As fans of Disney’s What If series can see, reality often hinges on a few decisions. During the 2013 draft, the Dallas Mavericks faced one of these reality altering decisions. They made the wrong choice. What if they had made the right one?
The Mavericks are coming off of a 41-win season and missed the playoffs for the first time since Dirk Nowitzki’s second season. Dirk is still an offensive weapon but the team has becoming staggeringly reliant on bench units featuring 36-year-old Vince Carter and Brandan Wright. Going into the offseason, the team must decide what to do as they transition to their golden years.
The team has essentially max cap space heading into the draft though it could trade down and secure actual max cap space. Owner Mark Cuban, general manager Donnie Nelson and coach Rick Carlisle discuss the idea but come to the determination that if a free agent truly wishes to sign and the extra $500,000 matters, they will be able to unload a lottery pick without having to take anything back.
The team considers several players who remind them of franchise legend Nowitzki. Kelly Olynyk has been compared to Dirk as a big man with varied skills but his singular year of success in college concerns the team, as does his career 33.3 percent three point shooting on less than 1 attempt per game in college. Dennis Schroeder evokes memories of Dirk as any prospect from Germany will continue to do, despite no similarities as a player.
The player who most reminds the team of Dirk is a young foreign big man named Giannis Antetokounmpo. He is nothing like Dirk as a player, but he is an oversized import with staggering talent. Giannis is a 6’10, 205 pound small forward with intriguing skills and athleticism. He has a 7’3 wingspan, which promises immense defensive potential.
The Mavericks long term rival, the San Antonio Spurs, have extended Tim Duncan’s success by drafting a young athletic small forward to compliment him. Kawhi Leonard was drafted with questions regarding his shooting but he has developed into an integral player for the team and a potential foil for Lebron James and Kevin Durant.
The Mavericks decide that they should follow the Spurs lead and draft Antetokounmpo. They hope that such a young player will have remaining physical development as well as skill development over the next few years and extend Dirk’s contention window while providing a foundation for success when the icon eventually retires.
Immediately upon the beginning of free agency the team secures a commitment from Andre Iguodala. Iguodala is not the biggest prize of the free agency class but he is the biggest prize the Mavericks have ever secured. The brain trust decides that while they would prefer Dwight Howard, they cannot risk coming away empty handed.
The team makes the decision that it is important to build an athletic roster around Dirk to mask his shortcomings as he ages. Shawn Marion, Antetokounmpo and Iguodala provide the team with an incredibly long and athletic defensive group. Youngster Jae Crowder and elder statesman Vince Carter can also hold their own defensively while knocking down some shots.
The Mavericks use their remaining cap space to sign Jose Calderon to run the offense and space the floor. They pair this with signing Samuel Dalembert to man the middle. The team begins the season with a starting lineup of Calderon, Iguodala, Marion, Dirk and Dalembert.
The combined basketball IQ of the starting lineup except for Dalembert leads to a successful season as the team is 49-33. Despite the success, Carlisle makes the rare decision to trust Antetokounmpo and decides to play him as the starting center for the playoffs because of his athleticism and rare skills. Carlisle is famous for how difficult he is to work with for youngsters but he sees something special in the youngster.
Carlisle starts Antetokounmpo to matchup with the Spurs and their “beautiful machine” offense. Carlisle knows that a team starting Dirk and Calderon cannot hope to chase this offense through all the screens and off ball movement. So he decides to switch literally everything. With Duncan aging, there is not player on the spurs who can punish the Mavericks guards in the post on switches. Tony Parker could punish Dirk on switches but with the length and athleticism of Antetokounmpo, Marion and Iguodala around him the Mavericks do not simply let that happen.
The team switches everything and despite the national media continually expecting the Spurs to adjust, they never do. The Mavericks win the series in six games and Tim Duncan unexpectedly retires after realizing that he cannot keep up with the young athletes the league is currently employing.
The Mavericks lose in the second round to the Portland Trail Blazers when LaMarcus Aldridge punishes the Mavericks guards for switching with multiple “Dirk” jumpers. Carlisle adjusts and decides to allow Antetokounmpo to attempt to guard Aldridge for the final three games of the series rather than switching and the rookie is incredibly effective. Unfortunately Damian Lillard gets hot and the team loses with nowhere to hide Calderon defensively. The Trail Blazers go on to the NBA Finals where they lose to the Miami Heat.
The 2014 offseason is shocking when Lebron James abandons the three time defending champion Miami Heat to return to Cleveland. The Mavericks are shocked because they end up signing another free agent. Chandler Parsons agrees to sign with the Mavericks who have traded Calderon. The Mavericks do not have a full fledged point guard in this lineup but they are relying on playmaking by committee.
The Golden State Warriors become the most fun league pass team in the league but not a serious threat as Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are able to get white hot. Warriors fans speculate the team would likely be something special if they had a defender and high IQ playmaker like Iguodala.
The Mavericks become the team no one wants to play in the playoffs. A front court of Dirk, Antetokounmpo and Parsons has no obvious counters. Dirk and Parsons knock down jumpers in an inverted offense and all can pass too well to double. The only weakness in the starting lineup is Devin Harris who the team starts out of a lack of options at point guard. Overall the team is a defensive juggernaut that loses in the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers as they cannot stop Lebron.
Lebron James has begun to be universally hailed as the best player in the history of basketball. The Mavericks have an extremely interesting front court but need a point guard to finish out the roster and set up a chance to get a rematch with James and the Cavaliers.
Franchise icon, Dirk, is finally starting to age but enjoying the attention his younger teammates receive, he is still an absolutely lethal shooter. Parsons has become a special glue guy who can do a little bit of everything in a 6’10 frame. Iguodala is perhaps the best perimeter defender in the world. Antetokounmpo has grown and is evoking memories of a young Shaquille O'Neal with Kevin Garnett’s mobility.
The team has made the difficult decision to move Dirk to the bench in order to adjust to the more free flowing league. The Mavericks are in a fantastic position going into the 2015 offseason though they need help in the backcourt. The team has every option open to them going forward to build around the long, versatile frontcourt the team has assembled.
The team is in a fantastic place, having transitioned from one game changing superstar to another but now they need to adjust to the differences in their games. That is the challenge facing the team going into the 2015 offseason. Hope springs eternal and a young player as talented as Giannis is the personification of hope in basketball.