There are tons of reasons why the Mavericks, internally, are fed up with this tanking business. For about two decades, they’ve been one of the premier organizations in the NBA. Dirk Nowitzki established a bar that honestly only one franchise has really exceeded.
It’s not easy to pivot to something that’s been foreign to you for so long. I’ve talked about this before, but going from a situation where the only questions about winning revolve around playoff seeds to being one of the worst teams in the league is not an easy transition. Every part of the organization had to learn how to adjust — players, coaches, front office and yes, the owner.
However, there is a breaking point. There has to be a moment of clarity, where the decisions made over the course of a year match the direction of the team. The Mavericks have been pretty good at that part so far — last summer they stayed quiet instead of overpaying on older veterans. They focused on bringing along Dennis Smith Jr. and squeezing whatever juice they could out of all the undrafted and less prestigious players that littered the roster. It led to the worst season they’ve had since Dirk has been a Maverick.
Nothing went right at all, save for some developmental wins for Harrison Barnes, Smith and some of the other fringe roster players. Seth Curry missed the whole season, Nerlens Noel was in the Phantom Zone and Dorian Finney-Smith missed over three-fourths of the season. I think it says something about the Mavs where missing two undrafted players killed their chances at a more competitive season, so let’s get into that.
Here are the top-10 for the Mavericks this past season in minutes played:
That’s an amazing list of names for a team that only won 24 games. Five of the 10 are 31 years or older. Five of the 10 are also undrafted. That’s amazing! Only one of those names is a first-round pick the Mavericks drafted this decade — that would be Smith of course. To be fair, if Doug McDermott were on the team all season, he’d crack this list. But still, of this list of names, who is going to still be on the roster when the Mavericks are back in contention again? Smith, check. It honestly gets murky after that. Barnes we’d all like to assume yes, but his contract is up in the summer of 2020. Are the Mavericks going to give him the max for his age 28-32 seasons? Perhaps, but who knows. Outside of that, every other player on this list will either be out of the league, on another team or (hopefully) not counted on nearly as much.
I love what the Mavericks have done to get some good play out of Maxi Kleber, Yogi Ferrell and to a greater extent Dwight Powell. But you can’t say with a straight face that these are building blocks for a greater future. They all have a limit on the kind of players they can become. Below this list of players, who else is even really a prospect? Kyle Collinsworth? Finney-Smith? Johnathan Motley? Again, all nice stories with nice moments, but there’s no dimension in this universe where the mostly undrafted free-agent + over-30 veteran core of a 24-win team can be considered playoff ready.
There’s some thought to the Mavericks clutch-games record: 12-38. Draft the fifth pick, hope the luck bounces your way in all those close games you played, get improvement from Smith and more from Barnes and hey, there’s your playoff team! It’s a comforting thought and honestly one I fantasize about, with old-man Logan Dirk upsetting the one-seeded Warriors to expel the last remaining demon of his career.
Realistically, it’s just not possible. The Western Conference is loaded, there were a handful of teams that missed out that can take another leap and the Mavericks are seriously talent strapped. The Mavericks were unlucky with that clutch games record, for sure, but how much of it was bad luck and how much was it that the Mavericks had one of the best benches in the NBA, fueled by the unusual situation of all the veteran role players the Mavericks had? That bench outpaced just about every other bench in the league, which meant even when the starters went down big — which they did, often — the bench would never let the game get out of reach. Dallas was a weird team where they had a bunch of players you’d like to surround your stud franchise player, but no stud franchise player. Maybe that’s Smith or maybe that’s whoever they draft on Thursday. The problem is, it’s extremely unlikely that player becomes that stud next season.
The Mavericks are bad and that’s really OK. It’s easy to forget how ravaged the roster was by the back-to-back blunders of the Rajon Rondo trade and the DeAndre Jordan decision. Follow that up with the Noel trade being a negative and the Mavericks have hardly any young blue chippers on the roster. The Rondo trade sent off some valuable younger players (Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder) and a building piece (a first-round pick) while the Jordan indecision robbed the Mavericks a chance to extend the Dirk-era a few more seasons and left coming-off-an-Achilles Wesley Matthews in a far greater role than anyone anticipated. That’s hard for any organization to overcome.
So the Mavericks need talent. They need talent that’s similar in age to Smith. That usually only happens through the draft (although there are a handful of intriguing restricted free agents). The Mavericks don’t need to dive into the depths of the tank like the 76ers, but they also don’t need to get an inflated sense of self-worth and throw max money at slightly older players (DeMarcus Cousins) or dump long-term money into role players that won’t be handy playing up a peg or two from their most desirable role. There’s a middle ground between the Sixers hell-tank and filling out the roster with older veterans. That’s where the Mavericks should tuck in. It’s fine! The Mavericks were good for a very long time. They are bad now and that’s OK. If they want to be good again, patience is key.
If the Mavericks make their pick at five, follow their strengths (signing under the radar young players like Wright, Curry, Al-Farouq Aminu) and stumble into a playoff contention because of overshooting expectations? Great! Fantastic! That’s the whole point of making these high-draft picks and trusting their development. However, the Mavericks shouldn’t be making decisions this summer with a playoff or bust mentality. Dallas has loads of cap space but that doesn’t mean they need to spend it on players that will be well into their mid-30s before Smith and this upcoming fifth pick hit their primes.
This is fine, honestly. Making the playoffs would be a really fun situation, but there’s no reason for the Mavericks to shorten their rebuild. The roster is a mess — luckily the Mavericks have plenty of time to clean it up, if they want to.