There's nothing good about the way DeAndre Jordan handled free agency. His unprecedented decision left the Mavericks without alternate plans or fallback options and now Dallas is left cleaning up the aftermath.
Next season cannot be salvaged. There is no combination of players left on the open market to piece together a playoff team in the ridiculous Western Conference, barring some Rick Carlisle black magic of a level we haven't even witnessed before. However, the Mavericks can put themselves on track to return to the playoffs for the 2016-16 season. Is it probable? No. But it's out there and this is how it could work.
1. Fill out the roster with one-year deals
By trading for Zaza Pachulia Thursday evening, the Mavericks have already begun. I think the Mavericks realized after Dwight Howard in 2013, who gave them a sympathetic meeting but barely considered them, that they have to show free agents something. Cap space alone hasn't worked. However, with just scraps left in free agency, there's not much you can do to bolster the roster right now. Bring in some veterans for a season and call it a day.
Dallas doesn't even need to meet the minimum cap threshold. If the Mavericks don't hit it (it's $63 million, or 90 percent of the cap), they pay the difference and that money goes to the players under contract. Giving Dirk more money is hardly a penalty.
2. Tank the 2015-16 season
Ah yes, that horrid, evil word. How could the Mavericks fall this far? We're not like ... [shudders] ... Philadelphia.
But this isn't "Sixers tanking." The Mavericks have no plans to completely tear down, at least not yet. That would be an overreaction. This is a one-year tank using expiring deals that provides optimal flexibility for the 2016 summer. (Man, haven't we heard those words before.)
It still hurts. It takes pride being swallowed. But it's the quickest way for the Mavericks to get back on their feet and Mark Cuban explained the reasoning himself during an interview on 1310 The Ticket hours after DeAndre Jordan verbally agreed to sign in Dallas.
I'll be brutally honest. Literally, we wanted to get Wes, he was a target for us all summer and we wanted to get DeAndre as well, but if we got shut out, we weren't going to try and fill the roster. We literally had the discussion that if we couldn't get a serious free agent, whether it was DeAndre or one of the others guys that are still out there or any of the earlier ones that went, that it was time to take a step back. The reason why we thought this year versus other years was simple math. Over the last few years, there was a race to the bottom with six or seven teams trying to have the worst record, but most of those teams have improved themselves significantly through the draft or free agency or both, or just getting better and playing better together like Orlando.
We felt like this year there aren't going to be six teams in the race together, especially in the Western Conference. Utah's significantly better, Sacramento is significantly better, Denver is even going to be significantly better with Gallinari being healthy and etc. ... who was going to be that team that was going to be really, really, really bad no matter what? Because I think there's only going to be two, maybe three teams in that race to the bottom, we said, "OK, this could be our David Robinson year" and we go out and get someone who we think we can develop and who is supposed to be an impact player and we take our lumps, we have lots of cap room and we do lots of trades to add lots of draft picks. Because draft picks, the way the cap is going, is only going to increase in value significantly. Fortunately that didn't happen!
I'll repeat, for effect: "OK, this could be out David Robinson year." Cuban's referencing, of course, the 1996-97 season where Robinson spent the entire season injured, the Spurs were terrible and they won the lottery to snag Tim Duncan with the No. 1 overall pick.
3. Be "very cautious" with injuries
Wes Matthews ruptured his Achilles on March 5. There's a six-month timetable before Matthews can even begin basketball activities again, meaning Matthews can probably start thinking about playing a light-hearted two-on-two game by Sept. 5. But casual two-on-two is a long way from regular season five-on-five. After the Mavericks paid Matthews $70 million over four years, they already want to be extra sure that Matthews returns as healthy as he possibly can.
If tanking is the game, you're extra careful. Matthews returns halfway through January or maybe Feb. 1. Chandler Parsons also underwent knee surgery this summer and he's expected to be ready for the start of the season, but there's still enough mystery about his surgery that maybe he misses the first month of the season. This is a stretch, considering he played through a knee injury in Game 1 against the Rockets and may refuse to sit if he's healthy enough to play, but it's possible.
