In one of the craziest days in the history of NBA free agency, the Dallas Mavericks were left holding the bag when DeAndre Jordan went back on his word and re-signed with the Los Angeles Clippers. With almost every other big name free agent coming off the board in the last few days, there's no one left for the Mavs to even try to give their money too. If free agency is a game of musical chairs, Mark Cuban is looking around as the music stopped and wondering what the hell just happened.
It's beyond a worst-case scenario. Dallas went from trying to fill out the back end of their roster with a few older players on minimum contracts to scrambling to fill gaping holes up and down their line-up. Most of last season's team is already gone – Tyson Chandler in Phoenix, Al-Farouq Aminu in Portland, Monta Ellis in Indiana and Rajon Rondo in Sacramento. Wesley Matthews, the only guy they signed, is coming off an Achilles injury and almost certainly won't be able to start the season. Combine that with Chandler Parsons, who is coming off knee surgery, and Dirk Nowitzki, who is 37 and really started to show his age in last season's playoffs, and you have a recipe for a team that's going to be lucky to compete for a .500 record, much less a playoff spot in the incredibly tough Western Conference.
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The Mavs gambled everything on DeAndre and rolled snake-eyes. It's hard to blame Cuban for the attempt when you consider he was able to close the deal before having the rug pulled out from under him at the last moment. The problem is that he stripped his team of assets in the process and left himself with no outs when it fell through. There was no reason Cuban couldn't have brought in some young players over the last few seasons while still making wild swings in free agency. Of all the things that went wrong since he broke apart their championship team in 2011, that's what should kill him now.
Take a look at their draft picks from 2011-2013:
2011: Jordan Hamilton (No. 26 pick)
– Traded as part of a three-team deal for Rudy Fernandez, who went back to Europe and never again played in the NBA.
– Guys who were still on the board: Cory Joseph, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Singler, Chandler Parsons
– Guys who were still on the board: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dennis Schroder, Gorgui Dieng, Rudy Gobert
I bring this up not to play gotcha because a lot of teams missed on guys like Butler, Green and Gobert.
The point is that the Mavs never even game themselves a chance because they were too busy being cute and trading back to save cap space rather than staying put and taking the highest rated player on their board. The great tragedy over the last few seasons in Dallas is they were a mediocre team that won a grand total of one playoff game and they have nothing to show for it in terms of acquiring young pieces they can build around for the future. Whether or not their first-round pick could have contributed immediately is immaterial when you consider they have a D-League franchise and plenty of spots in the back half of their roster to develop players. If they had really needed the cap space to sign a big-time free agent, which it turns out they didn't, they could always have found a way to move a few contracts when push came to shove.
The Mavs went all-in on trying to avoid any type of reloading process through the draft and now the bill for those decisions is coming due. The only under-25 players on their roster of any note are Justin Anderson, their first round pick in 2015, and Dwight Powell, a 2nd round pick in 2014 whom they acquired as part of the Rondo trade. There's not a lot on hand to feel confident about the future going forward and there's no reason to think they will have any easier time signing free agents with Dirk even closer to retirement next summer. Unless they can pull multiple rabbits out of the hat when it comes to using their cap space to swing trades, they are going to have a difficult enough time convincing Parsons to re-sign when his contract is up as he looks at spending the rest of the prime of his career on a rebuilding team.
Much like what's going on with the Lakers and Knicks, maybe the biggest question mark hanging over the franchise is a future pick they traded away when they thought they would never need it. The Mavs owe a first-round pick to the Celtics as part of the Rajon Rondo trade, which is Top 7 protected from 2016-2020. Not only do they have an incentive to lose big this season, they have an incentive to lose big for awhile. To paraphrase Groundhog Day, winter is coming in Dallas and it's going to be long, it's going to be cold and it's going to last the rest of your life.
The thing to keep in mind with Cuban's tenure in Dallas is that he's a guy who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. When he bought the franchise, they already had Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley. They had already done the long and ugly parts of rebuilding and they were ready to win. He's ridden that wave ever since and he has been lucky enough to build his franchise around one of the greatest players in NBA history for 15+ years. He has never known life at the bottom and he has been desperately looking for a way to shortcut the natural rebuilding cycle of an NBA franchise over the last few seasons while squeezing out every last bit of value from Dirk's career.
It almost worked. If he had been able to sign Parsons and DeAndre in consecutive summers, he would have been able to use two of his Western Conference rivals as minor league teams, letting them deal with the painstaking part of turning a 2nd round pick into an elite NBA contributor and then swooping in when those guys were in their prime. The good news for Mavs fans is that was probably not a sustainable model for any NBA franchise not named the Los Angeles Lakers or the Miami Heat – and even those franchises have learned some hard lessons about the importance of bringing in youth over the last few years – and it's better Cuban learned that lesson now than later.
The last few seasons – and particularly the last few summers of striking out in free agency – have been a learning process for Cuban. He has gotten to see what life is like in the NBA when you don't have an MVP caliber player in the prime of his career. He thought he could build his team primarily through free agency and now he is seeing the downsides to that approach. It doesn't matter how much success you have had in the past, how much you can sweet talk a guy in meetings and how cool you think you look when you are up in the club. At the end of the day you are still gambling the future of your franchise on the whims of guys in their mid 20's.
Where Cuban and the Mavs go from here is unclear. Even if they can conjure up a competitive team this season out of what's left in free agency and the trade market, there's not much reason for optimism for the long-term and no reason to think they will be any type of players in 2016. The other option would be to try and keep that first-round pick in 2016 and see what they could get for guys like Parsons, Dirk and even Rick Carlisle on the market. Carlisle is one of the best X and O coaches in the league but he's never been known for his patience with young players so he's not a great fit for a rebuild. Could he net them a return similar to what Boston Celtics got for Doc Rivers?
There are no easy answers in Dallas. The easy answer walked out the door when DeAndre Jordan changed his mind and wouldn't answer Cuban's phone calls. They can sit around and be angry about being mislead and played for a fool but it won't make the future any more palatable. The reality is that basketball is a young man's game and no team in the NBA can stay at the top forever without thinking long-term and developing young players for the future. Whether or not the Mavs signed DeAndre, that was still going to come back to bite them eventually. Cuban has been trying to find a shortcut to relevance over the last few seasons and all he ended up accomplishing was making the journey longer than it had to be.