It's impossible to tell fans of a team like the Dallas Mavericks that just made the Western Conference Finals that they are closer to being a first-round exit team than they are a title contender, but that’s exactly what I believe to be true.
Let’s go through a few reasons just off the top of my head:
- The Nuggets, missing Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. and the Clippers, missing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, will be much better with a return to health.
- The Warriors outclassed the Mavericks and proved that their one-dimensional attack on offense was guardable by elite defenses.
- On paper, the Mavericks are probably the fifth or sixth best team in the Western Conference. If Zion Williamson and the Pelicans hit the ground running and the Timberwolves solve their point guard issues, they could end up in the seventh or eighth.
At the moment, the Mavericks find themselves in the same position the 2019 Trail Blazers did. After an unlikely conference finals run, the team believed they were a move or two away from being a title contender. Subsequent early exits in the playoffs over the next couple of years proved that notion false.
So here we are, at a crossroads. To be very clear, the Mavericks have no one to blame for the current situation but themselves. Tim MacMahon of ESPN reported on the Hoop Collective podcast that Jalen Brunson was prepared to accept an extension similar to the one signed by Dorian Finney-Smith but the Mavericks balked in hopes of being able to land a star at the deadline. Signing Brunson to that extension would have made it impossible to include him in any packages and with limited trade chips, leaving him out of any trade proposals would have been a nonstarter for other teams. While the Maverick's logic may seem sound, a little self-awareness would reveal the truth. Were a superstar to become available, it seems unlikely that Dallas could outbid any other suitor.
The Mavericks went all-in with pocket 2’s and now find themselves in a lose-lose situation. Here are the paths I see:
Door 1: Brunson leaves to a team with cap space and the Mavs lose him for nothing.
Door 2: Brunson chooses a team without the necessary amount of cap space to sign him outright. Because of base year compensation rules outlined by our very own @CBAMavs, a sign and trade would be difficult to pull off and is unlikely to net the Mavs anything of substance.
Door 3: The Mavericks overpay for an undersized guard without elite athleticism that will likely never make an All-Star game. I love Brunson and appreciate the hard work he put in to maximize his talent. At the same time, I’d be lying if I said he was a top 40 player. In fact, he may not be top 50.
Doors 1 and 2 would be an immediate hit to the Mavs’ short-term outlook and would certainly knock them down a peg or two for the upcoming season. Door 3 would push the Mavericks well into the tax with a roster that had six or seven playoff caliber players in the current rotation and would leave them with few, if any, realistic avenues to improve the team in the near future.
So, what will the Mavericks do? Unless Brunson believes the Knicks or some other team can offer him a larger role and opportunity to showcase himself, Dallas can and will offer Brunson what he wants. But is that what the Mavericks should do?
Locking in a team whose ceiling is a fluky WCF run shouldn’t be the goal. The Tax Payer MLE isn’t getting Dallas over the top. With no players capable of taking a significant jump, internal improvement won't get them there either. I was pounding the table for Christian Wood before we traded for him but even I can admit he alone does not make us a title contender. More minutes for Josh Green isn’t the answer. Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Reggie Bullock are what they are. Spencer Dinwiddie is a question mark but an increase in usage could result in a decrease in efficiency unless he attacks the rim at a higher rate.
Overall, the Mavs have a good team. This year showed that with some breaks and outlier shooting performances, they match up well with certain teams. However, with a top five player on your team, that simply isn’t good enough. Anything short of a championship-level roster should be considered a failure for this team.
That being said, let’s take a look at some of the arguments we’re seeing throughout fandom
The Mavericks are already over the cap, why does it matter what we pay Brunson?
For years, I’ve been irritated by the notion that Mark Cuban is cheap. Fans point to the fact that he hasn’t paid the luxury tax in years and believe that is a reflection of his unwillingness to spend money. I’ve yelled into the abyss that you cannot go from a cap space team to a team in the tax unless you are re-signing your own players to big-money extensions. One look at the last decade of draft picks should tell you we’ve rarely resigned our picks to a second contract let alone a big-money extension. You can poo poo Cuban’s desire to use cap space to lure a star to Dallas but that is the reason we haven’t paid the tax, not because Cuban is cash poor and refuses to break out his wallet.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say that I’ve been wrong and Mavericks fans have been correct this entire time. Mark Cuban is tighter than a pair of work pants you purchased before the pandemic. Do you want to believe that all of a sudden, after refusing to spend for a decade, Cuban will suddenly spend tens of millions in luxury tax for a team that isn’t a title contender? It’s either been not true for the last decade or not true now. A couple of years down the line, once the repeater tax kicks in, every dollar spent will actually be four or five. Offering a marginally talented player $6 million with your taxpayer MLE? It's going to cost $24-$30 million per year in actual cash to sign that player.
Only a handful of NBA owners can do that without blinking. Even the wealthiest owners have balked at the prospect of cutting the league a check for $80-100 million dollars and who could blame them. This current version of the Mavericks is not a title contender. The team’s payroll will reach a breaking point and the team will have to find ways to cut costs.
The Mavericks can trade Jalen Brunson down the line
A non-All-Star level player making $28 million dollars a year is not a trade asset. While any contract can theoretically be moved that doesn’t mean it can be moved for value. Kevin Hurter, Duncan Robinson, Terry Rozier, and our very own Tim Hardaway Jr. should be examples of what happens when you pay non-stars star-level money. All four players are useful and can help you win games. Their contracts, however, make them nearly impossible to move for value.
Assuming Brunson will be a huge trade chip is misguided. He was and will be paid like our second-best player. It's hard, however, to find a contending team where Brunson could qualify as their second-best player. Either Los Angeles team? Denver? Milwaukee? Miami? Golden State? Boston? Brunson wouldn’t be the second-best player on any of those teams. That leaves the dregs of the league as a market for him. The Knicks have been the Knicks because they have paid out huge contracts to players that could never live up to them. Having Brunson on the books would make it harder to find a true number two.
There was a recent debate in the Mavericks community about whether they would be best served by pursuing a second star or adding depth. The Finals should have helped answer that question. The Celtics were a deeper team but star-level talent does more to decide playoff series than functional depth.
So, how can the Mavs acquire that second star. Picking in the 20s, its unlikely we ever draft that type of player. Trade, maybe? Unlikely, since they lack trade assets. I am the old man yells at crowd meme every time I have to remind someone that the Mavericks players are simply not coveted by other teams. Does anyone think we could get back a positive asset for Hardaway? The answer should be no. A player’s value to Dallas does not equate to his value around the league.
The truth hurts. The cold truth is that the Mavericks screwed up the Jalen Brunson situation. I believed the Mavs would be best served by trading Brunson before the deadline. But no one wants to hear that the team should take a step back in order to take two steps forward. Winning games in the short-term is fun and long-term thinking as it relates to team building simply isn’t.
What should Dallas do then? Let’s talk about that soon, because by the end of the week it won’t matter anyway. But it’s not as straightforward of a decision as many feel it is.