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What the Mavericks’ draft selection says about their rebuilding strategy

The Mavericks would like the most direct path to relevance, which makes who they draft this summer all the more important.

NBA: Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It can be argued that June 22nd, 2017 was the first time the Dallas Mavericks were honest with themselves in a long time. Dennis Smith Jr. was taken with the ninth pick in last summer’s draft, and the Mavericks brain trust of Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson, and Rick Carlisle finally conceded that they needed to rebuild the foundation if they wanted to succeed past the Dirk Nowitzki era. Yes, it would have been difficult to lie to themselves after a rough 2017 season. But in similar situations, it was not uncommon for Cuban to leverage a pick like that for a player, or players, to grasp at staying competitive now. Practicing patience can be a difficult thing in sports.

Early returns tell us that they have, at the very least, a starter level point guard in Smith Jr., maybe more. But this next lottery pick could either speed up their route to relevance, or prolong the process of being competitive; a common refrain for lottery teams.

It’s no secret that Cuban’s patience is already wearing thin, publicly declaring that this (2017-18) is the final season the Mavericks “tank.” If they make good on that statement, hitting a home run with this pick is all the more vital. And taking that into consideration, what does it say about who they pick? There is a fork in the road that the Mavs will face in late June — do you pick a player that can contribute quickly and make you competitive now; or do you select a prospect that may take longer to meet his potential, and possibly lead the team to more success further in the future?

Obviously teams want to be relevant as soon as possible, and it’s not as if it has to be fully one or the other. But some of these players will take much longer to reach their ceiling. Who the Mavericks pick will tell us where they think they are as a team, and how patient they’re willing to be in the rebuild.

Compete now

Luka Doncic, DeAndre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Miles Bridges

Depending on the prospect ranking you look at, these four players often represent the front and back of the top ten, respectively. Grouping them together doesn’t equate what each brings to the table, but it does point to what you’re trying to accomplish in the coming season. Doncic and Ayton are no brainers here. Their talent would be something too difficult to pass up, whether your team is ready to win now or not.

The Bridges Squared is another story. Both of these wings have a maturity to their game that you don’t see elsewhere in this lottery pool (perhaps outside of Doncic). They both already flash NBA-ready two-way ability and should be equipped day one to contribute. While the Mavericks will most likely be picking too high to consider either of these players (though I can, and will, make the argument that Mikal Bridges deserves some thought), in selecting them the Mavs would be giving in to impatience; grabbing a high-level role player rather than waiting on the growth of another with a higher ceiling. And if the Mavs select one of the Bridges, it will signal a level of confidence in signing their top targets in free agency.

Long-term rebuild

Jaren Jackson Jr., Marvin Bagley III, Mohamed Bamba, Michael Porter Jr., Wendell Carter Jr.

It shouldn’t be shocking that the majority of the top prospects (and the majority of the big men) are in this category. They belong in this group to varying degrees, and for a variety of reasons. Jaren Jackson Jr., the youngest player on the list, has the highest ceiling as a complete two-way player. But because of his age, experience and position, Jackson will require time and room to meet that potential. The same can be said of Bamba — a defensive specialist that flashes offensive ability. The demand on a defensive center in the NBA is massive. To learn the ins and outs as the anchor and rim protector will be a process. And though he has budding possibilities as a scorer and rim runner, that too will take time to develop.

The Michael Porter Jr. storyline will be the most interesting to follow over the next six weeks. Simply because his health leaves more questions than answers, selecting MPJ will most likely extend the Mavericks rebuild. He could be the biggest risk-reward of the lottery. For the final “junior” of the group, Carter has the feeling of a player that may get picked behind a full roster of big men, but may have one of the longer and more productive careers of the group. Still, his transition out of zone defense and taking on the responsibility of being primary center for a young team lengthens the rebuild.

Finally, the most polarizing player for MFFLs: MBIII. Though much of his offensive game in college looked to be NBA-ready (specifically his scoring and rebounding around the rim), Bagley will still be a project. Perhaps not as long as a few others on this list; but patience must be preached. No matter if you play him at the four or the five, Bagley will have a steep learning curve defensively. He has tools to be an adequate defender, and maybe even a help-side rim protector. But he won’t be able to shoulder the responsibility on his own for some time. His scoring will be impactful immediately, but defensively he has a ways to go.

This gives the Mavericks a great opportunity, while still being in a tough position. Until the draft order is finalized, little can be determined. But looking at it now, the meat of the draft features highly skilled players, but players that will take time to fulfill their potential nonetheless. So Cuban can declare “no more tanking,” but that doesn’t mean the rebuild is over any faster. A lot is on the line for the Mavericks this summer.