My biggest complaint about the Dallas Mavericks' front office over the years has been their complete lack of interest in utilizing the draft to build teams. Here is why, in a nutshell: the best way to get cheap talent in the NBA is through the draft. Rookies cost less than veterans, but if you invest in the right scouting, those rookies can still contribute to your team. What's more, because they are "home grown talent," the CBA provides certain advantages to your ability to re-sign these players after their rookie contract is up.
In other words, when you are looking to maximize value while continuing to add talent every year, it makes sense to pay attention to the draft, even if you are going to add players through free agency and trades as well. This is why the Spurs are good all the time. They draft good players, convince them to stick around for multiple contracts, and then add in the right role players around them.
This was less of an issue before the luxury tax became a more strict penalty with the new CBA in 2011, since before that Cuban basically ignored the luxury tax and spent whatever it took to get talented players. He didn't have to maximize value because he just threw money at the players he wanted. After 2011, he couldn't do that anymore, so it would've made sense to start paying more attention to the draft. It's a lot easier to make cap room to chase Deron Williams and Dwight Howard when you have rotation players on rookie deals.
Or you could just say "Screw it. Let's continue to ignore the draft, do everything we can to save the most cap space possible so we can chase Dwight Howard, and then scramble to actually build a team with limited resources after the Howard thing plays out." Which is apparently the strategy that Mark Cuban took. According to the Dallas Morning News, the Mavericks considered drafting Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 13th pick in the 2013 NBA draft, but elected to trade down to save cap space in case a certain max-level free agent* wanted to sign in Dallas.
*No one in the article would refer to Dwight Howard by name, but we all know who they were saving cap space for.
According to Cuban, Donnie Nelson really wanted to draft Giannis, going so far as to say that Nelson would have risked everything (everything apparently meaning the much maligned "Plan Powder") on the belief that Giannis was going to be really good.
So Donnie was all in on Antetokounmpo. Wow. And what was Cuban's response?
"But still, what if all of the sudden we find out that so-and-so is dying to come to the Mavs and now you don't have the cap room? That's why we put together a plan, and our consolation wasn't too bad."
I have a problem with that logic. We all know "so-and-so" is code for Dwight Howard. Now, I have no idea what sort of communications or signals Howard's camp was putting out. Maybe Cuban was completely justified believing that Dwight was seriously interesting in coming to Dallas. But honestly, if Howard actually was "dying to come to the Mavs," was not having an extra $400,000 in cap space really going to stop him? If that's the case, then he isn't "dying" to come here. And no offense to Shane Larkin (who is a player I really love), but I can't believe that Giannis wouldn't have been a better long-term piece for the Mavs, with or without Dwight.
Here's the crazy thing. All these years I figured Donnie was the one eschewing the draft. The Mavs really don't talk about their decision-making or how the front office really works, so it's hard to know for sure. But I always kind of figured that Donnie was the one driving the overall strategy for the Mavs' team-building over the years. You can't really take anything away from a few quotes about a single draft decision, but it seems as though Cuban has a much stronger voice in team-building strategies than I assumed. And while it is his money to spend how he wants, it's kind of unfortunate that he didn't trust Donnie on this. After all, Donnie is the basketball mind of the front office, who took a bottom of the barrel team and made it one of the three or four best teams in the entire NBA throughout the 2000s.
Honestly, I shouldn't have been so surprised that Donnie was all in on Antetokounmpo though. Donnie has always been more interested in international talent than American collegiate players. After all, it was he and his dad who saw something in Dirk Nowitzki when few else did. While most of Donnie's other forays into drafting international prospects have been fairly uneventful (Wang Zhi-Zhi and Pavel Podkolzine come to mind), Giannis is exactly the sort of player that Nelson has historically gone after.
So props to Donnie, because Giannis would've solved a lot of issues for the Mavs.
For all the Mavs' fans who hate the Parsons acquisition because they feel the Mavs had to overpay, Giannis would have made it unnecessary to go after Parsons. Antetokounmpo is much cheaper than Parsons and is currently producing fairly similar statistical numbers. Giannis is shooting 47.4 percent while averaging 11.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game, along with a PER of 15.3 and a true shooting percentage of 53.5 percent. Chandler is shooting 41 percent while averaging 14.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game, with a PER of 14.5 and a true shooting percentage of 51.5 percent. Really the only obvious advantage that Parsons has is that he can hit the three; Antetokounmpo has yet to establish a consistent shot from range, averaging a pretty terrible 15.4% this season, down from a pretty decent 34.7 percent last season.
While I expect Parsons to continue to improve as he learns the Dallas system, the 20-year-old "Greek Freak" is already a comparable player to Parsons. And who knows what Giannis's ceiling is?
On the other hand, the guy the Mavs drafted instead of Giannis was Shane Larkin. Who was then part of the trade that brought Tyson Chandler back to Dallas. So wouldn't drafting Giannis have meant no Tyson Chandler?
I have two responses to this train of thought. First, Jose Calderon was the centerpiece of that trade, since he is the perfect point guard to run the Knicks' new triangle offense. Probably Gal Mekel would have been a fine replacement for Shane Larkin's part of the trade. And even if he wouldn't have been, you know what would have made that trade unnecessary? SIGNING TYSON CHANDLER IN THE 2011 OFFSEASON.
Ultimately, the Dallas Mavericks are fine. The decision not to draft Giannis was probably** a mistake, but the Mavs are still one of the top 10 teams in the NBA with one of the greatest offenses ever. For all the handwringing about Parsons's contract, he is still a really quality player who fits in with what the Mavericks are doing.
** Cuban admitted that Giannis is "making us look bad for sticking to our plan," but never called the decision a mistake. In my (not so humble) opinion, it was definitely a mistake.
But with this revelation from Cuban, Mavs fans will now be left wondering "what if?" every time the Mavs face off against the Bucks. Oh well, c'est la vie.