It’s been a few years since I regularly wrote about sports, and likely about the same since I wrote for Mavs Moneyball itself. I was inspired to pick up my pen — quill, but from a dinosaur — because of a recent piece by Ben Zajdel: “The Myth of the well-run Mavericks is over.” Among the tensions of this season, I confess a certain relief, more than schadenfreude, over the fact that at least a large subsection of Mavericks fans are, finally, righteously pissed off at the front office.
There was a lot of triangle of trust, you know they have something up their sleeve, best front office in the business, nine-dimensional chess nonsense that somehow managed to paper over the fact, almost uniquely in all of sports, that this is a team that last won a playoff series in 2011, before most MMB columnists today were even born. The fact of the matter is the front office has been mediocre to outright bad since that very moment, but somehow striking out in this last offseason was the blow a lot of the fanbase needed to get there, and it feels good to not be alone. I’ll tell you a little story — some of you know it quite well.
In 2011, as the Mavericks began breaking up a championship team, I was a writer at this very website. At the time, at least, the Mavs’ logic was clear, even though I thought it was terrible. They certainly had an aging core. It was not so old in retrospect, with the exception of current coach Jason Kidd — Dirk was only 32, Marion 32, Terry 33. Tyson Chandler himself was just 28, Butler 30, and Barea 26. But in a way that was part of the problem. Terry’s contract was up, so was Tyson’s of course, Kidd’s would be soon. And fresh off a championship, most of those guys were in big demand, even Kidd, who a year later would go to New York and finish his career by going 0-for-17 across literally nine playoff games with them, while playing, eyeballing it, around 20 minutes a game. The question for the Mavs was not whether to run it back the next year, but whether to commit to running it back for years to come, spending a huge chunk of change to do so.
And even though it was entirely uncharted territory for a team — and an incredible act of hubris for a franchise with only one ring in its whole history for that matter — to choose a course that would see them starting O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Brandan Wright, and Elton Brand alongside Marion on opening day two years later, you could at least understand what they were trying to do. And then there was the other part. True, the Mavs had just beaten the first (and best) of these modern “super teams” in its first year of existence, but one could, almost, not blame the front office for thinking they saw the future, and would need to find a second star to put up next to Dirk before time plodded along any farther. The fact that it presumably would have been a disaster if they actually landed any of the ones that were supposedly to be the Wade to Dirk’s LeBron can stand, for now, as a secondary issue.
There was, however, one problem from the very beginning, and some of us mentioned it at that time. Here’s how I generally put it. There are, roughly, three ways for NBA franchises to improve. They can sign free agents, they can make trades, or they can draft players. For the most part, these modes of improvement can work together. You can trade guys you sign, sign guys you trade for, trade for draft picks, or trade guys you draft. There is, however, one set of circumstances in which you deprive yourself almost entirely of this flexibility, and it is this: if you systematically deprive your team of the ability to pursue either of the other avenues by committing so heavily to maximizing cap space you deprive yourself of the assets necessary to do either of the others — which is to say, the exact strategy the Mavericks landed on post-2011.
Again, I’m not saying this was super obvious in 2011, but it was knowable — I knew it, I probably wasn’t the only one. I’m not saying things couldn’t have gone better even so, or that there weren’t ways to pursue even this fairly bad strategy more effectively. For example, it is technically possible to have a lot of cap space and draft cheap young talent. Only, the Mavs, for all their planning, kept finding themselves in a situation where they had to trade down in the draft to have even one max cap slot, and anyway, they never really cared about it. In the first direction, Mavs fans will remember well the team more or less purposefully whiffing on Giannis for this reason in 2013, ending up with Shane Larkin instead. But honestly, the more telling episode comes from that very same draft, where after trading down to 16, and missing Giannis at 15, they then traded down again to 18. For what, you might ask? Well, I honestly wish I could say nothing. Instead, they actually traded Atlanta their own top pick of the previous year, Jared Cunningham and number 16 in order to induce the Hawks to move up in the draft. And in the second direction, well, there are examples too numerous to mention.
