each other, and it's more or less collusion before team-building when it happens. You can't get in without somebody demanding a trade to your team, a favorable FA situation, things you can't really control by good GMing. And once it's happened, it stays happened.

We like to believe that once a team has put together something like LeBron-Wade-Bosh it may be more or less unbeatable, but at least it's also stuck. Unfortunately, that's not true. We can come up with lots of reasons that Ray Allen spurned twice as much money from Boston to go to the Heat, but the major one is it's a better championship chance. We can make fun of how bad the just announced Rashard Lewis signing is for the Heat, but that's based on how much he was paid, not how good he is. He's still a career 39% shooter from three, and 16 ppg scorer, and they got him with the veteran minimum. Does anyone seriously believe that Allen-Lewis isn't better than Jones-Cole, or Jones-Battier? Or that either isn't better, at this point, than Juwan Howard?

That's, unfortunately, the Mavericks' competition. Cap friendly as they now are, they obviously could have signed Allen to a 3 million dollar deal, or Rashard Lewis to a 1.2 million dollar deal with no problem, and they would be the better for it. But those deals were not available to them because they're not the Miami Heat. So the can't set their sights on cap friendly deals as if they're still a championship threat, and they can't expect a big name free agent, especially if Dirk doesn't prove he's still in his prime, this year.

But as far as whether they can put together a team for this year that any non-superteam will have to reckon with, starting with only what they have now?

There's few front offices I would trust more.