Dirk Nowitzki, who underwent an arthroscopic knee scope in 2012, considered another one this summer before putting the idea aside, according to a source close to the team. He is currently planning to play for the German National Team in the EuroCup this September. If he plays a majority of the season, it's questionable whether the Mavericks can be bad enough to keep their pick. If this is the road the Mavericks go down, though, it's possible he reconsiders.
4. Be one of the worst seven teams
The nerve-wracking thing of this all is that the Rajon Rondo trade -- growing worse by the second -- leaves the Mavericks with no room for error. Their first round pick is only protected if it's a top seven pick; if they slip up, or even if they finish seventh worst but are passed up in the lottery, it's gone forever to the land of the gritty Jae Crowder's.
But remember the factors in the Mavericks' favor: all their good players will miss time; they play in the toughest division in sports; and that the East is bad but even enough to spread out wins amongst their worst teams. What did Cuban say again?
"Over the last few years, there was a race to the bottom with six or seven teams trying to have the worst record, but most of those teams have improved themselves significantly through the draft or free agency or both."
He's not wrong. Let's go through the bottom seven teams this year. Timberwolves? Ok, still bad. Lakers? Better and trying to win. 76ers? Also bad. Knicks? Better, maybe smarter and will have Carmelo Anthony back. Magic? Sure to improve defensively under Skiles and a year older, so better. Kings? Uhhh. Nuggets? Better.
There's only a couple of terrible teams next season. Cuban's math checks out. If there was a year to do this, this is it. Tank hard into the dying light and do not look up until the sun rises upon the horizon of the new day.
5. Win games in April
This is a must. While this plan requires that the Mavericks finish very poorly, they have to come together in the final month of the season to prove to potential free agent targets that Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons and Wes Matthews are three good players who function together at a high level. Go .500 for the month, beat a couple of playoff teams and make some noise. You can blame the 55 losses on the injuries and the missed games, but the final taste in this regular season's mouth must be positive.
6. Pick an immediate impact prospect
The 2016 NBA Draft isn't as deep as the 2015 one was but there's always useful players available in the top seven. Preferably, the Mavericks win it and grab Ben Simmons -- this is the David Robinson year idea Cuban alluded to. But the key is to add an asset and someone in the top five like Brandon Ingram of Duke or Jaylen Brown of Cal will work.
7. Build a playoff team through free agency
Third fourth fifth time's a charm? The Mavericks could successfully navigate all the way to this moment and it totally not matter as free agents laugh at a team who was juggling ping pong in May, which is why that strong finish in April is so important to alleviate their concerns. Your pitch come July is that Parsons and Matthews are both still under 30, that you just drafted a top-five draft pick (hopefully), and that Dirk is planning to play one more year assuming the summer is successful.
Unrestricted free agents besides the unobtainable Kevin Durant include Mike Conley, Brandon Jennings, Nicolas Batum, Dwight Howard, Hassan Whiteside, Al Horford, Ryan Anderson and DeMar DeRozan. With the cap jumping at least $21 million, the Mavericks ought to have the cap space to go after two lesser names. There may not be superstars out there but perhaps you can follow the Atlanta Hawks model. Aim for young players and hope it works out.
And then there's the flip side: if any of those steps fall through unrepairably, it's over. Dirk retires, Parsons leaves, Carlisle finds a new job where he can coach a contending team. You cannot tank for two seasons and keep that trio. And it's not like this plan isn't without major, unanswered questions. Practically all seven steps have major unknowns attached to it.
The biggest is whether Dallas, a year removed from seeing a free agent commit and then walk away, could even attract another big name. Every major free agent the Mavericks have pursued ended up picking the best team who had the most talent on the roster. Even with a potential top-five pick, that's a reach for the Mavericks.
Cap space and a few players almost worked with DeAndre Jordan. They nearly talked him into the team. With enough blunt force and repeated attempts, maybe this square peg can finally fit through the round hole. Maybe a star free agent won't leave Dallas at the altar this time.
What alternative do they have? If they try to win every game, they maybe finish 10th in the West. They lose their draft pick and go into free agency with one fewer asset than this plan entails. Is it more dignified to win 35 games than 25?
There isn't a good scenario for the Mavericks; Jordan's 11th hour reversal made sure of that. But good or not, this is a plan.
And it might be the only one they have.