There reached a certain point in Dirk Nowitzki’s career where Dallas Mavericks fans started feeling nervous. Sometime around 2008—after the crushing disappointment of the 2006 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, and the catastrophe of the 2007 first round exit against the Golden State Warriors.
There were two fears. The first, that Nowitzki would remain with the Mavericks his whole career, but not win a championship. History would forget his greatness simply because of bad matchups and bad luck. He would fall into that NBA abyss of players who were considered great, “but.”
The second fear was that Nowitzki would leave Dallas and chase his championship dreams somewhere else. Even worse, he would achieve those dreams, but wearing the purple and gold of the Los Angeles Lakers. Or perhaps he’d win a ring a few hours south with the San Antonio Spurs, like his former teammate Michael Finley.
Both possible outcomes were unthinkable. Both meant losing Nowitzki, in a sense. That’s why the 2011 championship was as much a relief as it was a joy.
2008 was Nowitzki’s eleventh season in the NBA. The fact that it took that long for fans to worry about his place in league history or fret about his departure shows you how much has changed since then.
Luka Doncic is in his fifth season, but now the same mood is descending. Superstars don’t wait around for a decade to see success anymore. Doncic is in the first year of a four-year extension. He’ll be a unrestricted free agent if he reaches the end of that contract without signing another extension. Ostensibly, that means the Mavericks have four years to prove Dallas is a place he can win.
But that’s not how it works anymore. Nowadays, teams consider themselves lucky if their franchise cornerstones wait until one year left on their contract to request a trade. Some demand to be moved with 18 months to three or four years left on their deal. The Mavericks don’t have four years.
There’s not much they can do to change the roster this season. Their future draft picks are tied up until the pick they owe the New York Knicks conveys this summer. This limits their options on trades this season. But after the draft, the Mavericks will have at least three first-round picks to trade, as well as pick-swaps to offer. They’re a little short on intriguing young players on the roster, but they do have movable contracts.
This season will be the last that Nico Harrison can just tweak the roster around the edges. Next year, he’ll need to land a superstar teammate to pair with Luka Doncic, as well as a few other upgrades in the rotation. It’s what he was brought here to do.
One need look no further than the situation in New York to understand. Ethan Strauss paints it clearly when talking about the New York Knicks brain trust missing out on Donovan Mitchell:
“Leon Rose is not running the Knicks because he’s some savvy scout or even a sharp negotiator. No, the whole raison d’être of Rose running the Knicks is that when you want Donovan Mitchell, you get Donovan Mitchell. That’s the idea here; otherwise there’s little reason to hire a CAA power agent to run your team.”
The same holds true for the Mavericks. Harrison wasn’t put in charge because he has an eye for basketball talent or an expert knowledge of the CBA. The Mavericks hired Harrison because of his relationships developed during his time with Nike. Harrison will have to cash in on his past career and land the Mavericks the next disgruntled star that comes onto the market. They need the second star to go along with Luka that they’ve sought for so long.
They don’t have 11 years this time. The clock is ticking on Doncic’s time here in Dallas, and this summer looms large. If the Mavericks can’t produce the wins, on the court and off, then it’s possible we’ll see Doncic in a Miami Heat jersey. Such is life in the NBA in the 2020s.