I remember the Mavericks exit interviews in 2014 distinctly.
They took place on the practice court of the American Airlines Center. I had driven in from San Antonio that morning running on a few hours of sleep after the Mavericks lost Game 7 against the Spurs. I had final exams later that week. My back started hurting after 30 minutes of standing. The interviews lasted well over an hour.
I remember Donnie Nelson and Rick Carlisle preaching one message headed into that offseason about their team who had nearly upset a Spurs squad that would turn out to be the 2014 NBA champions: "continuity".
"Veteran continuity is one of the important things for continued success -- it's one of the reasons that San Antonio had such a long run," Carlisle said on that practice court. "We want to bring back the veteran nucleus around them and our younger guys, we're excited about."
Donnie Nelson echoed the sentiments: "We also respect those who have put us in this position. … We’ve got our work cut out because we've got six free agents that have given us our heart and soul, some of which are short term and some of which are long term. Mark made it public in the locker room last night that he'd like to have every single one of those guys back, but there's negotiation."
I remember they won me over. I was convinced most of the free agents would be back and that they really valued familiarity that offseason. Instead, 17 months later, as the Mavericks prepare to begin another grinding year, only two players from that season remain.
Only two teams have replaced more than 50 percent of their roster the past three seasons: the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks. That’s according to Basketball Reference’s roster continuity page, a fantastic resource which calculates the percentage of regular season minutes that were played by players also on the previous season’s roster. The Mavericks had 38 percent continuity last season, 48 percent continuity the year before and 39 percent in the 2012-13 season.
Last year, the 38 percent mark was lower than every team but the perpetually rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers. The title-winning Warriors hit 80 percent and the Spurs led the league with 98 percent. Of course, the Cleveland Cavaliers mustered just 39 percent in LeBron James’ return to Ohio. But next year, that number should rise even into the 90s while Dallas once again experiences a complete upheaval.
It’s a delicate balance. Clearly, continuity is a good thing for teams to have and for franchises to promote. For the 2011 Mavericks, a successful team you may have fond memories of, 79 percent of the minutes were played by players on the previous season’s roster, the franchise’s third-best mark in the past 10 years. On the other hand, Dallas has no obligation to stick with players who don’t fit. It’s the sunk cost philosophy at its finest.
It’s Jason Terry to O.J. Mayo to Monta Ellis to Wesley Matthews. It’s Tyson Chandler to Ian Mahinmi to Chris Kaman to Samuel Dalembert back to Tyson Chandler then to Zaza Pachulia. It’s a perfect circle repeating ad infinitum. Does the fault start with failing to bring back players? Or with signing players who weren’t talented enough to be brought back? That’s for you to decide. But it’s a painful cycle.
The question I keep asking is slightly different, though: how does this affect Rick Carlisle? Carlisle is currently the third-longest tenured head coach in the NBA, and well respected as one of the very best in this league. Certainly, his talent at taking a roster constructed primarily in mid-July and turning it into a reasonable basketball product just four months later speaks volumes to his abilities. Specifically, the job he did in the 2012-13 season, taking Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Mike James and half a season of Dirk on a late season playoff push speaks to just how talented he is when forced into a corner. Those players barely unpacked their bags in Dallas before they were gone again, but Carlisle turned them functional despite himself.
What if it didn’t have to be this way, though? Are the Mavericks limiting Carlisle’s abilities by constantly forcing him to work the menial side of chemistry development?
That’s not the way he sees it, or at least not the way he says he sees it.
"I like it," Carlisle said at this year’s media day. "I like the challenge of taking a bunch of new guys and melding them together. I’m always going to look for a positive on things like that, whereas the media tends to be a little more negative. That’s OK. I understand. You have a job to ask the tough questions. I’m looking forward to it."
That’s not the way Mark Cuban sees it, either.
"You never want to take Rick for granted, because he’s amazing, but you’ve gotta just get the best pieces that you can," Cuban said. "The hard part is how you balance the current with the future, how you create new talent, and that’s really our goal with a lot of these guys, how good our player development can be. That’s what we have to prove."
Yet for four straight years, the rosters have changed dramatically, leaving Carlisle with challenge after challenge. That’s not to say blindly keeping the O.J. Mayo team together or re-signing Monta Ellis would have magically worked because of chemistry and continuity. But it does mean Carlisle’s responsibilities – his honey-do list lovingly placed on his nightstand by Cubes – is longer than it could or should be when every training camp rolls around. It's longer than many of his peers around the league. Are the Mavericks spreading him too thin?
Carlisle and Cuban are understandably tight-lipped about what continuity means to them. After all, as Carlisle told me with a slight grin, they look for the positives in things. For a different perspective, I sat down with Tony Benford, who is the head men’s basketball coach at my alma mater, the University of North Texas.
A Division-I coach, especially one outside of the multi-bid conferences, clearly doesn’t face all the same challenges of someone atop an NBA team, but there are still insights that can be gleaned. In college, players cycle out every four years at most. For one-and-done programs like Kentucky, entire rosters will change on a year to year basis. Building chemistry is crucial in an environment that prohibits continuity.
In his office last week, Benford – formerly the associate head coach at Marquette – said he took the job at North Texas in 2012 knowing he’d immediately lose seven players the following summer. Sometimes, teams with talent never mesh like they should, something Benford’s seen before.
"Sometimes you don’t have the leadership," Benford told me in his office last week. "I’ve had that before, where you don’t come together just because you don’t have that right leadership in your locker room."
NBA players can typically be counted on for their professionalism, though. Despite constant turnover, the Mavericks have always been able to count on Nowitzki as a guiding force, too.
"When you got a guy like Dirk Nowitzki, you know what you’re going to get," Benford said. "You can count on those guys and everybody else is going to fall in line because they know whose team it is. … It is a lot easier when you do have that built-in continuity (from a team leader) and that helps you have success."
Cuban echoed those sentiments: that it’s not always how many players stick around, but which ones.
"We’ve been selective in who we’ve kept together," Cuban said. "We went out and got guys to long-term contracts and we’ve got to get younger. It’s one thing to sign guys who are 35-years-old to multi-year contracts. [It’s another] when you sign guys who are 25 or 29, or all the rookie deals we did. But you can’t do it just to say you do it."
If Carlisle feels like integrating seven to nine new players each season has kept him constantly running to catch up, he’d never say it directly. Even if it were three or four new players, he’d still have to rebuild identity. Unless you’re a rare example like the Spurs, that happens every year.
"Every group is different," Benford said. "Even in the NBA, every team forms its own identity. What is our identity going to be? Every year it changes."
The Mavericks have the beginnings of a younger core who they could establish continuity around for the coming seasons. Failing to sign 26-year-old DeAndre Jordan this summer hurts the effort, but Chandler Parsons is 27, Wesley Matthews is 29 and Deron Williams, though perennially injured, is still only 31.
If that trio survives into next season, it’ll be the first time in half a decade that the Mavericks haven’t asked everything of Rick Carlisle starting off a season. Maybe continuity is just a stupid buzz word that should never be valued over actual talent. Maybe chemistry at an NBA level can be concocted in a flash pan that is training camp and isn’t a rare nirvana like some insinuate. But maybe keeping a roster together for more than a season, responsibly adding a single piece to the puzzle at a time instead throwing them all together at once, would finally give Rick Carlisle a chance to maximize what makes him great instead it asking him to try and do the impossible.