On July 3, 2014, the Mavericks were a Dirk Nowitzki retirement away from becoming a lottery team.
The season prior, they had started four players over 30 plus Monta Ellis, a then-27-year-old guard, talented but moody and undersized. Only two players under 28 had even cracked the rotation, Brandan Wright and Jae Crowder, and both were operating very near their potential ceiling. Nothing on the roster suggested a soft landing when the post-Dirk era began; in fact, it was going to play out no better than if an airplane's engines announced their retirement 30,000 feet in the air.
How different the outlook is 365 days later. Chandler Parsons was stolen from Houston later in the 2014 summer and he turned out to be the first event in a causal sequence that led to DeAndre Jordan picking the Mavericks on Friday. Now the Mavericks' best two players are both 26. Dallas hasn't seen that since Dirk himself was 26.
DeAndre Jordan doesn't instantly make the Mavericks a better team than the 50-win, seventh-seed version of last year. He might be the best rebounder and finisher in the NBA, and he's probably one of the best athletes, too. He's not as talented as the departing Tyson Chandler was on defense, though, not from a technical sense. The Clippers defense rating was about the same with him off and on the floor, and opposing players shot 48.5 percent against Jordan at the rim. You could convincingly make a case that Chandler was a better center last season on a per minutes basis.
But Tyson Chandler isn't a long-term option for Dallas and DeAndre Jordan is great at 26. In all likelihood, Jordan will be the only player that young and talented to change teams this offseason. By making the push to get younger, Dallas now has two 26-year-old talents to build with. And that, above any immediate impact or ulterior scheme, is why they pursued Jordan.
One year ago, the Mavericks didn't have a five-year plan and little hope for the future. All they had was an nearly retired German future Hall of Famer who had given this franchise everything he could. Dirk couldn't give them a young star to take his place -- they would have to find that on their own.
Jordan and Parsons will never reach the level Dirk has. They're not destined to be league MVPs or become the No. 7 all-time leading scorer (and counting!), but that's fine. Because as the NBA plummets towards the salary cap increase in the 2016 offseason, they give the Mavericks something just as good: a future. Three years ago with Deron Williams and two summers ago with Dwight Howard, Dallas thought cap space and Dirk alone could sway a free agent. Now they've realized what free agents really want is a future they can tangibly see in front of them.
That's not to count out this coming season, especially as the roster hasn't even taken its final form. Wes Matthews is on board too, and he's only 28. Assuming his work ethic and a sharp Dallas training staff can return him to his proper form, then that's another piece in the arsenal. Jordan won't have Chris Paul to throw him lobs, but he'll have playmakers around him to maximize his talents. The Mavericks will make sure of that.
And last, there's Dirk. The worst part of considering the alternative -- one where Jordan had chosen Los Angeles and the Mavericks are left grasping for air -- was one of Dirk, with his sad, slow legs dragging himself up and down the floor surrounded by a team going nowhere. He didn't deserve to go out like that, not after bringing Dallas closer to basketball nirvana than they had ever been before. Now he doesn't have to.
Parsons, DeAndre, Wesley. That's where the Mavericks' future lies. And to think: a year ago, they didn't have one.