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!
Congratulations! You’ve arrived in 2018, hopefully in one piece. You’re making it to the gym, starting that new hobby, and look at you, you’re even kicking that awful habit. Good on you, you look great.
Now if only the next 51 weeks of the year were as easy as this one.
Like every human being on the planet, the Mavericks need to resolve to better themselves in in the new year, and Mavs Moneyball is here to help with five easy goals for the next twelve months, guaranteed to turn the team into title contenders. Or something.
The Mavericks are sitting at a crucial part of the rebuild. The first, and typically hardest, step was being honest with themselves about where they are. They did that over the summer. You can judge for yourself how they dealt with the next part: making no significant summer signings, jumping ship on Nerlens Noel, and trotting out an odd mix of veteran Dirk-friendly teammates and young players.
Nevertheless, the Mavs are trying to embrace the rebuilding process. The rest of this season’s focus now should be on development and organization. The Mavericks have done a great job of giving opportunity (quite frankly more opportunity than I expected) to not just Dennis Smith Jr., but also fellow rookie Maxi Kleber. They’re both being given ample opportunity to grow on the floor, make mistakes and bounce back.
So now what? The front office needs a clear and organized focus for this summer. In many ways this step can be more important than development this season. Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson have cast a wide net in free agency in years past. They haven’t just gone after a single top-tier free agent each July, they’ve gone after all of them. With no luck. Rarely are there shortcuts in a team rebuild, but if the Mavericks want to reload as efficiently as possible, it’s going to require focus on realistic and attainable free agents this summer.
No, the Mavericks don’t need to start exercising three times a week. But they do need to adapt to a league that is getting more athletic by the year. The Mavs currently sit at 24th alongside the Miami Heat in pace at 95 possessions per 48 minutes. They play at a relatively slow tempo, limiting possessions in an attempt to level the athletic playing field.
Rick Carlisle does this for a number of reasons, and one is a two-fold problem: the Wizard continues to find ways to shape the flow of the game around 39-year-old basketball savior Dirk Nowitzki. And that’s a problem, because he’s the Big Mummy. But the bigger issue is that Carlisle must shape the offense around him because Dirk remains the most effective Maverick on a night-to-night basis. He’s the only player that affects opponents’ spacing and the gravity on the floor every single game. It’s unacceptable for the team to rely on that from a 39 year old, no matter how legendary the mummy.
The Mavericks have rarely been near the top of the league. Since winning the title they’ve only been in the top ten in pace twice: the very fun, then very sad, 2014-15 Rajon Rondo season (95.2) and the very-not-athletic-but-I guess-fast 2012-13 O.J. Mayo/Chris Kaman season (94.1). But the Mavericks’ pace is trending in the right direction this season, up from 92.2 last season, and is the second fastest pace of Dirk’s 20 seasons (that tells you where the league is). If the athleticism of Dennis Smith Jr. is any indication, the Mavericks will continue to usher in an athletic era, joining the rest of the league playing modern basketball.
The Mavericks have the fifth oldest roster in the league, with an average age of 28.4 (the four oldest teams in the league are the win-now Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers). The tight ten-man rotation that Carlisle employs most nights is slightly older than that, coming in at 29 years. Take DSJ out of the equation and the nine players getting minutes are an average 30 years old (in fairness, take Dirk out of the equation and they’re back around the roster average of 28).
All this is to say that while the Mavericks organization loves and values veteran leadership, they have some extra poundage in that department that should be shed if the opportunity presents itself. Competitive teams are always in the market for veteran bench guards and rim protection. Any combination of JJ Barea, Devin Harris and Salah Mejri (and Wesley Matthews if a team somehow wants that contract) should be on the table in exchange for second round picks or young projects. All three are having solid seasons and should have value over the next six weeks.
Learn something new
The Mavericks hit the new year on a bit of a surge, going 5-2 the last 11 days of December. With a record of 13-26 the Mavs are sitting with a slightly better win percentage this season than last, when they entered January with a record of 10-24 (they were 12-27 at the 39 game mark).
But with the long term needing to be the primary focus, the Mavericks would be wise to make the trade deadline (February 8, 3:00p.m. Eastern) their next checkpoint. Once they get there, and know who they’ll be running out every night, those final 28 games need to be about learning as much as they can about all of the young projects and prospects on the team.
That may come in the form of more time for a guy like Johnathan Motley or expanding Maxi Kleber’s role. Maybe it’s finding players in the G League. If wins are the byproduct of experimenting and expanding responsibility for the younger players, great. But the task for Carlisle, Cuban and Nelson after the deadline must be learning what they have for the future.
Spend less, save more
The Mavericks have all but knocked this one out of the park already. By not inking a long-term deal with Nerlens Noel in the offseason and doing virtually nothing else, the Mavericks are once again hoarding cash with the plan of being opportunistic this summer. There are some conditions to the numbers now, but the Mavericks could have over $33 million in cap space, good for third most in the league behind the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls.
It remains to be seen what the Mavericks decide to do with all that money. How much gets used in-house on guys like Yogi Ferrell or Seth Curry? How do Dirk (there is a club option on his contract) and soon-to-be free agents Devin Harris and Salah Mejri fit in? And what kind of money gets thrown at top-tier free-agent targets?
If the Mavericks find the right fit this summer, spend away. But if the cards aren’t there, save up to play another day. Rebuilds are a long process, and the Mavericks must be smart about who they sign for the long haul.