After losing to the Clippers in an unceremonious fashion, most fans tend to agree about one thing: this Mavericks team was simply not good enough. Some fans have directed their misguided ire at coach Rick Carlisle. Today, we will take a look at the job Donnie Nelson and the rest of the Mavericks’ front office have done since drafting Luka Doncic.
Mavericks fans suffered as Dallas tried — and failed — to surround Dirk Nowitzki with a championship-level roster for many years. Mark Cuban believed the team that won the 2011 NBA Championship was not good enough to sustain that level of excellence and chose to retool instead of re-signing the team’s aging core. They spent the following years attempting to lure players like Deron Williams and Dwight Howard to play alongside Dirk. Unfortunately for Dirk and the Mavericks, they were unsuccessful. Dirk was at the tail end of his prime and players simply did not feel comfortable signing long-term deals to play for a team that was a year or two away from seeing its championship window close.
The mere utterance of some of those names targeted by the Mavericks in free agency is sure to elicit an audible groan or look of disgust by fans. I can hardly blame them. Dirk deserved the opportunity to play for a second ring. We, as fans, deserved to see our superstar play meaningful basketball late in his career. Now, as Luka Doncic ascended into superstar territory, the front office is back under scrutiny.
Let’s take a quick look at the minutes per game leaders for the 2020-2021 Dallas Mavericks.
Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber were undrafted free agents. Kristaps Porzingis, Josh Richardson and Tim Hardaway Jr. were acquired via trade. Jalen Brunson was drafted in the second round.
Three of Dallas’ top seven rotation players were undrafted free agents or taken in the 2nd round of the draft. That is impressive no matter how you slice it. Hardaway Jr. was a throw-in in the Porzingis deal. At the time, his deal was seen as an albatross. Coaching and player development helped turn Hardaway into a viable player, and one that will be coveted during this year’s free agency period. The Richardson trade has been a disaster in hindsight but was lauded as a move that could help Dallas take the next step as a championship contender when it happened.
It’s clear Seth Curry had a better season than Richardson, but Curry wasn’t the missing piece to a championship. This team lacks rim protection, physical wing defense, and secondary playmaking. Curry isn’t particularly well suited to help in any of those areas. We can lament the fact we gave up the best player in the deal but the impact of doing so may not be as disastrous as one would think.
That leaves us with Porzingis. His acquisition and time on the team is a polarizing issue deserving of its own column. In all, this front office has done a good job of identifying and developing players on the margin. What this team lacks is top-end talent. Role players win in the regular season. Stars win in the playoffs. The Mavericks failed at pairing Doncic with a second star (or Porzingis hasn’t worked out yet as intended). Was it incompetence or lack of self-awareness? Let’s take a look back and find out.
The only big free agents realistically available were Kemba Walker, Al Horford, and Harrison Barnes. Malcolm Brogdon is arguably the best fit for this Mavericks team but he was a restricted free agent and required draft compensation for the Pacers not to match his offer sheet. Having traded for Porzingis, Dallas was unable to match that offer. Bojan Bogdanovic is a good complimentary player, but he doesn’t take this team to the next level. It was not worth sacrificing cap space the next two years in order to sign him. We’ve been there and done that with Harrison Barnes.
Julius Randle was an inefficient high-volume scorer that needed the ball in his hands. Randle is a floor raiser but this year’s playoffs proved he is not a ceiling raiser. Richaun Holmes is now a popular name amongst Mavericks fans. No one was clamoring for Holmes in the summer of 2019. He isn’t the missing piece but I understand what fans love about his game.
The interesting name is Danny Green. He was exactly what the Mavericks needed. A 3-and-D wing that was coming off a season where he shot close to 50 percent from deep. If the Mavericks lowballed him, that was an unequivocal mistake. If money wasn’t the deciding factor, it’s tough to knock him for choosing to play alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Dallas was undoubtedly in the mix for Walker, but it was a blessing in disguise that he chose Boston. His injury history and lack of defense would have made his contract a tough pill to swallow. Horford could have helped, but his time in Philly taught us he is best suited to play the 5. The team needed to see Porzingis take the court before committing long-term money to another big man. There was no missing piece that the Mavericks missed out on. There were solid rotational players available. The Mavericks missed a chance to improve, but the Mavericks didn’t drop the ball on failing to acquire a second star to pair with Doncic.
