This week at Sporting News, Scott Rafferty made an observation many Mavericks fans have come around to by this point in the offseason -- no, not "life comes at you fast," although that's an apt statement about this summer. Rafferty says Dallas is facing the prospect of missing the playoffs for the second time in a decade and a half because its front office has ignored the draft for years.
It's a reasonable analysis but only partly gets at the real reasons the Mavericks have gone from title contender to playoff bubble team in the space of four years. The team is in the position it's in now because it bet the farm on free agency; the fact Dallas hasn't accumulated talent through the draft just left the Mavs more exposed when their own free agents walked.
Rafferty observes the Mavs have used draft picks as currency to acquire veteran stars since 2008, when the team traded Devin Harris and two future first round picks for Hall of Famer Jason Kidd (the team had made similar moves going back to 2004, when it traded two first-round picks for Erick Dampier, a starter for five and a half seasons, including a trip to the Finals). The decision to pass on Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2013 to save cap space and, later, to trade Shane Larkin and Jae Crowder in deals, respectively, for Tyson Chandler and Rajon Rondo, hampered the team's ability to develop young talent, Rafferty argues.
Meanwhile, he says, draft picks the team has held onto haven't turned into anything.
This is a tempting narrative for Dallas fans to embrace but gets the team's failures wrong and misses on the reasons for its success from 2001 to 2011. It's also historical revisionism to suggest the Mavericks got here thanks to poor draft decisions while the Spurs are title contenders because of their dedication to the draft.
The Mavericks built a perennial playoff team and an eventual championship squad by surrounding a young Dirk Nowitzki with talent any way they could. Without any significant cap space, that usually meant trades using draft picks and veteran players at their peak value. Nick Van Exel was flipped for Antawn Jamison, who was turned into Harris and Jerry Stackhouse. The team traded Raef LaFrentz and his lengthy contract for Antoine Walker, who was later turned into Jason Terry. After the Gilbert Arenas-led Wizards imploded, Dallas shipped out Josh Howard for Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson. And Dampier's expiring contract in 2010 was used to acquire Tyson Chandler.
The Spurs' draft decisions over that period were as notable for who they passed on (Luis Scola, Leandro Barbosa, Goran Dragic) as for who they actually picked. San Antonio's one home run in a decade of drafting, Kawhi Leonard, has returned them to championship relevance after three seasons in the doldrums.
The Dallas front office deserves all the blame it receives for draft failures after the championship in 2011. But those draft decisions are regrettable, more than anything, because the team so often got nothing of value. Anytime you can trade two picks for an Hall of Fame point guard still playing at an all-star level, you do it. It was the return on the draft night trades, not the deals themselves, that was the problem.
Fresh off a successful title run, the team traded its pick to Portland to add 26-year-old Rudy Fernandez to improve an aging backcourt. When Fernandez balked at coming to Dallas, the team traded him and Corey Brewer for nothing but the extra cap space. In 2014, the team went without a first-round pick thanks to the disastrous Lamar Odom trade. And in 2012 and 2013, the Mavs added only marginal talent because they prioritized extra cap space over taking the best player on their draft board.
Even more egregious than passing on the draft was the decision to let Chandler walk twice in free agency. Had Dallas held onto its starting center in 2011, the team would have had the foundation for several more postseason runs. The Mavs pulled off the kind of deal they routinely "won" throughout the aughts by bringing him back last summer. But they let Chandler walk again in favor of pursuing Jordan.
The team may have spurned the uncertainty of the draft, but it embraced the uncertainty of free agency, and as a result left itself without any safety net.