For the past five offseasons in Dallas, the name of the game has been flexibility. The goal was always to lure big-name free agents to the Mavericks using cap space and a chance to lead the franchise into the post-Nowitzki era. Yet the past week has only driven home a lesson that should have been apparent from the last several summers -- free agents don't just want to go to a team that can offer a big salary . They want a team with quality basketball players too.
While the Mavs cleared the cupboard nearly every offseason, talent-laden teams like Houston (Dwight Howard), Golden State (Andre Iguodala) and San Antonio (LaMarcus Aldridge) showed they can offload contracts to clear the necessary cap room for a high caliber free agent. Dallas only got half of the formula and this summer was at a disadvantage once again.
Because the team expended so many assets in the disastrous Rajon Rondo trade, the Mavs entered this offseason with little in the way of real talent to attract free agents besides an aging Dirk Nowitzki and a small forward with a mysterious knee injury in Chandler Parsons. But thanks to DeAndre Jordan's frustrations with his role on the Clippers and the implosion of the Trailblazers, the Mavericks lucked out and secured two quality players in Jordan and Wesley Matthews.
Now that the franchise has a young-ish core Parsons, Jordan and Matthews, it should finally commit to accumulating real basketball players on its roster. Taking Justin Anderson in this month's draft--the first in years where the Mavs didn't move back to save cap space or trade their pick entirely--was a good start. Anderson is exciting partly because Dallas has rarely committed to younger players. Nowitzki is the only Maverick who has been with the team since he entered the league.
That's little surprise when you consider that for the past half decade, the Mavs treated the draft as just another obstacle to overcome when assembling a team. Over that same period, they lost out on free agent targets like Deron Williams, Iguodala and Howard who saw little in the way of younger talent on the squad to complement a franchise player on the wrong side of 30. Dallas, meanwhile, passed on pursuing second-tier free agents like Goran Dragic who didn't fit the mold of a superstar player--why commit long-term money, the thinking went, when that cap space could be used for a max contract next year?
As much as Rockets GM Daryl Morey has rubbed folks the wrong way for allegedly treating players as assets and not people, players like Corey Brewer have served as a counterpoint to critics of Houston. He left Dallas with a bad taste in his mouth after being dumped for essentially nothing in 2011--during the playoffs this year, a still bitter Brewer said he was traded to Denver for "a bag of chips." Tyson Chandler this week decided he wasn't going to settle for being the Mavs' Plan B at center a second time. And going back to the 2011-12 season, the number of guys playing in contract years has contributed to friction in the locker room. Clearing cap room every summer in pursuit of a superstar wasn't netting the team any franchise altering players but it was pissing off the ones who were already here.
The team's fortunes finally changed over the past week largely because of Parsons' commitment as a recruiter. He set events this offseason in motion last summer when he opted for a featured role to playing third-banana in Houston and helped push Jordan to make a similar leap this summer. But as Mark Cuban acknowledged, losing out on the young center might have propelled Dallas into tank mode. So one player's choice decided whether or not the last five years of constant roster churn and cap clearing was a complete waste. That's not ideal.
The team was saved from that ugly possibility thanks to Parsons' persuasive abilities and because factors in Los Angeles that had little to do with the overall talent level on the Clippers. Poor process led to good results.
The rising salary cap will only be the team's friend going forward as the front office looks to add more players. And now that Dallas has legitimate talent to go along with a highly respected coach, there should be even less reason to make roster decisions driven solely by that number. The Mavericks have put themselves into position as a landing spot for high profile free agents in seasons to come and, should cap space be necessary, it can be created. But the talent the team has assembled, not money alone, will decide if those players actually sign on.