If you rank the ten best players in the NBA, you likely end up with some combination of Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard. This article by John Hollinger paints a pretty damning picture for 7 of those players’ teams.
The only players on that list whose teams aren’t listed in Hollinger’s article are Luka, Jokic and Embiid. Embiid might end up as one of the albatross contracts on that list himself depending on his health status. he’s a fantastic player, arguably the best two way player in the world when everything is right, but his health issues would give Kristaps Porzingis pause.
He has never missed fewer than 18 games in an NBA season and has often missed more. Embiid has only appeared in 41.5 percent of 76er regular season games since he was drafted. Even if you subtract the first two seasons that he missed entirely, Embiid has only played in 56.2 percent of his team’s games. Expecting a player his size with his injury history to get healthier as he gets older is a losing proposition.
That leaves Luka and Jokic as the only current top ten players who do not have potentially dire futures in front of them. The Nuggets are positioned to be very good for a long time. There will always be competition no matter how well things work out in free agency or the draft. But one of the Mavericks biggest problems should take care of itself based on the situations these other teams have put themselves in.
The Mavericks are the quintessential “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” free agency team. Players routinely pick more glamourous teams or locations like Miami, Los Angeles, Brooklyn or Chicago over Dallas. When those options are removed, perhaps Dallas will finally be able to get a star to sign here. All of those teams are tapped on both cap and draft resources.
Chicago is listed as one of the winners of the off-season and I suspect most Mavericks fans would be thrilled if the Mavericks had acquired the players Chicago has in the last six months. But Chicago isn’t a title contender and they are out of moves to make.
Dallas will be capped out soon with the Luka Doncic max extension kicking in, but the path to cap space becomes clearer much sooner than we might think. Kristaps Porzingis seems like an albatross now, but he only has one more year fully guaranteed after this one. He has a player option for 2023-2024. If he is as miserable as many believe, it is extremely possible that he opts out and goes elsewhere. That may seem impossible now but remember that he may prefer more long term security in addition to getting out of a situation that he is unhappy in. Even if he opts in, the only players the Mavericks have under contract in the 2024/2025 season that Hollinger’s article mentions are Luka and Tim Hardaway Jr.
The Mavericks can pair draft pick flexibility with that financial flexibility. The Mavericks still owe the Knicks their 2023 draft pick as part of the Porzingis trade. They also owe a second round pick in the 2023 draft in a series of complicated transactions. But they still own all of their firsts after 2023. They also do not owe any pick swaps.
The thought that the Mavericks should do “something” is very prevalent and frustrating. The most impactful move made last off-season wasn’t a star signing. It was the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks trading picks and contracts for Jrue Holiday. The Mavericks were unable to be involved in that bidding because of the last time they did “something” which was the Porzingis trade.
The inclination to be frustrated with the Mavericks inability to add a star through free agency for the last three seasons (or 10 seasons) is understandable. But with so many teams all in and the lack of great options this season, the Mavericks may actually be better off striking out. Strikeouts are never pretty but they are better than grounding into a double play in almost any scenario. This offseason, the primary target was apparently Kyle Lowry.
If the Mavericks had to deal assets and sign him to an $85 million deal, it is entirely possible that in a year or two the team is glad it struck out. Previous “plan powder” targets Deron Williams and Dwight Howard ended up being deals the team is happy it missed on. Lowry likely would be the same.
Luka is 22 years old. He is already great enough that a title should be the goal. But that goal may not be realistic right now no matter what the team does. Nothing the Mavericks did this offseason was going to make them a title favorite. Making smart moves on the periphery before an explosive 2024 offseason might make them the favorite then. Three seasons feels like an eternity and in NBA terms it is. Think back to the 2018-19 season. Lamarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin and Victor Oladipo were all stars.
The Cavaliers during Lebron’s first tenure are a perfect example of what not to do. They kept making short term moves to appease Lebron that actually led to Lebron’s eventual exit. In 3 years, Luka will be 25 years old. He may very well not have a title yet. He also will likely be in a better position to bring a second title to Dallas in the near future than if the Mavericks had foolishly mortgaged the future in deals for players who are not real difference makers. Everyone else can go all in now. The Mavericks can and should go all in later.