Death, taxes and playoffs.
These were the things guaranteed to Dallas Mavericks fans since the start of the new millennium. The Mavs have reached the playoffs in 15 of the past 16 seasons, with the 2012-13 season being the lone exception. Fifty win seasons occurred in 12 of the past 16 seasons. And while the organization only has one championship to show for these efforts, its long-term success during this period is only surpassed by that of the San Antonio Spurs, who own the modern-day blueprint for how to run a franchise.
Success was expected. Until now.
Every loss makes the playoff odds even slimmer as the appeal of tanking grows stronger.
It’s been said, but it’s worth repeating: it’s time for the Mavericks to rebuild.
Rebuilding is tricky, though. Josh Bowe went into great depth as to what a rebuild entails. It isn’t always pretty. This isn’t the NFL either in which you can guarantee your team the No. 1 overall pick with the worst record in the league. The NBA draft lottery requires luck.
Rebuilding is a delicate line for a franchise to walk, and as odd as it may sound, the key to this inevitable rebuild is Wesley Matthews.
It’s not because of any number you can find on a stat sheet. It’s not for his age or his contract either (he’s 30 years old making $17 million). Matthews’ value to this team goes far beyond that: it’s Matthews’ passion, relentless work ethic and leadership that make him so important during these impending rocky seasons.
“He's become one of the faces of our team," coach Rick Carlisle told the Dallas Morning News at the beginning of the season. "Just his intensity, his presence out there as our best perimeter defender and just his attitude and stuff like that is a big part of who we are. He's knowledgeable and relentless, and he has great pride.”
Losing takes a toll on teams, especially younger players who are used to dominating in college. The 76ers and Timberwolves are prime examples of different approaches you can take to rebuilding. Both are loaded with young, promising talent, but in Philadelphia, Joel Embiid absorbed knowledge (directly or indirectly) from Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, while Minnesota had Karl-Anthony Towns play under Kevin Garnett’s tutelage. The Timberwolves only have a few more wins than the 76ers at this point, but the more stable franchise for the next few seasons appears to be in Minnesota.
Teams need to stock their rosters with young talent, but without the right veteran guidance and voice in the locker room, that young talent could flutter below mediocrity with no real direction like the 76ers for many years.
Wes Matthews possess exactly the sort of intangibles that can help stabilize a young, rebuilding team.
this Wes Matthews defense on the final possession was incredible pic.twitter.com/DHkFIZir4u— Tim Cato (@tim_cato) December 22, 2016
Effort, tenacity and will. Things didn’t go right for the Mavericks against the Portland Trail Blazers, but Matthews emptied the tank and left it all out there to get a win.
After the Mavs beat the Bulls 107-82 on December 3 without Nowitzki, Carlisle heaped praise on Matthews’ leadership.
"Matthews was the star of the game, obviously," Carlisle said. "He is our leader right now with Dirk out. He really sets the tone for us in the locker room and on the floor. He is just the vocal guy."
When tempers flared during the Mavs’ 123-107 loss to the Houston Rockets on December 27, it was Matthews who came to Salah Mejri’s side after the Mavs’ big man found himself in a heated exchange with Rockets forward Trevor Ariza.
After the game, Ariza, all-star instigator Patrick Beverly and James Harden were waiting outside of the Dallas locker room to confront Mejri. It wasn’t Dirk, the face of the franchise, who greeted the trio to resolve the animosity, nor was it Harrison Barnes, the highest paid player in Mavericks history.
Instead it was Matthews leading the charge to diffuse the situation. It’s not that Dirk and Barnes don’t possess leadership qualities, but Matthews’ style distinguishes his voice on this team.
Players like Dorian Finney-Smith, Dwight Powell and Justin Anderson need Matthews to keep them accountable. Matthews won’t let the young guys off the hook for a missed defensive rotation in the first quarter on the second night of a back to back. Whether it’s a five-game winning streak or a five-game losing streak, Matthews gives it his all and expects everyone on his team to do the same.
When the team goes through adversity, players can lean on Matthews for inspiration. Not only did Matthews successfully come back from a ruptured Achilles (an injury that normally derails a player’s career), he did it in eight months! Matthews doesn’t let a situation define him, he uses it as motivation.
Challenges are frequent during rebuilding years, but that’s when Matthews thrives. He’s generally tasked with guarding the league’s premier perimeter players. That includes players like Damian Lillard, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Matthews was instrumental in the Mavs stealing game two against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs last season, a series in which they were severely overmatched. Durant and Westbrook combined to shoot 15-55, and Matthews’ imprint was all over that game.
You get any 5 you want, and I'll take 5 Wesley Matthews. pic.twitter.com/ATOC1Zykj6— Sam Guertler (@SamGuertler) January 14, 2017
Matthews’ name has floated around the rumor mill. He’s a sharpshooter who plays stifling defense. Teams don’t win championships unless they have Matthews-type players. However, ESPN’s Marc Stein recently reported the Mavs aren’t shopping Matthews.
Proponents of a rebuild should hope the Mavs make roster changes. They have playoff-tested veterans that would be better suited to helping a contender than wasting valuable years in Dallas on a lottery bound team. Keeping Matthews on the team should be a priority, though.
If the Mavericks ever reach contender status again, Matthews will be a big reason why.