It’s a strange time to be a Dallas Mavericks fan.
On one hand, you have to commend what the team has done, scraping together some decent talent on reasonable deals and knocking it out of the park with their first top-10 draft pick since Dirk Nowitzki.
Then you look at the results and things are murky. Dallas won 33 games last year and are on pace this season for even fewer wins. They’re doing this with four over-30 players commanding a decent share of the minutes and, you could argue, without a top-30 player on the roster.
This team has surprised us at times, but given the reality of the current roster, the rebuild could be more painful than we imagined.
Sometimes hope only makes things harder
It will be more painful because there was hope. Last season, when the Mavs ripped off a winning run to start the new year, you could squint and see the skeleton of a Mavericks team that might not have been good, but wasn’t a complete tire fire.
The trade for Nerlens Noel gave the Mavs a fun core with Harrison Barnes, Seth Curry, Yogi Ferrell, Dorian Finney-Smith and Noel. That’s not a murderers’ row of young talent, but it was the brightest the Mavericks future had looked since the Rajon Rondo trade and the DeAndre Jordan failure basically put the team at square one.
So it was fun to see when the Mavs made their move with Curry in the starting lineup, Dirk breathing new life into the lineup at center and Noel acting as a tantalizing cheat code who might let the team skip a year or two of rebuilding and get to the cool stuff faster.
It hasn’t even been a year since then, and that hope for a quick rebuild seems like a distant, almost vague memory. Noel is done, Finney-Smith has barely played, Curry might not play this season and the Mavericks’ most talented rookie in decades (who happens to have a repaired torn ACL) has missed seven games already with lower body injuries.
The Mavericks don’t have enough talent to win
The discussion about the team’s problems has mainly centered on how snake-bitten the Mavericks have been in close games, with an incredible 1-16 record in games decided by five points or less. Throw in Curry for all of those games and the Mavericks probably win two or three more. But it’s probably not enough to lift them from the depressing situation they are in now — the Mavs are a bunch of role players in need of a star.
Stars take over close games and can push teams over the finish line when games get tight. Dallas has enough solid (if not spectacular) players to hang with almost any team in the league and play them tough. But Dallas lacks the singular dynamic talent to push the Mavs over the edge in fourth quarters. Smith can be that player, but those players take time and he’s a rookie.
Harrison Barnes is not a star
Harrison Barnes is supposed to be that player — and it’s clear the Mavericks think he’s capable. But we’ve now got 112 games with Barnes as The Guy in Dallas, and the Mavs have won 41 of them. This isn’t to say Barnes is a bad player — far from it! — but it’s clear now that Barnes maybe isn’t the franchise player the fans and the team want him to be.
That’s fine, because he’s a perfectly solid player — a second or third option on a good team. Every team in the NBA needs a dude who can get buckets and a wing who can guard multiple positions, and Barnes checks both those boxes. He’s made a huge leap from last season, improving his rebounding and free-throw attempts, bullying his way to the paint more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers. But to expect another leap in his playmaking is asking a lot, considering Barnes is in his sixth season and nearing his prime. Again, that’s totally okay. But the Mavericks shouldn’t build the team thinking he’s something he might not ever be.
Bargain-bin free agents are not stars
In addition to Barnes, the Mavericks have had several team-building wins, enough to make you feel warm and fuzzy: Ferrell, Finney-Smith, Curry, Maxi Kleber, Salah Mejri and Dwight Powell were all acquired with little fanfare and on bargain deals (before Powell was resigned to a bigger number).
The problem is when you really look at those guys, where is the upside? Curry was a fantastic find, but he hasn’t played all season and he’s 27. Kleber definitely has something as a mobile big, but he’s the type of player that finishes a rotation, not starts it. Finney-Smith and Ferrell are undrafted four-year college players, and while they are definitely successes with room still for improvement, the ceiling just isn’t as high as first-round 19 and 20-year-old blue chippers, which the Mavericks only have one of.
