By the time the Dallas Mavericks limped out of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs in defeat, it was clear to anyone watching that they had run the tank empty. This is a team in need of a major overhaul, and with as many as 11 free agents this summer, Mark Cuban will be faced with the biggest decisions of his ownership.
For now, the well-known owner is keeping a low profile as he sorts through the myriad of choices that lay ahead.
Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson cobbled together a roster they hoped could make one more meaningful run this season, surrounding longtime cornerstone Dirk Nowitzki, 36, with veterans of the postseason wars.
And the gathering of golden-agers didn’t stop during the offseason—the team brought in Rajon Rondo from the Boston Celtics in a December blockbuster, then went on to sign Amar'e Stoudemire in February after the New York Knicks bought him out.
Unfortunately, the geriatric gambit was for naught—the Houston Rockets bounced the seventh-seeded Mavericks, 4-1—and now Dallas’ front office heads back to the lab. It was the Mavericks’ fourth straight season of failing to advance beyond the first round.
The Rondo experiment was particularly disastrous—his assists dropped from 10.8 to 6.5 per game after the trade, and his player efficiency rating went from 15.5 to 12.4.
Stats aside, the pass-first and shoot-seldom guard was never a good fit with Dallas coach Rick Carlisle. Rondo's emotional meltdown in late February led to a one-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team. The situation continued to devolve during the first two games of the playoffs, after which Carlisle said he didn’t expect the mercurial point guard to ever wear a Mavericks uniform again, per Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com.
The team took a chance with the Rondo trade, and now it’s time to look forward.
“I don’t think anybody is looking back at that right now,” Nowitzki said, per MacMahon. “It was a deal we went for it, and it just didn’t pan out for both sides, and both sides moved on.”
The 13-time All-Star is signed for two more years and took a hefty pay cut on his last contract in order for the team to be competitive. Nowitizki will earn $8.3 million next season—considerably less than his worth on the open market even at this late stage in his career.
His only concern, however, is how to make the team better.
“It’ll be a busy summer again for this franchise,” Nowitzki said, per Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News. “But like always, we’re going to trust Mark (Cuban) and Donnie to get the guys back that we had that we liked and get some guys in to make this a better team.”
The 7-footer even went so far as to suggest coming off the bench if it would help the team.
“I’m almost speechless about what Dirk has done for this franchise and continues to do,” Nelson said in response, per Townsend. “It just doesn’t cease to amaze me.”
There really isn’t any need for Nowitzki to take a back seat yet. True, his game isn’t what it once was, but he still averaged 21.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in 36.2 minutes during the conference quarterfinals. The German-born stretch 4 whose style heavily influenced the league can still be an effective starter for Dallas.
But Cuban has to realize that reloading around his longtime superstar must be done with an eye toward the future, not to any one player’s swan-song years. The Mavericks owner needs to accept that all good things must pass, and nothing lasts forever. That includes his partnership with Nowitzki as the face of his franchise.
The highest-paid member of the team is one of the few who is still under contract. Chandler Parsons will earn nearly $15.4 million next season—nearly double Nowitzki’s salary. Parsons, 26, was out after the first game of the playoffs with a knee injury. The 6’9” forward subsequently underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair cartilage.
Meanwhile, shooting guard Monta Ellis has a player’s option that he may opt out of in order to explore the marketplace. Ellis was the only Maverick to score more points and play more minutes than Nowitzki in the first round.
The other players currently under contract are rookie forward Dwight Powell, who came to Dallas in the Rondo trade, and backup point guard Devin Harris.
The style of the Mavericks front office in recent years has been to chase after top free agents, and when that fails, to look for riskier propositions—players who offer specific skill sets but are not at the top of anyone’s wish list.
“I like our ability to work with what I call ‘fallen angels,’” Cuban wrote in his personal blog in 2013. “Players who are traded or left unsigned because everyone in the league thinks that they can only be the player they saw in another organization.”
At this point, it’s time to look beyond patchwork solutions and risks that didn’t pay off.
Dallas has the 21st and 52nd picks in the upcoming draft—not great, but at least something to work with going forward. The team will also have money to spend during free agency, but it will first have to shed its $20.6 million cap hold on Tyson Chandler by re-signing or renouncing him. And if the team plans on being active in free agency, it likely means Chandler will not be returning.
Cuban and Nelson have to embrace the draft, something they have had little success with in recent years. Indeed, it has often been a convoluted case of musical chairs with little left to show in the long run.
In 2012, the Mavericks drafted Tyler Zeller at No. 16 and traded his rights to the Cleveland Cavaliers for three lower picks, resulting in Jared Cunningham, Bernard James and Jae Crowder.
The following year, Dallas drafted Kelly Olynyk at No. 13 and traded him for the Boston Celtics’ No. 16 pick plus two second-round picks in 2014. The Mavericks then sent their No. 16 pick, Lucas Nogueira, along with Cunningham to the Atlanta Hawks for the Hawks’ No. 18 pick, Shane Larkin, plus cash consideration.
Dallas used Larkin sparingly during his rookie campaign and ultimately included him as a sweetener in the Chandler and Felton acquisition.
Perhaps the Mavericks should try trading up this year instead of trading down. In any case, it is essential that the front office identify young talent who can be groomed and developed for the long run—not simply as quick-fix trade bait.
Similarly, they need to start signing free agents whose best days are still ahead of them. They can chase after a top name like LaMarcus Aldridge, who grew up in Dallas. But for the most part, this particular Texas team is no longer a premier destination attraction for elite players.
The only way to make the Mavericks attractive and potent again is for Cuban to finally accept the inevitable and embrace the slow, deliberate and often painful youth-driven rebuild.
The constant revolving door with the affable, dedicated and still-relevant Nowitzki at its center will no longer work. This much has been proven consistently since Dallas won its lone title in 2011.
The team is entering a crucial transitional era, and it is time to bite the bullet and accept that the team may have to fall even further before it can truly rise again.
Salary figures courtesy of Spotrac unless otherwise noted.