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The Mavericks have to change their thinking before they can succeed again

After a historically bad season, complacency cannot continue

(L-R) Jason Kidd, Nico Harrison, Mark Cuban, Luka Doncic at... Photo by Luka Dakskobler/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

If I had to pick just one thing about the Mavericks’ front office that has bugged me since 2011 or so, it is that they do not care enough about good players. This might seem like a weird thing to say — who doesn’t like good players — but let me be a little clearer. The Mavericks love great players — and especially players they believe can be great. Besides Luka Doncic, they have taken their swings at Harrison Barnes, signed to a max contract no one else was offering; Kristaps Porzingis after the Knicks gave up on him; and now Kyrie Irving. In every case, it was a bold and ambitious move. But if you’re looking for merely good players they’ve added since then, which is to say, acquired from somewhere else in the last eight years, either through trade or free agency, who would you point to? Seth Curry, whom they traded twice? Tim Hardaway Jr.? Does Reggie Bullock even count?

In addition, Seth Curry aside, they’ve tried to get by with essentially the same cast of role players quite a long time — and almost all guys that flew under the radar for everyone else. Dwight Powell has been here a while, famously a throw-in in the Rajon Rondo deal in 2015. Jalen Brunson was drafted, Dorian Finney-Smith made it up from the Mavericks’ summer league team, Maxi Kleber came over from Bayern Munich. Other guys were once highly-regarded castaways that, it was thought, might still have some use — Trey Burke, Willie Cauley-Stein, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Frank Ntilikina, and Josh McRoberts, among others. And then there were a lot of other guys who came through the same processes but didn’t work out quite so well — Ryan Broekhoff, Salah Mejri, and Kyle Collinsworth to name a few. They could have been the next Maxi Kleber or the next Dorian Finney-Smith, they just weren’t.

It’s a philosophy — an ethos, as Walter Sobchak might say — and a pretty clear one. But it’s also one that actively eschews the types of players other teams already have their eye on, or anyone that represents a significant investment in time and money without being a superstar. You can think of things like the Hawks acquiring Dejounte Murray or Clint Capela, the Celtics Derrick White or Malcom Brogdon, the Nuggets Aaron Gordon or similar — you can’t name an example of the Mavericks taking a swing of that size for a guy who isn’t a superstar, save for maybe the recent Christian Wood. I’m not sure if you could name one of them doing what the Lakers did in retooling for their playoff run — getting guys like Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley, let alone D’Angelo Russell. It’s like they think a guy is either the answer, or a hidden gem — and that something bad would happen if they got anyone in between.

I could say a lot about all this in a number of different directions. Mostly, I think it offers a distressing reflection — not without reason — of corporate America, which has embraced the view that everybody outside of the C Suites is an interchangeable cog in the machine, and better that way. I think it’s Mark Cuban’s VC brain at work, looking only for potential nobody else sees, for market efficiencies — about breaking things and not worrying too much about the normal things normal teams do to succeed. And until recently, you could even say it seemed to be working — it’s hard to blame the team for two losses to the full-strength Clippers, and who saw last year’s Western Conference Finals coming? But now that the bottom has dropped out — I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team with a player as good as Luka playing so many games miss the playoffs before — it’s worth asking not only whether it does, but whether it ever did — whether the Mavericks were always being buoyed up by Luka’s unbelievable talent, far beyond what the roster suggested was possible. In the meantime, the laser-focus on the hunt for a true second star is what really cost them Jalen Brunson. I don’t know if there was any hope to re-sign him by the end of last season either, but I do know that if they had signed him to a normal rookie contract for a second round pick, he would have been a restricted free agent. They didn’t, to save money, and they paid for it big time.

The lesson of the 2022-2023 disaster-class Mavericks is, therefore, that sometimes what’s going on is just what seems to be going on — that Dallas has had a talent debt, compared to other wannabe contenders, for years now, and that it is mostly self-inflicted. It’s not that you can just go out and get good players like turning on a light. But think of it this way. The year the Mavericks drafted Luka — 2018 — was also the year that a lot of the current best teams in the West were at their nadir, too. The Phoenix Suns, the fourth seed this year, drafted first overall. The Kings, the third seed, drafted second. The Grizzlies, the second seed, went fourth. And even in the East, the Cavaliers, this year’s fourth seed, went eighth, and the Hawks, who at least put a bit of a scare in the Celtics this year, went — of course, fifth.

Of all of those teams, the Mavericks did by far the best. Ayton hasn’t come close to living up to his potential, Bagley is already on another team, and as good as they are, you’d much rather have Luka than either Jaren Jackson Jr. or Trae Young. But of all of them, only the Mavericks missed the playoffs, only the Mavericks didn’t finish at least .500. And if you want to know why, here’s my suggestion: Dallas was already playing Finney-Smith, Powell, and Kleber more than 60 combined minutes in the first game Luka ever played, and Kleber, Finney-Smith, and Hardaway more than 75 in the first game of the next season. They have not improved their role players more or less at all. They have focused on other things. It hasn’t worked out.

Still, the Mavericks did do the best of any team in that draft, and maybe any team since — who that was drafted since 2018 would you take over Luka? — and so, they still have a shot at a bright future. But to get there, they have to learn some actual lessons. I don’t know what they can do with such a talent-poor team, and little cap space, to improve, but it won’t matter if they still don’t want to. I like to think they get it now — but I won’t believe it until I actually see it. After all, it didn’t use to be this way. Fans will remember ‘Toine and ‘Tawn, Jason Kidd himself, Shawn Marion, Jerry Stackhouse, even Monta Ellis. In fact, even guys like Lamar Odom and Rondo count, good but not great players who might well have contributed a lot had things gone differently. It feels that they have been genuinely scared to try to get players of that caliber ever since — but the results don’t bear out their choices.

When, however, I think about whether they can change — whether they can learn and adapt — I think about something else that didn’t used to be this way: the coaching. Say what you want about Don Nelson, but he is the second winningest coach of all time, behind only Gregg Popovich. It was time, all the evidence suggests, for Rick Carlisle to go, but he will go down as one of the greatest coaches of all time, and that was obvious before he came here, too. When they hired Jason Kidd, however, it was precisely an example of how they do things now, compared to how they did things then — when they were winning 50 games a season nearly every season. There was no evidence that Kidd was a particularly good coach before they hired him, and he doesn’t look like one now. He has a.508 career winning percentage, despite the fact he’s spent most his career coaching two of the best players in the game, Giannis and Luka. Erik Spoelstra he is not.

And so, hiring Kidd was in its way the absolute epitome of the way they have operated since 2011 — motivated, most of all, by the belief that they can do it themselves, that they don’t need to do what other teams do, they don’t need to get the kinds of players other teams are interested in, they don’t need to do the things good organizations do to succeed, like hire a coach with a track record of success. The Cowboys, who have at least drafted better in recent years, do things much the same way, and have less than a handful of playoff wins since 1998. They too, think they know better than anybody about guys like Jason Garrett, who washed out of the league more or less the second Jerry Jones moved on from him. It’s not a winning way, and that’s why they haven’t won. The Mavericks, however, used to be different, and they can be again. But only with a lot more honesty about how things have been going and why.