I spent a lot of my youth resenting the fact that older people thought they knew better than me. And you know what? The older you get, the more you find out they mostly don’t. Anyone who has watched any NBA show and discovered that the ex-players mostly believe that shooting a three pointer used to be regarded as a moral sin on par with robbing the poor could tell you as much. Getting older doesn’t make you smarter, it doesn’t make you better. It can change your politics for the better if it makes you more compassionate – as you are more exposed to the hardships of life – but if it does the opposite, that’s nothing to be proud of.
There are, however, things that experience – not age – teaches you, all kinds of things. Things like what it feels like to lose in arenas far more important than the game of basketball, and how to keep going. Things like what you’ll remember, and what you won’t. Where the NBA is concerned, there is a whole squadron of discussions I consider myself firmly in the category of “too old” for – MVP, DPOY, MIP, Cy NBA Young, you know the drill.
When the media tries to kick up a controversy about Luka Doncic and Trae Young or Luka and Ja Morant, I remember how they did the same thing with Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol, Dirk and Kevin Love. 1,000 years later, nobody remembers those debates, and these will be the same. Or they won’t! But our lives are played out in decades while we worry about the days, and the older you get the more you feel like you might know what a decade will do. It takes the edge off – or it doesn’t.
Hope is an experience that’s easier to have when you’re young. At least about sports, at least about the things that don’t matter. It’s easy to talk yourself into why your guys have a chance even though x, y, z when you’ve only had to do it once, five times, ten times. The twentieth time, I think, you start to wait and see a little. And if we’re honest with each other – I like to think we can be honest with each other – the history of the Dallas Mavericks reinforced that natural process over and over again, for those of us of a certain age. I was 15 when Dirk made the playoffs for the first time, I was 22 when they won 67 games, I was 26 when they won the championship. Over the next ten years they made the playoffs six times and lost in the first round every time.
More to the point – there was never any reason to think they wouldn’t. They were always the lower seed, usually far lower. The only time they ever really restocked in all those years – before they drafted Luka – was when they briefly had Monta Ellis – and, once they were smart enough to bench Rondo, came within three points of evening the series 2-2 despite the fact that the Rockets had James Harden in his prime, and Dwight Howard closer to his while the Mavs had 74 year old Dirk Nowitzki and started Ray Felton. There were always a lot of Xs and Os – Carlisle was the master of scheming the other team onto the brink of surprising losses.
But they never crossed the brink, and I never really expected them to. I believed in those Mavericks, daily, as a kind of catechism, from 2000 right through 2011, then they blew up the team – the first franchise ever to treat a championship team like that on purpose, and got what they deserved. For a decade – a whole decade – I was just happy to be there. At best. In 2020 and 2021 I was happy to be there too, to get Luka some seasoning in series that I knew weren’t going anywhere. Also, my son was born during the Clippers series, another place I was pretty happy to be.
There’s a moment in the Oscar-winning TV series Loki, one of the two best characters from the best Marvel movies to date, as for example the cinematic classic Thor: The Dark World – I won’t spoil it. But suffice it to say that a character who usually knows what’s going to happen in the future suddenly doesn’t. And that’s what I feel like, all of a sudden. The Jazz series was the very first in an entire decade where I felt like the Mavericks were more likely to win than not. I don’t think they will beat the Suns, but to be honest with you, I don’t know.
Having that player – the guy who’s the best guy in the series, who can conjure something out of nothing – that’s something they haven’t had since 2011. Having a capable roster around him, and a blossoming second option around him – 2011. A series of long, scrappy defenders who can knock down threes – 2011. Having a fun team, one that seems to like each other, and vibe off each other, and want to make plays for each other – well, you get it. The Suns are the better team today, that will probably do it. But even if so – there’s the future. And for all of these guys, for this team, it really is the beginning of the story, rather than what it was for so long – the end. I don’t know what will happen for the first time in a long time. We have moved beyond my experience, we are finally, once again, at a place I’ve never been.
And I don’t know if it will turn out well. The last one was storybook, even if – like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings – it could have used some editing at the end. This one may not be, nobody spends their entire career with one franchise anymore, barely anybody did then. The team, under new management in a lot of respects, continues to show a flair for getting useful guys in surprising places but it’s been a long time since they got the kind of free agent they probably need. The two highest profile ones in recent years have been Harrison Barnes and Kristaps Porzingis, ultimately traded for – well, Justin Jackson and two guys who have so far chipped in 35 points combined in three games against Phoenix. Certain Jalen Brunsons and European superstars aside, they haven’t drafted well, they don’t seem to be good at it. The guys they have are good, but not as good as the Clippers when healthy, not as good as the Bucks when healthy, not as good as the best teams in the league. If they want to be one of them, something about this picture will have to change and they’ll have to prove they’re up to it.
If there’s one thing I can say from my experience, however, it’s this. There’s a lot to be said for resting on your laurels. You’re resting! There are laurels! But it’s not knowing how the story goes that’s the fun part. Getting to hope and wonder rather than expect and have confirmed. Getting to believe, and see, and see again, undaunted. We’re in the fun part. I hope you’re having fun too. The joy of a young team is this, that whatever happens – as was said in days of yore – there’s finally, once again, always next year. But there’s today, too.
Here’s our latest episode of Mavs Moneyball After Dark. If you’re unable to see the embed below, click here to be taken to the podcast directly. Or go to your favorite podcast app and search Mavs Moneyball Podcast.