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A farewell to “plan powder”

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As it comes to an end with the acquisition of Nerlens Noel, a former MMB writer reflects on his long, hard campaign against plan powder.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

I write to you now from beyond the grave.

As some of you may recall, I used to be a Mavs Moneyball writer. Though I moved along some years ago, I’ve returned for one more big score. Because I want to share this moment with you, the people of MMB, specifically.

In my time at MMB, I wrote hundreds, perhaps thousands of columns about what Mike Fisher dubbed “plan powder”— as good a name then as it is now — and what a terrible idea it was. I wrote multiple posts on this subject a day. For years. Go read MMB’s archives from 2012-2013. It’s literally just me writing “AND ANOTHER THING” at all hours of the day. At one point, Tim sent a band of ninjas to steal my keyboard. I took it back, because complaining about plan powder was too important.

But friends, I write to you now with joyful tidings: plan powder is dead. And as a consequence, the Mavs finally have a chance to be good.

Listen. We don’t have to go over it all again. Suffice it to say that the Mavericks’ decision to disband their championship team and their subsequent decision to do everything in their power to rebuild around a top free agent were two separate decisions. The first was a judgment call that I still think was bad, but who knows. The second was really, objectively bad. For like a zillion reasons.

But the only reason still worth discussing is something you saw in action on Thursday. The day before the trade deadline, Mavs fans were wondering if Deron Williams would be enough to get Iman Shumpert. The day of the trade deadline, the Mavs got Nerlens Noel for Justin Anderson. Because the Mavericks are really good at trades. Really, ridiculously good at trades.

Heck, they built that championship team through trades. Remember that? You remember. They traded Erick Dampier for Tyson Chandler, Jerry Stackhouse for Shawn Marion, Devin Harris for Jason Kidd. A year earlier they’d traded Josh Howard and Drew Gooden for Caron Butler, Haywood, and DeShawn Stevenson. Years before that, they traded Antoine Walker for Jason Terry.

You get what I’m saying? They turned Antoine Walker, Devin Harris, Drew Gooden, super-washed Jerry Stackhouse and power-washed Josh Howard into the team that took down the Heatles.

But to trade, you need assets, and you just don’t have those when you’re refusing to sign or draft anybody so you can save cap space. That was the problem baked into the crust of plan powder all along. The question I’ve most often been asked, guru that I clearly am, is why the Mavs can’t seem to close the deal with a big name free agent. Each time I reject the premise of the question like Nerlens Noel does two shots per 36 minutes.

Because that's not the right question. The real question is, why should anyone be able to attract big name FAs? Everyone wants to sign them, and the NBA has a set salary structure, so it’s not like you can outbid anyone else. When you have ten teams who are interested in one free agent and they can all offer the exact same dollar amount, you shouldn’t be asking why it is or isn’t working out for your team; you should be asking why any team would prioritize free agency (the least probable way to improve) over every other strategy.

That’s not to say no team should try to make a splash in free agency in addition to improving in other ways, but the harsh logic of plan powder meant the Mavs had to choose.

Ultimately, the Mavs were able to do the Nerlens Noel trade for two reasons. First, because plan powder, predictably, failed in the way it was always most likely to go down. After striking out with other big name free agents, the team got desperate and signed Wesley Matthews to a max contract in the hopes of enticing DeAndre Jordan, then signed Harrison Barnes to a max contract because they got tired of waiting. These weren’t bad moves, but they weren’t moves anyone else was lining up to make, and they have so far worked out beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Still, this gave them depth and a little bit of talent.

Second, the team loosed the reins on plan powder in other ways. They actually spent some cash on guys like Dwight Powell and Seth Curry. They did multi-year deals for the first time in a while. They drafted! You want to know how rare that is? In the last ten years, Justin Anderson is the only first-rounder the Mavs have drafted for their own use and without trading down.

In 2016, they didn’t have a first rounder. In 2013 and 2012, they moved down from the 13th and 17th spots (both higher draft picks, incidentally, than Simba was at 21st). In 2011, in the powder-y-est move of them all, they traded Jordan Hamilton, the 26th pick, for Rudy Fernandez, and then traded Fernandez to Denver with Corey Brewer for a second round pick. That’s right: the Mavericks turned two decent young players and a first round pick into a second round pick.

I won’t hate on the years before that, because a lot of what happened with draft picks then had to do with trades they made to get better, rather than to get worse and preserve cap space (even if the last first-rounder the team didn’t trade or trade down for is Mo Ager). But you get the picture. By changing course after plan powder failed, they ended up with assets, young talent, and depth. Just before the trade deadline, they leveraged that to get Nerlens Noel. Now, out of the blue, they are a relatively young and relatively talented team.

In just one year, the Mavs have gone from a team that started Deron Williams, Ray Felton, Injury Recovery Wes, Dirk Nowitzki, and Zaza Pachulia, a team that was not only bad but a thousand years old, to a team with two great young players under 25 (HB and Nerlens), another in Wes who’s 30 but apparently back to his prime, and other interesting young guys like Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell. And they did it because this is the kind of thing they are really good at and this is the first time in half a decade they gave themselves a chance to do it.

The worst part of plan powder was how good the Mavs have always been at the opposite of the plan. They have a real gift for opportunistic trades, and then for putting the guys they get in those trades in a position to succeed. They have no gift for attracting big name free agents for the most obvious of reasons: nobody does. It’s magic, not science.

And so, I have come back to you one more time to say something kind rather than something mean: it is so nice to see the Mavericks getting back to who they are, to what made them one of the best front offices in basketball. And I am glad to be able to share this moment, watching the Mavs again snatch something wonderful out of nowhere, with you.