So, yes, it could have gone better. Still, it was a bad strategy already in 2011, in ways that were not exactly impossible to explain, and has remained so to this day. And not least because there were two other issues that should have become obvious after just a year or two, even if you bought in initially. First of all, to attract top free agents, you actually have to be good to begin with. In virtually every case over the course of the last decade, the most sought after guy has either stayed home or gone where they felt they had the best chance to win. That might have been the Mavs in 2012, coming off a title, but Deron Williams was the only top guy available that year and you know what happened there. It was, however, never the Mavs again, which means their approach was not only ill-judged but explicitly counter-productive — because it insured they never got competitive enough to interest the guys they wanted to use their cap space on. Second, the sneaky little thing about the NBA and the cap is that even if the main thing you want to do is add some big fish free agent, you still might be better off spending rather than saving money. For one thing, because guys now can, if not force, at least strongly influence where they go next, the ability to do sign and trades is at least as valuable as signing guys outright.
Even more importantly, however, because you can pretty much always match salaries in trades, teams that are over the cap can acquire big contracts at least as easily as teams that are under, without having to starve their team of talent to do so. Or, they can shed salary when they need to — not as the culmination of years of austerity planning but just when the opportunity to spend arises — and maybe not only add players, but maybe draft picks or other useful tools to get better in the process. Case in point: the Mavs had considerably more cap space than the Chicago Bulls this offseason, when the former had prospectively the third most cap space in the league. But the latter managed to add DeMar Derozan, Nikola Vucevic, Lonzo Ball, and Alex Caruso as supporting cast around Zach LaVine, whereas the Mavs added… Reggie Bullock. And the strategy hasn’t been any better in previous years, it just wasn’t as obvious because the team was better.
So here we are, the year is not 2021, but 2011, the cupboard is still bare, and it has been this whole time. The Mavs have, more or less, one big free agency score in the decade, despite devoting their energies so completely to it — Harrison Barnes, traded essentially for more cap space in 2019. They have one big trade score, Kristaps Porzingis, and two big draft triumphs, Luka, and Jalen Brunson. They have, after that, a whole team full of overachievers of average NBA talent — and a few underachievers with a little more — but it’s also essentially the same team they had the day after they traded Barnes. And I mean that literally. Barnes was traded on Feb. 6, 2019, on Feb. 8, 2019 they started Luka, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, Brunson, and Maxi Kleber, Porzingis being injured, with Trey Burke and Dwight Powell providing the most minutes off the bench. They have very little to offer anybody in a trade, except for maybe Brunson and, in a sense, Porzingis. The only guy they have left on the roster from the 2019, 2020, and 2021 drafts is Josh Green, who has generally not been getting into games even when Luka and Porzingis are both out. And there is a sense that time is running out.
Of course, it needn’t be so, he said, dipping his dinosaur quill in the ink. If Luka doesn’t demand a trade, he’s signed through 2026. Giannis, the last all-time great the Mavs almost got, didn’t win a championship ‘til last year, his eighth in the league, and has continued to improve the whole way. There is, perhaps, still time. But in order to live that dream, the Mavs can’t keep pretending the only reason anyone criticizes this team that hasn’t seen the second round since Dirk was 32 is that Twitter is a negative place, let alone that they were unlucky. The plans were bad, they’ve had bad results. Meanwhile, when you look around the league today, you’ll see that almost without exception (looking at you, Brooklyn), the top teams in each league were built the way the 2011 Mavs were built, and not how the 2011 Heat were, organically rather than all at once, and by adding talent without always worrying about whether it was the move that had to be made. That’s what the new front office must do, too. They have to add talented guys, whenever they have the chance, without getting too precious about what it all means, and where it all fits. They have to draft, and they have to be opportunistic. If this team is a high-level playoff team it will only be because Luka takes it to a Lebron-like-level where virtually any team is. The team owes him better, and after all this time, its fans as well.