Now is the time of year when fake trades and rumors run amuck on the internet. Fans swap imaginary deals back and forth on Twitter, message boards, Facebook, and anywhere else they can start a dialogue. It’s possible that superstars like Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal might be on the move, and nothing makes fans more excited than league-shifting trades.
Dallas Mavericks fans, unfortunately, are finding that they don’t have many assets to work with when tossing around these fake trades. You can be sure the actual Mavericks front office is well aware of the same problem.
The Mavericks spent the 2000s trying every combination possible around Dirk Nowitzki. They shuffled their roster over and over again trying to find the right supporting cast for their franchise superstar. It didn’t matter if it was through free agency or trade, the Mavericks stopped at nothing to create the lineup that could win a championship. They even changed coaches twice.
In 2002-03, the Mavericks won 60 games and lost in six games to the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. Did they run it back the next season, hoping that added playoff experience and a few breaks would end up in a championship? Nope. They swapped out rotation players Raef LaFrenz and Nick Van Exel for Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker for the 2003-04 season. They lost in the first round of the playoffs.
In 2004-05, Walker and Jamison were shipped out, replaced by Jason Terry and Jerry Stackhouse. Steve Nash was allowed to walk. Coach Don Nelson was eventually replaced by Avery Johnson to close the season. The Mavericks lost in the second round, to Nash’s Suns.
And on it went, until the Mavericks finally assembled the right formula in 2011 and climbed the mountain top of the NBA. Jason Kidd was acquired in a trade headlined by Devin Harris, who the Mavericks picked up in a trade with Washington. Shawn Marion came to Dallas as part of a complex four-team trade.
At one point the Mavericks were willing to try anything to build the type of roster that could win a championship, no matter the cost in assets or actual dollars. Once they won the Finals in 2011, however, that all stopped.
Instead of being aggressive in team building, the Mavericks decided on one strategy. They would wait for franchise changing superstars only. We all know the phrase “keep the powder dry” too well. If they couldn’t sign a superstar in free agency or trade for a franchise player, they were content to nibble at the edge of the market. When they inevitably struck out on the “big fish” on the market, like Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, or Deron Williams, quality mid-tier players had already signed with other teams.
That left them with only reclamation projects or aging veterans. Monta Ellis and Vince Carter were success stories in Dallas, but not players who could be traded when another team’s superstar decided they wanted out of their current situation. The Mavericks spent a decade unconcerned with acquiring the type of assets that would make them contenders for a superstar when such a situation happened, like extra draft picks or young players with potential.
Whenever the Mavericks did have those type of assets under their control, they usually sent them out in trades that were meant to net a player that would put them over the top. Trades for Rajon Rondo, Nerlens Noel, and Kristaps Porzingis all made sense, but didn’t work out. Even drafting Doncic cost them a first round pick, further thinning their limited ammunition.
Now, after a decade of the Mavericks trying to only hit big on free agent lottery tickets and ignoring the draft, the new front office helmed by Nico Harrison is limited in their options. He and vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley will have to be creative in solving problems left over from the previous ten years’ of team building mistakes.
In Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, the assassin Anton Chigurh has cornered a rival hitman, and just before he kills him, asks, “If the rule you followed led you to this of what use was the rule?”
The Mavericks rule of only chasing superstars since the 2011 championship has resulted in a decade of futility. Now, with a young franchise cornerstone and a brand new front office and coaching staff, they have a chance to change their ways. They can build their team deliberately, and with patience, creating an environment a discontent superstar will be drawn toward.
Going forward, the Mavericks need to treat the draft like the important team building tool it is. They should pay quality free agents market price instead of hoarding cap space and hoping a superstar will choose a hollowed out team just because Luka Doncic is on the roster as well. By focusing on quality moves up and down the roster, the Mavericks can replicate the success they enjoyed in the 2000s. The plan they followed in the 2010s, after all, proved to be useless. The next week will show us all if they have pivoted to a new direction, or decide on pursuing the same futile plan for another decade.