These guys aren’t lifting your roster out of the rebuilding muck — they’ll just be nice role players whenever the Mavericks do upgrade the talent level for their top three spots. The Mavericks obviously have an eye for talent looking at the fringes of a free-agent landscape, it’ll just take them nailing the bigger, talented moves to get the roster further up to speed. The Mavericks unearthing players from the free agent scrapyard is a viable skill, but should not be a team-building ethos.
Rookies are not stars
It can be maddening to watch the team pull in two different directions, with the obvious need to cater to young talent on the roster while also playing the veterans that Rick Carlisle holds so dear. As much hubbub over playing guys like Barea and Harris big minutes and in closing lineups has gotten, the only young player that isn’t getting time and is actually healthy is Antonious Cleveland and he wasn’t even on the team on opening night.
So yeah, watching Barea pound the air out of the ball before throwing up herky-jerky 12-foot runners isn’t incredibly pleasing on a 30-win team, but there aren’t many other options yet thanks to the injuries.
Dallas has to make the offseason count
The problem is being a good team could take longer than once expected, thanks to the total flameout of the Noel situation and the relatively barren roster that was hiding in plain sight. When Smith is on his second contract and Barnes is in the middle of his prime, who on the current roster right now will be with them to make the team better? J.J. Barea is 33. Devin Harris is 34. Wesley Matthews is 31. Salah Mejri is 31. Even Curry is 27. Dirk will play one more season, tops.
Those are some of the Mavericks best players from a team that can’t even sniff 40 wins. There has to be a drastic influx of talent over the next four seasons for the Mavs to properly get the most out of Smith and Barnes.
This is where impatience settles in. I’m as guilty as anyone — I want the Mavericks to be good right now with Smith and Barnes, that I forget Dallas is behind the eight ball when it comes to first-round picks. The cupboard was bare, so to speak, and it takes time to restock assets. It’s going to take multiple first-rounders over the next two to three seasons before the roster balance corrects itself after the DeAndre and Rondo fiascos.
That’s what makes this summer so crucial. Dallas punted on signing anyone last summer to preserve space for 2018, where there’s a nice crop of free agents on the horizon. Try not to focus on DeMarcus Cousins, but young talent like Orlando forward Aaron Gordon. The problem with most of these more realistic free agent scenarios that fit the Mavericks current timeline is that most of them are restricted like Gordon, Clint Capela, Jabari Parker, Zach LaVine, Rodney Hood and Jusuf Nurkic.
To get those more talented players, the Mavs will have to strike it rich in free agency or be prepared to lose more games.
The Mavericks have to find a middle ground
Dallas is about to hit a crossroads where they can decide what kind of team they want to be. Despite the extremists on both sides of team-building argument, with the tank commanders wanting nothing to do with veterans and the other side wanting those older players to lend a guiding hand, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle.
Having veterans around to provide a stable situation for younger players isn’t a bad idea, but it can’t be the only idea. Dallas can’t romanticize Barea’s, Harris’ and Wes’s histories with the team. Barea has one more year left on his deal, Wes has a player-option this summer and Harris is free. If all three of them are on the roster next year, it could be a huge roadblock to whatever young player the Mavericks get in the 2018 draft.
There’s a balance the Mavericks have to walk here because in the end, talent wins. Teams lambasted the culture in places like Philadelphia, Cleveland, Minnesota and even Golden State, yet when the talent came, everything seemed fine. That’s not to discount the credit or hard work vets like Wes, Barea and Harris are putting in every day; you just can’t be a successful team in the NBA with over-30 veteran role players as your best players. It leads to a longer, more painful rebuilding process.
That doesn’t mean you have to feel upset when the Mavericks win and fist-pump every loss. Enjoy the wins while Dirk is still around and realize that regardless of what happens, the Mavericks have a lot more work to do. Rebuilding is never fun. Unfortunately for Dallas, it’s going to take longer than we all thought.