Texas-Sized Wager

By Josh Eberley #41

When the dust cleared and the 2018 NBA Draft concluded, the world sat in awe of the Dallas Mavericks.

Viewed concretely as conquistadors of the green room, it was perhaps, the first universal moment of admiration expressed towards the franchise since Dirk Nowitzki hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy high overhead on June 12, 2011.

A once proud monolith of the Western Conference, the Mavericks have been a toppled pile of ruins ever since. The ground-breaking move to acquire European superstar Luka Doncic is supposed to rebuild the franchise with simulation speed but it’s a gamble.

Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson, and the Mavericks organization are not strangers to the casino floor, they’ve been anchoring the table since the lockout months of 2011.

Before we evaluate where the Mavericks are headed, a quick review on where they’ve been.

2011-12

The Mavericks win the title, shut LIV down in Miami and then settle into an extended offseason thanks to the lockout.

There’s a daunting but important choice in front of them: Run it back or clear the books for a run at premier free agents like Dwight Howard, Deron Williams (remember, it was 2011) and Chris Paul in the coming years?

Mark Cuban and his franchise chose to roll the dice, trading Tyson Chandler—the second most important and best defensive player on the championship squad who was about to enter his prime at just 28—away to the New York Knicks. The haul for Chandler was cap flexibility (a trade exception), Andy Rautins and a 2012 second-round pick from Washington, which was not even conveyed because it was top-55 protected (the Wizards apparently really wanted to hold on to that pick).

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The Mavs also traded a second-round pick for Lamar Odom (coincidentally, another Odom—Darius Johnson-Odom—was picked in that spot) and $8.9 million trade exception. The trade was for flexibility but Odom was also supposed to help keep the championship aspirations going. Odom was a two-time champion and was coming off a Sixth Man of the Year campaign and his 6-10 length and guard-like abilities gave the Mavericks another range-y defender.

Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle said as much. “Right now, for me, having Odom, Dirk NowitzkiShawn Marion, we may have the best forward trio in this league right now. And that’s exciting. Lamar Odom is a guy we have great respect for as a person and as an all-around player in this league. We feel he’s going to add so many different dimensions for us—length, playmaking, scoring, experience, championship experience.”

Except it was a disaster. Odom appeared in 50 games, averaging 6.6 PPG on 35 percent shooting while displaying none of those all-around skills his previous 12 NBA seasons. His career would flame out from drinking and drug issues a year later. Odom’s tenure in Dallas was the first in what would become an extensive line of disastrous and desperation-fueled acquisitions. A drought of hits that Dallas fans are hoping ends with Nerlens Noel this current offseason

The Mavericks made the playoffs and Nowitzki managed to outscore Kevin Durant for a second straight year but it didn’t result in even one win. A year after sweeping the Lakers on their road to a title defense, the Mavericks fell to the same fate a round earlier.

2012-13

Money time. The aforementioned Williams—the hometown son and the player often compared to Chris Paul in best point guard discussions from 2005 through 2011—was the jewel of the 2012 free agent class and was coming for his pitch and he admitted he was split on returning to the Nets (who had traded for him during his walk year) or coming home to Dallas. Cuban and Nowitzki could spare no expense in their pursuit, which paints just how tragic it was neither was even present for the meeting.

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You know how it turned out, Williams stayed with the Nets and the Mavericks rebounded into a quartet of awkward fitting pieces. In hindsight, it was good as Williams battled injuries and his game slowly regressed to the point where the Nets would eventually waive him three years later. They did get another “Deron,” at point guard, but Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Chris Kaman and Elton Brand were quite a collection but not the right one. Nowitzki missed 29 games and poof, 12 straight playoff runs would not see 13.

2013-14

Howard and Kobe Bryant meshed like Pusha and Drake in their one season in purple and gold. The L.A. nightmare was a dream scenario for the covetous neighbors out in Fort Worth. Howard was a free agent and at the time, still viewed as a two-way championship piece for any team. Unfortunately, James Harden had come into his own as a star and the Houston Rockets outright offered a better situation. Howard was smitten and the Mavericks were sent back to the kitchen. Again, like the Williams spurning, the Mavs would dodge a bullet as Howard would begin a descent into obscurity that would, like Williams, end in the Nets buying him out.

