When the tweet passed through my timeline, my PTSD immediately kicked in. There it was, the piece of news we’ve all been waiting for since the Milwaukee Bucks had a shorter than expected stay in the bubble:
“The Dallas Mavericks to me, are really going to be at the front of that line,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said, in regards to the Mavericks chasing Giannis Antetokounmpo. I looked at it for like 30 seconds before remembering the very first time the Mavericks did this dog and pony show.
Remember Deron Williams? OK, before he was on the Mavericks as an aging veteran. When he was legitimately good! An All-Star! Remember how the Mavericks tore apart their title team, thinking maximizing cap space in the new CBA ushered in after the 2011 lockout was the path to acquiring another star next to Dirk Nowitzki? In internet years, that time feels like 50 years ago. Even then, seeing that clip, reading those words, I still went back to when Williams picked the Nets and during that season’s training camp, explained his decision. Here’s this excerpt from a piece from Howard Beck, then at The New York Times:
Williams, one of the N.B.A.’s top point guards, ultimately chose the Nets, citing their brighter future. He also signed a contract that was significantly richer ($99 million over five years) than what Dallas could offer ($75 million over four years).
But Williams cited another factor Monday: the owner Mark Cuban’s absence from the Mavericks’ recruiting meeting. Cuban had a scheduling conflict — he was in Los Angeles shooting an episode of the reality television show “Shark Tank.”
Asked if Cuban’s absence affected his decision, Williams said flatly, “Of course.”
Williams added: “A lot of the questions that me and my agent had for them really didn’t get answered that day — you know, pertaining to the future. And I think if he was there, he would have been able to answer those questions a little bit better. Maybe would have helped me.”
The Mavericks’ main representatives that day were the team president Donnie Nelson and Coach Rick Carlisle. Williams, 28, said he was most concerned about what Dallas would do once the 34-year-old Nowitzki retired. Those were questions that only Cuban could fully answer, he said.
Williams said the message he received from Nelson and Carlisle was, instead, “Just trust their track record.”
“I can honor that, because they do have a good track record. But it’s not enough for me to switch organizations, especially when Billy was updating me daily,” Williams said, referring to Nets General Manager Billy King.
The Mavericks first major free agency pursuit since blowing up the title team and Mark Cuban was filming Shark Tank during the crucial meeting. Makes you want to laugh, doesn’t it?
Then I started thinking about all the other times the Mavericks have done this and it not worked. It’s stunning when you list it out, so I’m going to. You all have to suffer with me!
- 2012: Failed to sign Deron Williams after Mark Cuban missed the pitch meeting.
- 2013: Failed to sign Dwight Howard after making him a cartoon.
- 2015: Failed to sign DeAndre Jordan after they...signed DeAndre Jordan.
- 2016: Failed to sign Hassan Whiteside and Mike Conley after offering them the chance to play with 37-year-old Dirk Nowitzki and an old washing machine.
- 2019: Failed to sign Kemba Walker, with Walker choosing Boston instead.
So by my count, since the 2011 title, the Mavericks have had five summers where they struck out on a star free agent. That’s kinda bleak when you consider they’ve only had nine off-season since they’ve won the title. That’s over a 50 percent fail rate! If only Luka could shoot that well from three, amirite? *meekly leaves room*
Would it kill the Mavericks to just, uh, not do this? How many chickens do I have to sacrifice before they just draft some guys, sign some role players and call it a day? Why is that so hard, that seems like a reasonable request! The Mavericks pulled off the impossible by acquiring two young stars within a short period of time, one of them being an all-world, LeBron-level franchise guy. What’s even more maddening about this is that the Mavericks are very good at signing lower-level impact role players. Remember Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis? Brandan Wright? Al-Farouq Aminu? Seth Curry (twice!)? Vince Carter? Maxi Kleber? Dorian Finney-Smith? Trey Burke? All free agents the Mavericks signed and got the absolute most value out of, because they are very good at identifying guys that have clear and distinct skill sets and making sure to accentuate those skills and hide their weaknesses.
