There are only so many paths a team can go down to build a contender and none of them are fool-proof. Each one offers winding twists and turns that can lead to disaster before you even know it.
The Mavericks know this better than most, because they went so hard down one path they almost nuked their team into obscurity. When Dallas decided to try and bridge the gap from the Dirk Nowitzki era to the next one, they did so by trying to sign big name free agents to ride out the remainder of Dirk’s useful seasons and slowly transition the team over to whatever star they could grab with their gobs of cap space and supposed allure of organizational culture.
As we all know, it failed spectacularly. Aside from a fun season when Tyson Chandler returned, the Mavericks were not only very much not contenders for Dirk’s twilight, they weren’t even relevant. Dallas was never bad enough to bottom out for the majority of those seasons and they also weren’t nearly strong enough to give anyone a scare. It wasn’t until the past three seasons that the Mavericks accepted their fate: they needed to go down the long road of being bad and rebuilding.
Well, so much for that.
After trading away Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, DeAndre Jordan and a gaggle of future draft picks, the Mavericks have a 23-year-old unicorn big man in Kristaps Porzingis. Of course there’s a giant asterisk next to Porzingis; he’s still recovering from ACL surgery. That’s part of the reason he was available and part of the risk, although if there’s one area of the Mavericks team building process you can almost unquestionably trust, it’s their training and medical staff.
The Mavericks had a choice this season, as it was apparent they were not as ready for their return to the playoffs as they might have thought. They could finish out the season, let the older veterans who are free go off to other teams and slowly but surely surround their prized new star Luka Doncic with able bodies that fit his timeline. Give Smith some more seasoning, get a good pick in the 2020 draft, use cap space to maybe pry away a young restricted free agent talent and the Mavericks would be well on their way to relevance, even if it would take time.
But nope. Since it’s the Mavericks, that was never going to happen. Mark Cuban famously said on a podcast last year that the Mavericks were done tanking and when the Mavericks drafted Doncic last June, Rick Carlisle said he had little use for first round draft picks anymore.
As much as the slow build seemed pertinent for a Mavericks team that went into rebuilding mode kicking and screaming, we all knew they were never going to truly take their medicine. The Mavericks with cap space are like a newborn that just settled down for the night — you hope to god it doesn’t wake up screaming so you can just get through to the next morning.
In a way, the Mavericks ticking time bomb induced anxiety. Luka is legit and the front office was already getting restless — rumors about Smith’s future started to crop up and the mountain of cap space for this summer loomed over a roster that never felt fully-formed due to all the player options and expiring contracts.
The Mavericks found their guy in Luka but so much seemed up in the air — even with Luka, Dallas had just two first round picks from this decade on the roster. Teams need more than that and Dallas’ free agency history since 2011 has been a disaster. It felt like the Mavericks didn’t really understand their place. They wanted to go from 24 wins to so much more and at times it felt like they forgot that leap is a big one. Would they blow their cap space on older veterans? Trade away even more picks for a steadier hand that Carlisle likes? It felt like the Mavericks were only a few short-sighted moves away from turning into the new Pelicans, locked into a mediocre roster and wasting away a star in their prime.
Instead, somehow, Dallas did that but in the best way. They got rid of their cap space and threw future picks out the window but instead of a crustier veteran that isn’t on Luka’s timeline, they got a 23-year-old big that made the All-Star game as a 22-year-old. Instead of blowing their cap space this summer on bringing back washed veterans in roles too big for their status, they got a big whose nickname is The Unicorn for a reason. It’s remarkable.
There’s still huge risk. Despite Dallas’ medical staff track record, Porzingis’ injury history for a guy his size is troubling to say the least. Those future picks are far away, but the Mavericks basically traded four first round picks (Smith, the 2019, 2021 and 2023 picks) for two guys. To be fair, those two guys are good as shit. But there’s always a chance things don’t go smoothly and the Mavericks are a bad team without future leverage.
Despite that, it’s a risk that feels more than worthy of taking. By dumping their draft and cap space assets into Porzingis, the Mavericks saved themselves from their worst tendencies. Now we don’t have to worry about what aging veteran the Mavericks will overpay or if they’ll be left holding the bag and bring back Jordan or Matthews out of desperation. The fears of continuing to pay Harrison Barnes like a second-options are soothed a bit. Now they have a 19-year-old and a 23-year-old to build around, a duo that has a much cleaner fit than the young duo they previously counted on. If the Mavericks with cap space and playoff aspirations are a drunk at the bar, this trade took away their car keys.
Luka brought a lot of excitement, but there was so much unknown about the Mavericks future past him. Everything about the roster felt up in the air. Things with Porzingis are much clearer today, despite the injury. The Mavericks could possibly have two All-Stars under the age of 24, which is just wild to think about.
The Mavericks have a a new path now and they got there by indulging in their worst instincts — but in the best possible way.