In the summer of 2012, the watershed moment of Deron Williams' free agency decision was the Nets' trade for Joe Johnson.
Brooklyn was laughed at. Johnson was hideously overpaid entering the third year of a six-year, $124-million contract that made him, at the time, the highest-paid player in the NBA. But with something to show Williams, who a day or two earlier was reportedly leaning towards signing in Dallas, the Nets managed to retain the services of the All Star point guard.
That turned out to be a reprieve, considering Williams' quick decline into mediocrity, but that doesn't erase how the Mavericks observed it at the time. The next summer, Dallas watched as Dwight Howard granted them a meeting but hardly even considered them as an option. (In a fun what-could-have-been, the 2015 champion Warriors were actually seen as a dark horse suitor for him.) Instead, the Rockets earned the rights to his services. The Mavericks and Rockets shared an analytics-friendly owner, a superstar and a winning culture, but Houston had something else to show Howard: young talent like Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones who created a plan for the future.
The Mavericks believe Dallas is a strong enough market to lure free agents. They believe they have franchise that has proven it knows what steps to take to win games. You know, a 2011 championship, that beloved 50-games streak (now restarted at one!), only one year missing the playoffs since 2001. All that.
But in those two rejections (and some less notable ones), Dallas realized "all that" wasn't enough. NBA players don't want to sign for a gutted roster and trust that the management can figure it out after. Maybe the Mavericks could; one of their front office's strengths is finding scrapheap veterans and turning them into crucial rotation cogs. But there's always a question and a desirable free agent with several suitors is going to take the team he can tangibly see, not a projected future lineup that may or may not come together.
Give the Dallas front office credit: over the past two years, they adapted. They saw Chandler Parsons as a player who they could grab and subsequently use to lure that superstar. It's not like Dallas has a prepackaged championship just waiting for DeAndre Jordan or LaMarcus Aldridge if they sign, but they have something. A player. A plan. Something was all it took for Deron Williams to choose Brooklyn. Some things, rather than that nothing but Dirk, was good enough for Howard to pick the Rockets.
Here they are, with a new approach and realistic schematics for the future to pitch to Aldridge and Jordan, and yet things have never looked more bleak. The Mavericks' Plan A to nab Jordan and Wes Matthews is definitely still in play, with Clippers and Mavericks sources both calling it a 50/50 decision. The safety net of Tyson Chandler is gone to Phoenix, though, and Aldridge is certainly signing either there or with San Antonio, the NBA's ruling bloodline. Al-Farouq Aminu, who may have been a something that Dallas pointed to in their pitch meetings this week, was lured away with Portland's $30-million offer. Other targets -- Danny Green and Brandan Wright, to name two -- have been picked away thanks to the upcoming salary cap increase in the 2016 summer. Usually free agents like Wright take longer to negotiate but with so much money flying around, they are just taking the money now for shorter deals.
The Mavericks aren't the same blunt force free agency battering ram this summer, walking up to big free agents and screaming "WE HAVE CAP SPACE" in their ear like that's all it would take. They've developed finesse and are thinking for five years ahead, not just one. But free agency has played its cards and this new Mavericks plan is still just a coin flip from working.
If heads, they embrace DeAndre Jordan as one of their own and pay reverence to whomever or whatever saved their season from utter disaster.
If tails ...