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Through agony, the Mavericks melded opportunity. Rebounding off Howard and into a Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis backcourt, the team made it back to the playoffs with a somewhat surprising 49-win regular season. Battling the intrastate rival San Antonio Spurs in the first round, the Mavericks pulled off a bigger shocker. No, they didn’t  best the eventual champs, but they did play them to a surprising seven game series that included one of the best playoff winners this decade in Game 3 by Vince Carter.

2014-15

After a shocking playoff performance, the Mavericks finally hit on their No. 1 free agent target, Chandler Parsons to a three-year deal. Parsons was seen as a come-up, a second-round pick in 2011 that played himself into a 16.6-PPG, 5.5-RPG and 4-APG season that had many teams opening up their checkbook. It was underwhelming in terms of popular opinion and League-wide clout but a home run hit for the franchise. Dallas even reached back to their glory days, bringing back Tyson Chandler via a trade with the Knicks. Jameer Nelson and Al-Farouq Aminu flanked Parsons joining a Mavericks team thought to once again be on the rise.

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The Mavericks started 19-8 that season and their offense was elite. Instead of staying the course, the Mavericks thought they were a piece away from truly contending again. In a trigger-happy move, Dallas trades Nelson and useful parts in Brandan Wright and Jae Crowder and a first round pick for Rajon Rondo, who was the last few vestiges of Boston’s 2008 championship squad.

The team saw 50 wins, but it was a disappointing finish. Injuries sabotaged Parsons tenure with the Mavericks. Rondo bumped heads with both Ellis and head coach Rick Carlisle and then quit on the team in the playoffs. A gentleman’s sweep against the Rockets ensued and another disappointing year was in the books.

2015-16

The pinnacle strikeout came during the 2015 offseason. The DeAndre Jordan hostage situation needs no refresher. After agreeing to join the Mavericks, Jordan had a change of heart and re-signed with the Los Angeles Clippers in possibly the most fun and chaotic NBA Twitter day of all time. Social media won, the Mavericks lost and they lost big.

In a weird gesture of good will or bravado of ownership decency, the Mavericks still signed Wes Matthews, coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon (suffered during a game against the Mavericks) to a four-year, $70-million-dollar deal.

As a point of interest, Williams finally made his way to Dallas, though, no longer close to the star he once was.

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2016-17

After a failed union between Parsons (he averaged 14.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG and 2.6 APG in his two seasons in Dallas, but battled injuries that still persist today) and the Mavericks, the forward exercised his player option to sever ties with the team. Dallas was once again on the free agency trail, where they went 0 for 3, missing out on Nicolas Batum, Mike Conley and Hassan Whiteside. As a consolation prize they did nab the younger and less injury prone Harrison Barnes to a max deal as a restricted free agent, a move that came to be because the Golden State Warriors had signed a certain player who would go on to nab two Finals MVPs.

Barnes, who’s been productive (19 PPG and 5.5 RPG) albeit slightly underwhelming through the lens of his $24 million per year average salary, was and is still viewed as the Mavericks first building block of the new era.

The Mavs were intent on keeping up with the powerhouse Warriors. In addition to Barnes, they brought on his teammate on the Warriors Andrew Bogut in a trade for that much-coveted championship swag, but he only lasted 26 games before he was sent packing.

2017-18

Notice, there’s been almost no talk of draft selections so far post-2011 title. In an effort to stay competitive the Mavericks moved picks like your neighbor in the basement suite next door moves Bitcoin. Giannis Antetokounmpo would’ve been nice in 2013, but alas it wasn’t meant to be. The Mavs had the 13th pick, selecting Kelly Olynyk (who was subsequently traded on draft night), while Antetokounmpo was taken by the Bucks two picks later. Tyler Zeller was the 17th pick in the 2012 draft and was flipped the next day. Mike Muscala, a second-round pick in 2013, was another Mav for a day. Justin Anderson (first rounder in 2015) made it through his rookie year before getting moved to Philadelphia.

