Teams in today’s NBA are tiered dependant on how close they are to contending. There are the contenders, of which there are probably only three (Cleveland, Golden State, San Antonio); there are those just below that level, who are either a key contender injury or a trade away from contending (Toronto, Houston, Boston and a few others), those who are middling but with a legitimate star on their roster (New Orleans, Sacramento, Washington, et al) and those who are not in any position to make an impact in the next few years but with enough talent to have a bright future (Denver, the Lakers, Minnesota, Milwaukee and Philadelphia).
Most teams would have a recognition of where they are, and accept that it’s a process to push into contention... however out West there seems to be a team caught in the middle of nowhere, having traded away their draft picks of recent time and made several puzzling free agent acquisitions. The Dallas Mavericks sit afoot the Western Conference standings at 14-29, and while they are generally competitive they are heading nowhere in a hurry.
Rewind back to 2011 and the Mavericks orchestrated one of the great NBA Finals victories as Dirk Nowitzki, Rick Carlisle and a group of veterans and castoffs overcame Miami’s ‘Big 3’ in six games. Nowitzki was historically efficient in that playoff series, leading Dallas past Portland, the defending champion Lakers (in a sweep where the Lakers showed their lack of class in many ways) before overcoming the precious talent of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the Western Conference Finals. Side-track – there is a chance that the top 3 in this year’s MVP voting were on the same team just six years ago. Let that digest for a second - the OKC salary cap situation has been well documented and analysis of the decision to trade Harden has been done to death but surely the Thunder organisation have so much to answer for having robbed the fans of what would have been the most talented team EVER! But I digress.
So, Carlisle surrounded a single superstar with an aging Hall-of-Famer point guard turned three-point marksman (Kidd), a defensively-dominant centre to play alongside the defensive sieve that is Nowitzki (Tyson Chandler), a multi-faceted wingman (Shawn Marion) and number of key role players. But all those complementary moves count for nought if Dirk isn’t All-World in that playoff run. Remember, this was a guy that Milwaukee traded on draft night for Robert ‘Tractor’ Traylor (RIP) in a trade that probably had most Mavericks fans angry, disappointed and more. But Dirk took his crazy one-legged fade away and ploughed through Kobe, Russ, KD, Harden, LeBron and D-Wade and walked away with the ring and possibly the worst ever rendition of Queen’s classic ‘We Are The Champions’.
Since then Dirk has remained a top-quality player, but the Mavs have slowly but surely made move after move that have been intended to keep them relevant, but have in fact eroded any chance they have in the post-Nowitzki era. First, they traded Jae Crowder and a draft pick for Rajon Rondo, who was then kicked off the team MID PLAYOFFS for pretty much being a dickhead. They then signed Chandler Parsons to a huge deal, and threw a massive deal at DeAndre Jordan only to have him agree, then renege. They were smart enough to not re-sign Parsons, but have run with middling players like Wesley Matthews and Deron Williams instead of getting youngsters involved.
They are caught in the middle of nowhere; they have only four players on their roster under 25 years of age – Harrison Barnes (who in all fairness seems like a good get as a max-level player, which most didn’t forecast), Justin Anderson, Dorian Finney-Smith and A.J.Hammons. They signed Andrew Bogut in the off-season, and that has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster as Bogut has spoken of the Mavericks as ‘they’ and has all but conceded he wants out; the problem is that he is injury-riddled and 32 years old.
Matthews, Williams, Devin Harris and J.J.Barea would have formed a good backcourt rotation if you were getting the prime versions of each player but none of those are a shadow of what they once were, but probably more importantly they have next to no value on the trade market. The Mavericks have $35m invested into those four players this season, and another $11m in Bogut. There is only one solution here, especially with the upcoming draft class being regarded as very strong – tank and tank hard.
What is the use in continuing to play Williams, Bogut, Harris, Barea and most importantly Nowitzki in an attempt to win 30 games when you can get time into Powell, Anderson and Finney-Smith and get (at worst) a top 3 selection in this draft? Surely it makes more sense to start over and look to be a power in 2020? The main stumbling block to this strategy is Mark Cuban, the Mavs owner whose ego has helped over the course of the last decade but is now proving to be a major hindrance. Cuban is on record as saying he doesn’t think this Mavericks side needs to bottom out, and that he won’t oversee such an action. It is not clear whether Cuban actually thinks the Mavericks can stay relevant, or whether he is paying lip service but in either case he is the one who must make the decision to bottom out.
There is a line of thinking that suggests Nowitzki doesn’t want to be involved in a rebuild, and that is fair enough but it cannot be something he has a say in. He is either in his last or second-to-last season, and has made it clear that he doesn’t want to be traded but is not the kind of guy who will hold the Mavericks to ransom either. You tend to think he would just as easily walk away this season, fully satisfied with a Hall-of-Fame career and knowing that the Mavericks can build around Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson or Jayson Tatum rather than persisting with the current roster and hoping to retain relevance.
Dallas are not making the playoffs this season or next, and are not contending with the current crop of players. They are at least two or three players away from arguably making the second round, and there doesn’t seem to be any quick fix on the horizon. The quickest way to move out of total irrelevance and mediocrity as soon as possible is to tank and go through the draft, because you know that Carlisle will be able to get this team back to the summit if given the talent.