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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Trade Deadline

The best advice: Don’t Panic

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San Antonio Spurs v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images

At the start of the Douglas Adams classic comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a seemingly random human named Arthur Dent learns that his house is about to be demolished out of the blue to make room for a new highway. Arthur’s best friend Ford Prefect convinces him to stop laying in front of the bulldozer poised to knock his house down and follow him to the local pub to hear the most critical news anyone has ever heard. The world is about to end in minutes.

As they guzzle pints of beer, Arthur asks “Did I do something wrong this morning, or has the world always been like this and I’ve been too wrapped up in myself to notice?” He quickly learns that his long-time friend Ford is an alien and they teleport onto a spaceship which - after a brief warning - demolishes earth to make way for a galactic highway. The irony is hardly subtle.

To help Arthur make sense of all the zany and unexpected things he is about to encounter on their adventure, Ford gives Arthur a book that functions like a modern tablet computer - The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Emblazoned on the front of the book are the marginally comforting words, Don’t Panic.

After the Dallas Mavericks fell to the Washington Wizards 127-126 on Tuesday night, I found myself thinking that the very best advice for the Mavs, their adjoined commentariat, and MFFLs is simply, Don’t Panic.

Now or Later

The Mavericks approach this trade deadline hovering around .500 - with every reason to believe that the roster needs a shakeup. This inference is supported by The Athletic’s Tim Cato reporting that sources around the league believe with increasing certainty that Dallas will make a move. The inclination to view the trade market as the best way to buttress the team’s postseason prospects is understandable - yet it opens the door to the sort of move that could help the team modestly this season and simultaneously set them back for seasons to come.

With a superstar MVP candidate, a roster full of players who were 7 wins from a title a year ago, and a fan base eager for another deep playoff run, how is it possible to conceive of any path forward outside of a foot-to-the-floor, chips all-in style move or series of moves? That’s what the now infamous mural implied and - based on our SBNation Reacts poll results - it is a sentiment shared by the majority. Fans are loyal, they keep the literal and figurative turnstiles going and MFFLs crave to contend in the Doncic era - but what happens when the bill comes due for a trade focused on this season in the form of further constriction on the front office next season and beyond?

We rarely get a glimpse into the world of trades that nearly happened. For every trade that gets a Woj bomb, an untold number of exploratory conservations take place. How many potential moves have the Mavericks been unable to be real players in due to having their first-round picks tied up in the Kristaps Porzingis trade? Would the same fans that agree with the mural sentiment also wish to sacrifice the ability to acquire a foundational talent in the offseason for an ancillary piece now?

Regression is often part of the journey

After the Mavericks appeared in the 2003 Western Conference Finals, they would not return for another three years. After losing the 2006 NBA Finals in heartbreaking fashion, redemption would arrive a full five years later in the form of the 2011 Championship very few saw coming by that point. While not perfectly analogous, last season’s Western Conference Finals run felt like the 2003 WCF versus San Antonio.

I realize this is “old man shakes fist at cloud” territory but it is worth saying. The world is different now. Sports fans - well, people in general - are not as patient. These two intervening decades have seen a staggering shift in the immediacy of entertainment and social media has not brought out the best in us as a society. It turns out that when you can watch any live sporting event, any movie, any television show, play any song, or any video game on demand and concurrently hand a megaphone to anyone who wants it, the juxtaposition of an NBA franchise being a crock pot and not a microwave is jarring. We want another championship and we want it yesterday, and so do fans of 29 other teams. I often wonder if 2023 fandom would embrace the lanky, shy German as well as we did in those early years leading up to 2011.

The approach the Mavericks take to the trade deadline should be about more than the team’s record which can easily be recontextualized with an optimistic game of “What If?”. A few more free throws made, better execution in last possession of the game scenarios, and certainly fewer bites from the random injury bug - and we are looking at a team pushing Memphis and Denver for a top position in the standings. Yet, the Mavericks enter tonight’s game with Phoenix at 25-24 and undeniably at a crossroads. The harsh truth may be that despite last year’s amazing run, Luka Doncic may be ready for the finals and the rest of the roster may not be.

Churning the roster

Once upon a time, the Mavericks were trade-happy monsters and I mean that in the best possible way. At the deadline in 2001, the trade that brought Juwan Howard to Dallas proved integral to the Mavericks defeating the Stockton-Malone-led Utah Jazz for their first playoff series win in over a decade. Fast forward a few months and Howard was packaged with a first-round pick to bring in Nick Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz - a move that fueled the next playoff run. Dallas would continue to churn the roster as they built around Dirk. Players were acquired and flipped in a dogged pursuit to fit the right pieces around the man who is now immortalized in Victory Plaza.

After the 2011 title, the frequency of Maverick trades plummeted. The Doncic era has seen the price of poker rise steadily until it hit a crescendo this offseason. Teams looking for available veterans to bolster their playoff rotation are met with exorbitant asking prices in what feels like an aftershock following the colossal hauls forked over for Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and Dejounte Murray (only one of those three teams would likely pass on a mulligan). While the market may self-correct as the deadline draws closer, the asking price for the equivalent of Howard or Van Exel in today’s trade market might have made such moves untenable.

Tune in to Mavs adjacent media over the coming days and you’ll be inundated with trade talk. Coming up with a trade idea and spinning it into a podcast episode or a YouTube video is a veritable cottage industry. Most are ridiculous and a few are brilliant - but they are all hypothetical. I am grateful that our editors keep the MMB rumor mill post somewhat tethered to reality. Hot stove trades are fun but actual trades have long-lasting consequences. The Mavericks are just a few months away from the 2023 NBA draft. The exact moment the last draft pick is chosen marks the end of the Porzingis trade even though he has spent the last 50 weeks as a Washington Wizard.

If there is a trade worth making that does not impair the Mavericks' ability to pursue a wider array of options in the offseason than they have had access to for nearly five years, they should go for it. The other side of that coin is the wisdom of the Hitchhiker’s Guide - Don’t Panic. A panic trade can take many forms but mainly centers around the first-round picks Dallas has available at this time - 2027 and 2029. A panic trade could well be worse than missing the playoffs once its ramifications are fully understood in hindsight.

At the end of Hitchhiker’s Guide, the supercomputer Deep Thought finally arrives at the answer to the secret to life, the universe, and everything. The answer famously is...42. In total dismay at the meaningless response that took billions of years to calculate, the humans mock the computer until he hits them with this gem. “You have to know what the question actually is, in order to know what the answer means.” For the Mavericks and their fans, the question - in a trade market where you cannot have it all - is likely to be a choice between present versus future. A rush of relevance now or bonafide contender status as soon as next season. We will have their answer soon enough.