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With the highest pick in their post-championship era  in 2017, Dallas was determined to grab a cornerstone player in the draft. Dennis Smith Jr. was high on the Mavericks board, they had him as a top four guard in the draft and when he fell to them at pick nine, the Mavericks war room allegedly exploded with excitement. The second long-term piece had fallen into place.

Real Time

Back to present day, the Mavericks are celebrating because time is a flat circle and they’ve once again got a commitment from Jordan to come aboard. Jordan has allegedly committed to a one year, $24.1-million-dollar deal.

The Mavericks are going to be a better basketball team this coming year—drastically even. However, the Los Angeles Lakers just signed LeBron James, the Oklahoma City Thunder retained Paul George, the Denver Nuggets retained Nikola Jokić and Will Barton, the Rockets lost Ariza but were already a much better team. Oh, and the two-time defending champs inked a four-time All-Star in DeMarcus Cousins.

The Mavericks are going to be infinitely more watchable. They’ll put out an elevated product closer to what fans of the team were accustomed to most of this millennium but where are they going?

The Nuggets won 46 games last year, 22 more than the Mavericks and found themselves at home in late May all the same. The Western Conference has always been a grueling and bloody battle of attrition but with the Mavericks, Grizzlies, Suns and Lakers all trying to ascend from darkness simultaneously, the Colosseum is at max capacity.

The Mavericks are sick of being defective and tanking has never sat well with Cuban. The bold play to get out of the house and seize the day is admirable, but the truth is this team probably isn’t ready to compete at the next level.

Looking to jump as many wins as possible is clearly the reason Jordan is being brought in. Jordan, a still-viable talent and intimidating force at both ends is 30 and unlikely to be a great fit with this core when Barnes, Doncic and Smith Jr. all reach their primes in the coming years. The Mavericks, who could’ve put a scare on Houston by giving Clint Capela a max offer sheet or pursue Cousins with a patient long-term outlook, made yet another aggressive wager here.

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The bet is clearly on Doncic. Unless Doncic is an MVP candidate out of the gate—there’s no route to 22 or more wins next season. And let’s remember the Mavs traded up to get the Slovenian star, giving up Trae Young at No. 5 and a future first round pick. It’s more of a probability than a possibility that the Mavericks surrender a lottery pick next year. The Mavericks’ pick next year is only protected one-to-five for the next two years, one-to-three the following two and it’s unprotected in 2023. The Mavericks tied for the fourth worst record last season and even with the strides they’ve made, they’re far from guaranteed to make the playoffs.

Carlisle is universally respected and revered as one of the League’s elite coaches for a reason. Perhaps he can maximize this unit immediately. Maybe they’ll catch lightning in a bottle. But even the most inspired optimists surely can’t see a ceiling for this unit beyond a bottom end playoff birth.

Beyond this year, the future of this team weighs heavily on the young shoulders of Smith Jr. and Doncic. The Mavericks, who have spent little time developing first-round picks the last 20 years, are now all-in on internal growth. They’re betting on themselves in a way few other teams have.

Nowitzki, like Doncic, was acquired via a draft day trade back in 1998. But at that time, the Mavericks were trading down not up, accruing assets and not cashing chips when they dealt the sixth pick, Robert Traylor for Nowitzki (No. 9 pick) and Pat Garrity (No. 19 pick). Many parallels exist between the two but the expectations for Doncic out of the gate are steeper. In contrast, Nowitzki was seen as a bust early on, putting up 8.2 PPG while displaying none of the shooting accuracy he’s built his Hall of Fame career on. The Mavericks have the next half-decade tied to Doncic.

All bets are in, the wheel is spinning and Dallas fans everywhere are hoping for the payoff.