After Dirk’s final home game in April of 2019, Rick Carlisle said something at the time that made my ears perk. He was talking about what happens when a legendary player exits a franchise for good.
“It will never be the same, it just won’t,” Carlisle said. “I know that from experience. When Reggie Miller left Indiana, we had two down years immediately afterward and we had some talented guys. When you remove a guy like this and it’s going to change the landscape.”
While the Mavericks didn’t have two down years in the traditional sense — Dallas had back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 2015 and 2016 — the true meaning of Carlisle’s statement has come to pass this week.
Rick Carlisle is gone. He announced he was leaving the team Thursday afternoon. This was a little over 24 hours after Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks long time general manager, also left the team. For the Mavericks, that’s two pillars of their leadership group gone.
This comes after a revealing story from The Athletic that unveiled the cracks in the Mavericks front office foundation. This also comes after 10 straight seasons of zero playoff success and more recently, two seasons of total roster stagnation.
Now it’s time for Mark Cuban to do something he’s never had to do before — he has to rebuild the Mavericks stability, without Dirk Nowitzki or any other tethers that existed before he bought the team.
When Mark Cuban purchased the Dallas Mavericks back in 2000, Don Nelson, Donnie Nelson and a burgeoning Dirk Nowitzki were all part of the organization. He did not draft Nowitzki nor did he hire either of the Nelsons. Despite that, Cuban took more of a role in running the team than most owners. Up until 2011, that worked well enough — Cuban spent a lot, Donnie rotated parts in for Dirk and Carlisle was the perfect blend of Dirk’s past coaches to get the group they assembled over the finish line.
Things abruptly changed after that title. The new collective bargaining agreement made out-spending other teams a dicey proposition (at least as far as the Mavericks insisted to the fanbase) and since that year, the Mavericks and Cuban haven’t once paid the luxury tax — the penalty for teams that have their payroll reach a certain threshold. The Mavericks strategy was plain to see these past 10 seasons — spend big on a max contract free agent if he’ll come and if not, outsmart teams on the margins with low-cost, potentially high-reward players. So that meant Deron Williams turned into Daren Collison and O.J. Mayo. Dwight Howard turned into Samuel Dalembert, Brandan Wright, Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis. Kemba Walker turned into Delon Wright. The Mavericks never truly bottomed out despite this, because Carlisle was good at spinning straw into gold and Dirk was still Dirk. This happened with Haralabos Voulgaris and without.
If you take a glass-half-full approach, this is why the news this week could be a cause for celebration, or at least some slight hope. Gone are Carlisle and Nelson, one the cantankerous coach who never played rookies and rubbed players the wrong way. Gone is Nelson, the basketball mind with a good eye for talent but seemingly not ready to handle the new era of player empowerment. If you pull back and look at the Mavericks situation from a distance, things aren’t truly that strange. Any other organization that stacked up as many playoff failures as the Mavericks have in the last 10 years, the coach and GM would certainly be shown the door. The actual weird part is that it’s lasted 10 years — most teams aren’t patient.
Just look at two of the teams currently in the conference finals: Atlanta and Phoenix. Those are two of the three teams that passed on drafting Doncic and they are already miles ahead of the Mavericks. Even if they’re not perfect comparisons, with the Suns and Hawks piling up additional lottery picks before making their big pick in 2018, that is motivation enough to hit the reset button and shake things up. Danilo Gallinari, a free agent in 2020, stripped Joel Embiid of the basketball in the final seconds of Game 7, finishing the play with a dagger dunk. It must be nice to have a veteran free agent acquisition make plays on the road in a crucial Game 7 to support your star player.
There’s just one problem with cleaning house — the guy that has been here for all of it is still here. Cuban cannot be fired and the power he wields over the organization hasn’t changed this week.
So this all falls on Cuban. He’s going to have to do something he’s never done before. When he’s made changes in the past, he had the rock of Nowitzki to back him up. Luka Doncic is not Dirk Nowitzki. I would say Cuban cannot hide behind the loyalty of an all-time talent to get him out of this jam, but he’s actually bringing Dirk back as an advisor. This could be a great move in the sense of Dirk might be the one person to call out Cuban on his bull, but also just Cuban once again shielding himself in the public behind the greatest athlete in Dallas sports history.
The Mavericks slate is clean and where they go from here will depend entirely on Cuban’s ability to self-reflect on his role with the team. Can he let go of the reigns a bit, hire smart basketball people and let them go to work? Good things can happen. Is he going to stay how he is, hire a GM and then undermine him? The cycle continues. It doesn’t matter if Carlisle and Nelson were still here, Cuban is still Cuban. For the first time since he’s bought the team, he’s going to have to prove how much of an asset he can truly be.
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.