I should be furious. Or at the very least, despondent.
A few weeks ago, the Mavericks wrapped up their season. It was a bad one. Like, “worst season in 17 years” bad. The last time the Mavericks had a win percentage this low was 1999, when Dirk Nowitzki was still a pup, Steve Nash wasn’t yet Steve Nash and Mark Cuban had a clean record with the NBA office.
It was strange and, at times, downright miserable. The Mavs sank to some low depths back in December, as half their rotation toiled away injured, including their franchise cornerstone. No Dirk, no wins and a long rebuild stared at the franchise like a vulture hovering above a recently diseased carcass. It wasn’t good. So why am I not more mad?
The Mavericks pulled off a neat trick and basically prevented me and lots of other fans from watching losing basketball for a majority of their lifetime. But that only made this season harder: fans in Dallas aren’t as recently battle-tested as those in Sacramento, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Minnesota and New York. On top of that, the Mavericks didn’t just lose a lot, they got pounded in a way so aesthetically unpleasing that our TVs, phones and computers should have exploded. The Mavs were one of the worst rebounding teams and worst shooting teams. They gave regular rotation minutes to a ton of undrafted dudes and seemingly never found a lineup combination that Rick Carlisle liked for more than a week.
This should feel terrible, yet it’s not that bad. It’s like taking your first shot in college.
A lot of it is blind optimism and dumb luck. Seth Curry shouldn’t be this good at this price. Yogi Ferrell is found money, and every time I see the Mavericks are still in line for a top-10 pick after trading for Nerlens Noel I shake my head and chuckle. That’s something no one banked on, even the people who were wise enough to target Noel in mock trades during the early part of the season — even they assumed the Mavs would be coughing up that first-rounder (raises hand meekly).
Harrison Barnes is better than expected, and his $94 million contract ended up not even being close to the disaster many expected when it was first announced (once again, raises hand meekly). You don’t have to look too hard at this Mavericks roster to see the foundation of the next run post-Dirk — Noel and Barnes mesh well together and are both young. Surrounding them are cheap and young (enough) players who can fill (enough) holes in the rotation. Take this core and nail their top-10 pick this June (PLEASE LISTEN TO DONNIE NELSON) and the Mavericks are back in business!
Of course, this is the glass half-full approach, because the other side of the coin is years and years of losing and frustration. Rarely do NBA teams rebuild after one off-season of work, but the beauty of this bad Mavericks season is that somehow, there are actually reasons to be optimistic. In the end, Mark Cuban, Rick Carlisle, Dirk and Wes Matthews’ steadfast commitment to winning as many games as possible despite being on a sinking ship helped change the narrative around the team.
In the locker room, there wasn’t nearly as much sulking and sullenness as there should have been for a team that was at one point very much in danger of finishing with the worst record in the Western Conference. There were flashes, but it was quickly stamped out by Cuban, Wes, Dirk or Carlisle. As much as I rolled my eyes every time Wes expunged a pile of persevering cliches, it kept the truly dark images of a toiling rebuild as far from my brain as possible.
It helped that Dirk, who should have been miserable, remained upbeat and positive. The greatest player in franchise history still found joy in getting up and going to work for a lousy team, teaching Harrison Barnes how to take the next step as a player and, oh yeah, providing the feel good moment of the season when he turned back the clock while breaking into the 30K-point club.
Dirk’s moment, Barnes’ ascension, the Noel trade, Yogimania — that’s an abnormal amount of fun stuff to happen during a franchise’s worst season in almost two decades. It made this season memorable in a way it totally shouldn’t have been and is fueling the thought that maybe the Mavericks aren’t that far away from being relevant again. And that’s not even mentioning the night the Mavs fufilled Tony Romo’s Make-A-Wish dream.
All of that stuff distracted from the losing, but it didn’t feel like it was forcing ignorance of the situation at hand. If November and December were the shot, the rest of the season has been the chaser. Let me be clear: the Mavericks are still bad and this should take a long time to get back to where 50 wins feels like a formality instead of an achievement. In 10 years, who knows how we’ll remember this season. It could very well end up like the footnote that was the 2013 .500 beards season. But right now? In this moment?
It was somehow fun, in a weird and wonderful way.