What makes it even worse is that star chasing doesn’t just muck up the off-season where the star is free — it mucks up multiple off-seasons of potential roster additions. For whatever reason, the Mavericks ascribe to the belief that you must have your cap space 100 percent clean and open before the off-season where you plan to sign a max free agent starts. That means instead of just ignoring smaller roster improvements during the target off-season, that means other off-seasons suffer to, in the name of preserving cap space. That meant in the summer of 2012, signing a bunch of one-year contract to keeps space open for Dwight Howard. It means the quiet summer of 2019, where the Mavericks punted on give-or-take $14 million in cap space after Kemba Walker signed with Boston, is now retroactively going to be attributed to chasing Giannis.
In that Windhorst clip, he mentions the 2020 off-season for the Mavericks could be quiet, because they want to save room for Giannis. It’s madness when you consider saving cap space is a myth! Just about every large free agent move this decade involved the team creating the room needed the moment the star made their commitment. Has any star-level free agency move been held up because a team couldn’t move off the contract it needed to? No! Never! Even last summer, after the Miami Heat’s trade with the Mavericks fell through that would give them the space for Jimmy Butler, the Heat just moved right into a deal with the Clippers. All of this sucks, especially when you consider how good the Mavericks are at B and C-level free agency. It’s bad enough the Mavericks boof this all the time, it’s even worse when you realize they’re very good at the other roster-building stuff that gets stonewalled because of this dedication to star chasing.
I’ll give them this: things are certainly different now. Instead of the free agent pitch being a 2011 title and an aging superstar, the Mavericks now have the fresh fountain of youth to throw in. Luka Doncic just finished up an All-NBA season at age 21, where he almost dragged a roster of mostly undrafted free agents to almost beating the superteam Los Angeles Clippers. There’s Kristaps Porzingis, who, by the end of the season showed what he can really do in a solid team setting. Even with Porzingis’ health concerns, the combo of himself and supernova Doncic is the most appealing free agent pitch the Mavericks have had in their entire history. So, I get it. They have the goods now. Take a stroll through the history of NBA champions and it’s obvious that there is no parity in the NBA — stars win and time and time again that is proven. So I can’t necessarily blame the Mavericks for wanting to horde as much talent wealth as possible, when history shows that’s who wins. The thing is, this only means it really has to work now.
When the Mavericks wasted the final good years of Dirk Nowitzki’s career, it wasn’t franchise altering, from the aspect of the Mavericks were likely always going to have to rebuild whenever Dirk retired. The chase was mainly about trying to keep a closing window just a tiny bit open for just a few moments longer — it was always going to snap shut eventually. Now the Mavericks have their stars. Messing up multiple off-seasons has very big ramifications for a team that exists in an environment where stars have no problem with showing themselves out the door the minute they are dissatisfied with their franchise.
We were all spoiled by Dirk’s loyalty, but he was truly one of a kind. Obviously Luka exhibits some of his same characteristics, but he’s not Dirk — no one else is and no one else ever will be. Luka has won at every level of his life. If the Mavericks fail to sign Giannis after mostly punting the off-seasons of 2019 and 2020? If the Mavericks haven’t made meaningful post-season progress after failing to grab Giannis, what happens? Who knows. I do know though that in the last two seasons, six All-NBA talents left their teams to go to either Los Angeles or New York. And some of those guys weren’t free agents (Paul George, Anthony Davis). This is probably irrational fear-mongering, but if you’ve paid attention to NBA player movement this past decade, how can you not think about anything else other than the Mavericks were on the clock to retain Luka Doncic the second they drafted him? Hell, even teams that seemingly do everything right still lose those stars, because, well, that team wasn’t located near a beach. The Toronto Raptors won a freaking NBA title and Kawhi Leonard still left, only because Toronto isn’t Los Angeles.
So, good luck Mavericks. I hope this pursuit ends differently compared to last time. And the time before that. And the time before that. And the time before that. And the time before that.