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Donnie Nelson has a complicated but important history

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24 years is a long time

NBA: Dallas Mavericks-Press Conference Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The king is dead. Long live the king.

Donnie Nelson is no longer the general manager of the Dallas Mavericks. This is being reported as a mutual parting of ways, but whether Nelson chose to leave, was forced out or something in between is simply semantics.

It is not a stretch to argue that Donnie Nelson is one of the five most important people to the Dallas Mavericks franchise during his tenure. Dirk Nowitzki is the most important Maverick during that time. Luka Doncic will be the most important Maverick going forward. Mark Cuban is the most important non player simply because of who he is. After them, Rick Carlisle and Donnie Nelson both have arguments for the next most important Maverick.

Nelson has been with the Mavericks since he joined the team as an assistant coach and director of player personnel on January 2, 1998. He was promoted to general manager in 2002. He served in that role and as president of basketball operation until June 16, 2021. With his father, Don Nelson serving as coach and general manager, Donnie had quite a bit of influence even prior to his promotion.

Donnie Nelson was instrumental in the most important trade in Mavericks history. The Dallas Mavericks traded the draft rights for 1998 NBA Draft 6th overall pick to the Milwaukee Bucks for the 9th and 19th overall picks. Dallas used those picks to select Nowitzki and Pat Garrity. The Mavericks then traded the rights to Pat Garrity and a future first(Shawn Marion) for Steve Nash.

Don Nelson was the general manager for those deals and rightfully deserves praise for making the moves. No matter how much input he received from his son, the praise or the blame for a decision ultimately falls on the person who is responsible for the final seal of approval. However, those deals showed Donnie’s eye for talent and his ability to orchestrate deals.

This trade also highlighted potentially Nelson’s greatest flaw, the willingness to deal draft picks. While this night is unquestionably one of the greatest nights any general manager has had in league history, some future trades involving draft capital would not go as well.

In the 1999 draft, the Mavericks did not have a first round pick and spent their second round pick on Wang Zhizhi. Zhizhi did not appear in a game for the Mavericks until playing in 5 games at the very end of the 2000-2001 season. Zhizhi then played in 55 games for the 2001-2002 Mavericks averaging 5.6 points and 2.0 rebounds while shooting 41.4% from behind the arc, giving the Mavericks two sweet shooting 7 footers.

That was the last Zhizhi played for the Mavericks as he had a falling out with the Chinese government following his decision to remain in the United States following the season. Zhizhi then signed with the Clippers and went on to play 3 more uneventful seasons split between the Clippers and the Miami Heat. Zhizhi was not the final oversized curiosity the Mavericks would import attempting to recreate the magic of Nowitzki. One second round pick is not all that important in the grand scheme of a 24 year career, but this selection highlighted a tendency to attempt to outsmart everyone and a fascination with curiosities.

What followed is most likely the draft that led Nelson to undervalue the draft so much for the remainder of his tenure. The 1999-2000 Mavericks were 40 and 42 with the 7th rated offense in the league. 26 year old iron man Michael Finley appeared in all 82 games and played a staggering 42.2 minutes per game. 21 year old Nowitzki had his first successful season averaging 17.5 points per game while playing as a 7-foot small forward. Steve Nash showed the first flashes of the ultra efficient point guard he would become with 47.7% shooting, 40.3% three-point shooting and 88.2% free throw shooting.

The Mavericks had the 12th pick in the first round and chose Etan Thomas, a bruising power forward from Syracuse, whom they believed would protect Dirk. The Mavericks then traded for the next pick and selected Courtney Alexander, a polished 6-5 scorer who they believed could compliment Finley on the wing. They then traded for yet another first round pick and selected Donnell Harvey. Harvey was an ultra athletic power forward who had only played 1 season with Florida. He was projected to be an elite rebounder. The Mavericks also swung another trade for the 38th pick which they used to select future fan favorite Eduardo Najera.

The team burned all of this draft capital and got essentially no production. Over the remaining 21 years that Nelson was involved with the Mavericks, they made a total of 5 draft picks who had meaningful NBA careers. Josh Howard was selected with the 29th and final pick of the first round in the incredible 2003 draft. Devin Harris was selected with the 5th pick in the 2004 draft. Jae Crowder, selected with the 4th pick of the second round of the 2012 draft, was the last pick with a meaningful career before Luka Doncic and Jalen Brunson were selected in the 2018 draft.

What Nelson lacked in draft success he attempted to make up for in trades and free agent reclamation projects. Nelson both traded for and traded away Juwan Howard’s “untradeable” contract. He acquired future MVPs Nowitzki and Nash in trades previously discussed. He traded for Raef Lafrentz, Nick Van Exel, Antoine Walker, Antawn Jamison, Jason Terry, Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kristaps Porzingis. He executed the draft day deal for Luka Doncic which sets his eventual successor up extremely well.

He orchestrated free agent contracts to varying degrees of success for Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Harrison Barnes, and Wesley Matthews. He showed an uncanny ability to both deal for and deal away large contracts.

His two most important offseasons may have been the last two. And despite some impassioned defenses, those offseasons have been failures. While passing on each individual move might have been understandable, the failure to meaningfully upgrade the roster is unacceptable.

The winner’s curse is real. It will always be possible to argue that free agents who sign for between the minimum and the maximum are overpaid. But that is the cost of doing business. You cannot eschew the draft and refuse to over pay for mid level free agents unless you are a max free agent destination. No matter how much the Mavericks wish to be, they are not a max destination. They will have to overpay.

What then is Nelson’s legacy? He was instrumental in bringing in two generational players, each the best player in their respective drafts, without ever having the first overall pick. He was also a large part of never surrounding Dirk with the proper supporting cast until 2011. And then promptly tearing apart that proper supporting cast in the hope of something better. He hired Rick Carlisle. He brought in Luka, but he also might have set the team on a path to eventually lose Luka.

Nelson did a great job at the hardest part of the general manager job in finding superstars. He did a great job at the easiest part of the general manager job in finding role players that coach Rick Carlisle could maximize. He never quite mastered the intermediate job of finding complimentary stars that were better than role players but not superstars themselves.

While he is arguably the 4th or 5th most important person to the Mavericks franchise over the last 24 years, that fact also serves as an indictment of himself. If he had done a better job acquiring players, he would likely be lower on the list of most important Mavericks. No matter his mistakes, he gave us Dirk, and he gave us Luka. For that, all Mavericks fans should forever be grateful to Donnie Nelson.

Here’s our episode of the Mavs Moneyball Podcast discussing the Dallas Mavericks moving on from Donnie Nelson. Here’s the episode about Rick Carlisle moving on. Search Mavs Moneyball Podcast on your favorite app to find the episode, click the link, or press play in the player below. There’s also this live Green Room episode talking Carlisle as well.