The current free-agent class is awful now, but it wasn’t always. Committing long-term money to any combination of players meant foregoing cap space in 2021. Trades and extensions weakened this year’s crop. None of that information was available heading into the 2020 free agency period. The names that stick out are Bogdan Bogdanovic, Marcus Morris, Jerami Grant, Christian Wood, and Goran Dragic.
Dragic should have already been acquired. There was a rumored trade that would have sent Dragic and Kelly Olynyk to Dallas which the Mavericks ultimately nixed. Both players would have helped the Mavericks. In 2020, the Heat were never going to let Dragic leave. They needed inflated contracts to salary match any potential trades and could go over the cap to give him a one-year balloon deal payment.
Jerami Grant left a loaded Denver team because he wanted the opportunity to be a team’s go-to scorer. That was never happening on the Mavericks. Marcus Morris had the clippers in what Danny Leroux has described as the bird rights trap. He was never leaving Los Angeles.
Bogdan Bodganovic is an interesting name but he was a restricted free agent. I am still unable to wrap my head around the fact the Kings simply let him walk. No one could have anticipated that and tying up your cap space for three days is a tough pill to swallow. Like Danny Green the year prior, I had my heart set on Christian Wood. His desired average annual salary was a mystery to everyone. Some anticipated he might sign for a contract in the neighborhood of 17-20 million a year. He ultimately signed for a team-friendly contract which might have been the steal of the offseason. While he would have provided some insurance and even played some minutes alongside him, I understand not wanting to allocate significant resources to another big man.
Unfortunately for the Mavericks, they made their bed with Porzingis. With the draft, Josh Green continues to be a puzzling selection. He’s a theoretical 3-and-D wing that isn’t good at the 3 or the D. His best skill is his energy level. Desmond Bane would have been a welcome addition to this year’s Mavericks. Unless Green can take a jump as a player next season, they may regret that pick for a long time.
How you evaluate the team’s front office depends on how you view success. Teams like the Indiana Pacers are happy to simply make the playoffs each year. They understand their teams will never win a championship and are happy to tinker around the edges. They view two home playoff games as a huge success each year.
Then there is the Miami Heat. Due to his age and desire to win, Pat Riley has never been happy to simply make the playoffs. He is in the business of whale hunting. The one season he resigned a mediocre core, he ended up doling out long-term contracts to Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Kelly Olynk, and Hassan Whiteside. He ended up having to pull off a series of mini-miracles to correct the damage that had been done in a single offseason. He quickly learned his lesson and realized that sometimes the best move is the one you don’t make.
The Heat find themselves in a similar situation to the Mavericks. They’ve had their sights set on the 2021 offseason for the past two years. They are as disappointed in how this year played out as the Mavericks are. They, too, preferred short-term deals over committing long-term money to any one player. The reality is that there wasn’t a single player available to the Mavericks that would have altered the trajectory of this team. If what you’re chasing is rings, hitting singles and doubles simply isn’t good enough.
The worst place to be in the NBA is in the middle. For evidence, look no further than the Portland Trail Blazers. Their front office has made moves for the sake of making moves for the past few years. Ask Blazers fans how they feel about their team right now. Ask Damian Lillard if he cares about the fact the Blazers gave up two first-round picks for Robert Covington. The fact is that none of the moves the Blazers made has catapulted them into contender status. As a result, they may end up losing their star.
I have never met Luka Doncic but I can tell you one thing: he will never be content with simply winning a first-round series each year. He wants to win at the highest level and doing so may require patience from all parties until the right opportunity presents itself. For the Mavericks, they’d better hope that time is now.