Fans of the Dallas Mavericks have held the line for as long as humanly possible. We’ve tried blaming everything from the new basketball to the sample size and everything in between. It’s time we say the quiet part out loud- this team is simply not good enough, though they are good. Regression to the mean isn’t the answer. Knocking down more “open” shots isn’t the answer. The roster lacks depth of talent.
Fans are desperate to escape the existential funk that comes with being a Mavs fan at times. In order for that to happen, we need hope. Hope that this new regime is capable of doing what the previous front office was able to do for more than a decade. Hope that a meddlesome owner will suddenly become self-aware and allow his basketball people to do basketball things. The path forward isn’t an easy one. General manager Nico Harrison and company will need to be creative, display a true understanding of the collective bargaining agreement, and be willing to take risks. Complacency and/or a fear of taking a temporary step back will be this organization’s undoing. Let’s take a clear-eyed look at where we are and where we can go from here.
Opposing teams aren’t fighting each other for the right to trade for anyone outside of Luka Doncic. The Mavericks do not have an abundance of draft picks to look forward to. Worse, they are among the absolute worst teams in the NBA at drafting over the last two decades.
This leaves the team with limited options going forward. The best of these options is a year and a half of competitive basketball and treading water before a hard reset heading into 2023-2024.
The team doesn’t have a young player capable of taking THE LEAP. Luka Doncic is already a superstar and despite his age, he is unlikely to take another leap forward until he takes his conditioning seriously. It’s time for Luka Doncic to become a professional.
Some will undoubtedly begin screaming “but Jalen Brunson!” when they read this, but Brunson is unlikely to ever become a super tar. Kristaps Porzingis is 26 and in his seventh year in the NBA. Projecting a ton of improvement for anyone in those circumstances is wishful thinking.
Looking at the Maverick’s future payroll below, they are projected to be around $136.9 million. With the luxury threshold expected to be $140 million, extensions for Jalen Brunson or Dorian Finney-Smith would push the Mavericks well into the tax. Contrary to popular belief, Cuban isn’t opposed to going into the tax. He simply hasn’t had the opportunity due to the front office’s ineptitude (Editor’s note: what if I told you they were one and the same). It’s nearly impossible to go from a team with cap space, to a team in the tax in a single offseason unless you are resigning players with low cap holds to massive extensions.
Outside of Doncic, Brunson is the first player drafted by the Mavericks to earn a big-money extension in quite a while. That being said, there’s zero chance Mark Cuban lets either player walk simply to avoid the tax. The consequences for the team, are more severe than Cuban losing a few (million) dollars. Paying the tax would complicate trades in future years. Were the Mavs to hard-cap themselves, it would limit their ability to upgrade the roster in-season. That’s not a problem the team faces now but it is certainly something worth monitoring as they move forward.
Step One: Trade Dorian Finney-Smith and Jalen Brunson
Because both players are up for a contract extension this offseason, the time to move them is now. As mentioned here, their low cap holds make bringing back a high-salary player complicated. Both Finney-Smith and Brunson will be overpaid in a worst-case scenario and properly paid in a best-case scenario. The pay them now and trade them later mantra is a myth. Pending free agents are like used cars, they lose value the second you drive them off the lot. Regardless of your opinion on them, trading them now maximizes their value. A contender can trade for both or either without taking on huge financial commitments going forward.
Step Two: Trade Dwight Powell and a 2nd rounder to Houston for Eric Gordon
The last year of Gordon’s deal is only guaranteed if his team wins the championship, meaning the Mavericks would likely only have to pay him this year and next. He’s a decent to average defender when engaged and can provide some much-needed ball-handling and shot creation. He can also shoot with the new basketball as he is shooting a near career-high 44.4 percent on 5.3 three-point attempts per game.
Step Three:- Hope the Raptors buy out Goran Dragic
The Mavericks should send Masai Ujiri a basket of edible arrangements and hope that gets the job done. The Raptors have no real reason to buy him out. Doing so would mostly be a favor to Dragic. Dragic to Dallas has been the worst kept secret since the offseason and it’s unlikely a team talks themselves into Dragic as the missing piece for a playoff run.
Step Four: Trade Tim Hardaway Jr. for a contract that runs a year shorter
We know what Hardaway Jr. is at this point. He’s a streaky shooter incapable of playmaking for others. He is also a traffic cone on defense. I argued we would have been better off letting him walk and here we are. Hardaway Jr. makes sense on some contending teams but he isn’t the type of player that dramatically raises your ceiling.
He’s a role player that can provide outside shooting on certain nights but needs to be protected on the other side of the floor. Buddy Hield makes sense as a starting point for negotiations in a Hardaway Jr trade. They offer similar theoretical skillsets with both teams being in a position where the grass likely appears greener on the other side.
Step Five: Use the TPE to land a short-term asset.
Every year there are teams that are close to or above the luxury tax line who are looking to offload toxic salary. Use the traded player exception to find a rotation player, or take on a negative asset in return for some marginal draft capital. No player acquired through the Traded Player Exception is likely to dramatically move the needle. But every little bit of asset building helps. Even a second-round pick can be useful. The Mavericks could also use that player’s salary in a secondary move. One of the primary impediments to the Mavericks making trades right now is that they don’t have many tradeable contracts outside of Dwight Powell.
Step Six: Trade Maxi Kleber
Kleber’s best role is playing 20 minutes a night for a contending team. He can fill a role similar to the one Bobby Portis did for Milwaukee last year. He likely won’t net a first-round pick due to the lack of draft capital for true contenders. But the Mavericks cupboard is so bare anything they can get for him should be considered a win.
Step Seven: Trade Kristaps Porzingis by next year’s trade deadline
Porzingis will not be traded for value this year. There are simply too many years left on the contract at too high a price for a player with such a daunting injury history. If he can finish this season strong, there should be a team that can talk itself into taking on the last two years of his deal. They would be banking on productive play in 2022-2023 knowing that in the second year, he would be a huge expiring contract.
Trading Porzingis for a contract that runs a year or two shorter would leave the Mavericks with Luka Doncic, draft capital, and enough money for two max players in a couple of seasons. Our very own Josh Bowe believes the Mavs should consider tanking for a top 5 pick this season (Editor’s note: Josh had this take after the Mavericks lost to the Pacers which dropped the Mavs to two games below .500 and Luka was announced to miss time with his ankle injury. He does not feel this way anymore, he promises!). That would be predicated on Luka missing a large portion of the rest of the season. Every game Luka plays makes it harder to race towards the bottom this season. The names listed above aren’t sexy. They won't dramatically raise this team’s ceiling and vault us into the conversation as contenders.
What they are, collectively, is a stop-gap. They allow the Mavericks to keep the talent level relatively the same while giving them long-term flexibility. In the NBA, the worst place to be is in the middle. That is exactly where we are. Mark Cuban will never sign off on a true rebuild. He believes this team is capable of winning big, now. He’s not far off but it won't be with the current collection of players. The time to make the difficult decisions is now. Locking this team into long-term contracts will only compound the problem. Despite what you might see or hear elsewhere, the Mavericks have no chance at landing a franchise-altering player with their current assets. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can brace ourselves for what needs to happen next. More importantly, it's time Mark Cuban accepts this.