When the Mavericks traded up to take Luka Doncic in the 2018 NBA Draft last June, Rick Carlisle did not hide his feelings on the progress of the Mavericks rebuild.
“First round draft picks are of very little interest to me,” Carlisle said when asked about trading away a future first to acquire Doncic. “We need to take this group and move forward.”
Combine that with Mark Cuban’s comments last year, saying last season would be the final season Dallas would tank, it created the feeling that the Mavericks considered themselves ready to be back in the playoff hunt. Drafting Luka, signing DeAndre Jordan with the remainder of their cap space and second-year Dennis Smith Jr. certainly raised the Mavericks hopes, so much so that last summer felt like the Mavs were signaling, “mission accomplished.”
After a loss to the Warriors on Sunday night, the Mavericks are 20-23, three games back of the final playoff spot in the West — belonging to LeBron James’ Lakers. Between the Mavs and the Lakers are the Jazz, Kings, Timberwolves and Pelicans. The playoffs aren’t likely.
Here’s the thing — that’s OK! The Mavericks hit the reset button on their roster two years ago, deciding to rebuild after the disastrous Rajon Rondo trade, Chandler Parsons injury and the DeAndre Jordan indecision. The fact that Dallas has only spent two years in the draft lottery, with a top-10 pick and a top-3 pick on their roster, and are sniffing .500 is a remarkable achievement. The Mavericks are much improved over last season and have their star of the future in Doncic. Luka is really good and validating all of the pre-draft drooling over him.
Yet, it doesn’t really feel OK all the time, does it? Not necessarily with the team, but the discussion around it. Hop on Twitter, read our own recaps, listen to a few podcasts and people seem angry when this Mavericks team gets thumped, like against the Lakers at home without LeBron last week. Or how about in Phoenix last month? What about the disheartening effort in Boston a few days after New Years? Dallas has laid some absolute stinkers this season and that’s sort of what happens to a team in the third-year of a rebuild, with its two most important pieces being a 19-year-old and a 21-year-old.
The reason it doesn’t always feel like that is because the Mavericks have a roster not only stocked with veterans, but older veterans without guaranteed contracts for next season. Consider this: only three Mavericks are guaranteed to be on the roster when training camp opens next season. That’s Doncic, Smith and Jalen Brunson. Every other player on the roster right now either has a player option or is a free agent this summer. Of course guys like Harrison Barnes and Dwight Powell opting into their final years seems likely, along with the retention of restricted free agents Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith. Even then, Mavs are still relying on a lot of dudes right now that are playing for contracts next season.
Simply put, it’s too many agendas to juggle. Dallas is trying to develop their younger players like Luka, Smith, Brunson, Kleber and Finney-Smith while simultaneously compete for a playoff spot and Wesley Matthews and DeAndre Jordan also try to put up numbers to earn the last big contracts of their careers. Jordan is a 30-year-old center who can’t shoot — this summer will almost assuredly be the last one where he can expect to get a relatively handsome multi-year deal. Matthews is 32 and while his 3-and-D role is more desired across the league, his decline from his Achillies injury will likely prevent him from garnering another big contract after whatever he signs this summer. It’s conceivable that after Matthews and Jordan play out whatever deals they get this summer, they’ll be entering the stage of their careers where they chase rings on good teams and veteran’s minimum deals.
So it makes sense when the Mavericks look sloppy and disjointed some nights and like a supernova on others. The timelines on this team are jumbled. That isn’t to say the veterans are consciously chasing stats and numbers to get more money this summer, but that it is natural for players in different parts of their career to take longer to come together than one that is drafted or assembled at the same time. Matthews, Jordan, J.J. Barea, Devin Harris and Dirk Nowitzki do not have many seasons left ahead of them — their goal is to win and win now. The younger guys want to win too, but it’s so hard to win when you rely on those young starters. The goal with them should be more about development. LeBron James didn’t make the playoffs in his rookie season. Neither did Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook or Anthony Davis. Despite the vibes given from the Mavs last summer, Dallas was never going to make the leap this season. They need more time, more talent and more players that fit Doncic and Smith’s trajectory. They need a core that is locked in and ready to grow with their two young talents, not one that is reshuffled every summer.
Dallas hasn’t decided on a core roster since the 2011 title team. The days of mixing and matching players after failed free agent pursuits has to end, or the inconsistent carousel they ride right now will continue past Doncic’s rookie season. It’ll be hard to do without a first round pick, but the Mavericks are flush with cap space. Perhaps they can target younger players and try to build a more stable roster around Doncic and Smith. The Mavericks will likely finish around 38 wins this season, which regardless of expectation is a successful outcome. Dallas was really bad last year! Now they’re better and with their next star already checked off their to-do list. This summer will be important for the Mavs to decide if they truly know who they really are.