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To get off the treadmill of mediocrity, the Mavericks must find a direction

If Dallas wants to become a contender again, they have to be willing to take some risks.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Editors note: Welcome to “How I’d fix the Mavericks,” a semi-weekly column in which Mavs Moneyball staffers share their big ideas about how to make the Mavericks contenders again. These ideas will sometimes be serious and other times humorous. Let us know what you think in the comments!

In the words of the Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells, you are what your record says you are.

And as of this writing, the Dallas Mavericks are the second worst team in the league. Forget about that stretch when the Mavs beat the Bucks, Grizzlies and Thunder, and decimated the Clippers and Nuggets soon after. That might have given Dallas faithful false hope. The fact of the matter is the Mavericks are a bad basketball team.

One of the worst actually.

Some of the blame can be placed on the organization. They punted draft picks for veteran talent and got spurned by big fish free agents annually. But some of the blame is due to bad luck. For an owner who wants to zag while the rest of the NBA zigs, Mark Cuban has been a resounding reason why this franchise has been one of the best for the better part of the past two decades. If his “plan powder” worked, Cuban and the Mavericks are looking like geniuses preserving cap space and capitalizing on being one of the only buyers on the market. It’s like a football coach going for it on fourth down. Succeed and he’s celebrated. Fail and he’s criticized.

The thing about those Mavericks teams, though, is they had a plan. They had a mission. They had a direction. What about these Mavericks? What’s their plan? Keep cheap veterans, undrafted free agents, and one 39-year-old superstar on the roster and have Rick Carlisle concoct a machine that spits out 30-40 wins each season? That’s the mediocrity treadmill Cuban was so afraid of.

So, here’s how I’d fix the Mavericks: find a direction.

Maybe this is more of a diplomatic term for “tanking”, but the Mavericks have to understand who they are. Here’s how they can do that.

Don’t try to cater to Dirk

It’s hard to even type that with everything Dirk has done for this franchise. He’s unquestionably the greatest Maverick ever and deserves to go out on top, but unfortunately the Mavericks blew that opportunity (hence, this post). As heretical as this may be, it’s time for the Mavericks to field a roster for the future, not for what yields the most basketball experience on the court. Because that’s basically what the Mavs are doing, right? How else could you explain seasons of Deron Williams, Zaza Pachulia, J.J. Barea and Devin Harris. Don’t get me wrong, some of those guys could play (and still are), but what good are they on a team without top-tier talent that caps out at 40 wins?

Herein lies the problem. The Mavericks have tried so hard to maximize Dirk’s last years that they’ve failed to adequately transition to life without him. Though it’s admirable to do right by Dirk, it’s clear he’s playing because he enjoys it, not because he wants another ring. Otherwise, Mavericks’ icon wouldn’t have said “it’s looking like it” when asked if he’d be back next season, and that he’d “see how the body feels”. He’s playing because he loves the game, not because he thinks this team can compete for a championship. So, if anything, the Mavericks should be taking advantage of Dirk’s commitment to this organization while rebuilding, not simply buying time until he decides to hang it up.

Disagree with that notion? Well, it’s only coming from the G.O.A.T. himself. During exit interviews in April, Dirk said “if we are rebuilding, then I’m the face of that.”

Those are heavy words coming from the NBA’s sixth all-time leading scorer, words that the organization should seriously chew on. Is there any better way for young players to learn the rigors of NBA life, the level of commitment it takes, and the type of drive one must have to survive in the NBA than to learn from the legend himself? The Mavs have done better as of late, giving heavy rotation minutes to players like Yogi Ferrell, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber, but it’s time to dive in head first, which brings us to our next point.

Prioritize the draft, youth and projects above all else

For the Mavericks, the draft is the only way to relevancy. Free agency over the past few summers has only reinforced that. Sure, the Mavericks should do their due diligence and have a discussion with big name free agents, but the days of putting all their eggs in a big fish’s basket should be over.

The draft provides no guarantees. For every Joel Embiid there will be a Jahlil Okafor or even a Nerlens Noel. But the Mavericks are bereft of young talent and need an infusion of youthful players with high ceilings even if they are unproven. To do this the Mavericks might have to cut ties with players like Devin Harris or J.J. Barea with the goal of netting more chances at striking gold. Players can be found anywhere in the draft (ask Draymond Green, Jimmy Butler or Isaiah Thomas), the Mavericks just need to increase their chances of finding them.

A discussion of how valuable veteran leadership is to a rebuilding team needs to be had, especially since it will be at the cost of roster spots for more undrafted free agents, reclamation projects and trade pieces. For example, are three backcourt players over the age of 30 necessary on a rebuilding team? One could argue they are not, considering the Mavs could have cut ties with one and taken a flyer on Tyreke Evans for $3 million, who happens to be playing some of the best basketball of his career for the Memphis Grizzlies.

Striking a balance between retaining veteran leadership and fostering young talent is difficult, but it’s a balance that means shying away from experience in favor of youth, risks and possibilities.

Keep on keepin’ on

I’ve now incorporated quotes from both Bill Parcells and Joe Dirt in a basketball blog, so thanks to the one person sticking with me through this (Hi, mom). But really, adopting new roster building principles, acquiring draft capital and climbing out of the cellar takes time. Even the Golden State Warriors fluttered for a few seasons. They recorded win totals of 29, 26, 36, and 23 until they finally gained traction and took off to become one of the most dominant teams in NBA history. There will most definitely be misses and lumps, but very rarely do teams hop, jump and skip back into contention without somehow landing a generational talent to expedite the process.

For the Mavericks it will be difficult, but the most important part is finding a direction, and that decision should be simple.