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The Mavericks wish they were the Rockets

Houston pulled off the non-tanking rebuild Dallas pined for, plus other notes.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Dallas Mavericks Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

I can only imagine how mad Mark Cuban gets when he sits in his seat on the baseline when the Houston Rockets come to town. He gets a front row seat to watch the team that had the same idea as him — they just pulled it off way, way, way better.

That plan was to rebuild without tanking, to transition from one era to the next. The Rockets had to move on earlier than they wanted from the Yao Ming/Tracy McGrady core to the next one. They moved to James Harden and Dwight Howard and eventually Chris Paul and they did it without a losing season.

Since 2002, the Rockets have had a winning season every year. They’ve not only made the transition to the next era, they did it and became better than they were before. Sound familiar?

After the 2011 title win, Cuban and the Mavericks knew the Dirk Nowitzki era was on borrowed time. The CBA changed to prevent teams like the Mavs from buying themselves out of bad roster moves or accumulating good players. Dirk was getting older, along with the rest of the team. With the potential for teams to be pinched by the new cap rules, Cuban gambled that cap space would be the great commodity in wooing a star to play next to Dirk and transition the Mavs from one era to the next.

So, about that.

It didn’t happen, because the Mavericks’ greatest whiff was that just cap space was not the key ingredient to grabbing a star in free agency. While the Mavs sent Tyson Chandler away and signed so-so players to one-year deals, teams like the Warriors and the Rockets conjured up cap space when they needed it and instead of gutting the roster for scraps, filled their roster with good players. Good players that could be used for trades (James Harden!) or swaying free agents (Dwight Howard!). While the Mavs chased Howard, the Warriors, in cap hell with some bad contracts to Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins, created the cap space when they wanted it. They sent those contracts away, because there’s no such thing as an un-tradeable contract in the NBA. They got Andre Iguodala without gutting their roster of all its good players to create cap space. The Rockets got Howard thanks to trading for Harden, which only happens if you don’t empty your roster for cap space and instead acquire good players to trade for even better players.

While the Rockets kept turning average players into good players into great players, the Mavs floated their cap space to stars on the hopes of culture and Dirk would be enough. But the Mavs found out quickly that hoarding cap space wasn’t as unique as they hoped. With a set cap and a set number on max deals, any rival team can make the same offer so long as you can create the room. The Mavs thought creating that room would be hard. Spoiler: it wasn’t.

By the time the Mavericks figured out that signing good players is actually a good idea, the Rockets already had two superstars in Harden and Howard. The Mavs had one last shot at transitioning from the Dirk era to the next without bottoming out, but DeAndre Jordan shut the door.

Now the Mavericks are bad. They’re oddly bad, but still bad. The Rockets have aspirations of beating the Warriors. Who knows when the Mavericks will have those sorts of expectations again.

But hey, the Mavs have a ring. On to the notes:

  • The Mavericks are the most incredible bad, boring team I’ve ever seen. By piling on some meaningless points in garbage time, the Mavericks avoided losing by double-digits. It is Jan. 25 and the 16-32 Mavericks have nine losses by double-digits. On Jan. 25, 2011, the future champion Mavericks had seven losses by double-digits. These current Mavericks are slotted for the fourth overall pick in this summer’s draft. It’s incredible how competitive this really bad team is.
  • Since we’re going through bonkers stats, have you taken a look at Wesley Matthew’s shooting numbers by area on the court? It’s wild. Wes is terrible shooting at every part of the court except threes, where he’s great and in the paint but outside the restricted area, where he’s elite. It’s a shame, because Matthews would be such a great fit on any of the current homecourt teams in either conference. The Mavs talent-barren roster just asks him to do way too much. Speaking of, Wes had 29 points on 7-of-14 from three.
  • The Rockets started 6-of-6 from three and absolutely annihilated the Mavericks whenever Dirk was on the floor, which should be giving all of us some PTSD shivers. The Mavericks hid Dirk on Trevor Ariza to avoid him having to box out Clint Capela and chase around either Harden or Paul in the pick and roll, so of course the Rockets exploited Dirk anyway and Ariza finished with 23 points and five 3-pointers made.
  • I wasn’t the biggest fan of Kyle Collinsworth’s game when he played for the Mavs summer league team two summers ago, but I’ll admit he’s looked OK in his limited time he’s gotten with Devin Harris hurt. Collinsworth kind of remind me of a “Dallas Jae Crowder who actually gets stats” which is probably the weirdest player comparison I’ll ever make. Remember when Crowder was in Dallas and he was just averse to collecting any box score stats, but still had positive impacts in lineups that hid his warts? That’s kind of like Collinsworth, except he actually gets stats. He had seven rebounds tonight! That’s pretty cool. I might also be delusional because the Mavs are finally playing someone off the bench that’s between 5’11 and 6’10.
  • Remember when there was an actual debate between who would you rather have between Nerlens Noel and Clint Capela? LOL. In other news, I wouldn’t mind the Mavs throwing Capela, a future restricted free agent, a crazy offer sheet this summer just to mess with the Rockets. Imagine if the Mavs roll out a Dennis, Doncic, Barnes, Dirk, Capela lineup next season. That’d be neat.
  • It’s going to be really interesting to see what the Mavs do with Yogi Ferrell this summer. He’s going to be a restricted free agent. How much money do you give him? I love him, but there’s a ceiling on how good a 5’11 guard can be. Hopefully the Mavs can navigate that and bring him back on something reasonable.
  • Johnathan Motley was called up today, got two minutes in garbage time and scored five points and grabbed three rebounds. It’s gonna be super fun to watch Motley get loads of burn when the Mavs permanently call him up later this season.