Successful navigation of free agency typically requires foresight, planning, and creative financing, but ultimately falls to the mercy of chance. All of the managerial savvy in the world can only make a compelling case, and in the process leave the fate of a franchise in the hands of an individual with many, complicated interests.
So it was with the Mavs’ failed pursuit of Deron Williams, which officially came to an end with Williams’ announcement of his intention to re-sign with the Brooklyn Nets. Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban avoided long-term investments and wiggled their way into the cap room necessary to lure the DFW native, but the payoff for their efforts was always a gamble at best, and it’s not exactly surprising that their little wager against the incumbent Nets didn’t pay off. That said, the outcome also doesn’t make the decision to break up a championship core any less correct than it was a year ago; tough as it was for the champs to forego their title defense before the season even began, Williams and Dwight Howard were prizes worth chasing, particularly in the face of otherwise over-investing in a fading core.
The 2011 title will always be a cherished memory in Dallas, but Nelson and Cuban didn’t let sentimentalism interrupt their sense of pragmatism. Fans have the pleasure of enjoying the NBA from any conceivable angle, but owners and general managers aren’t granted such a luxury; NBA decision-makers have little choice but to attempt to build a winner in the most prudent way possible, and though Dallas would be a formidable team with Tyson Chandler and company still on the roster, the Mavs’ brain trust unfortunately knew the limitations of such stagnation. What was good enough to win a title last season — under incredibly fortuitous circumstances, no less — isn’t at all guaranteed to be good enough to win a title in another. Don’t mistake the Mavericks’ grand accomplishment for some kind of enduring brilliance, as even the most stable influences of Dallas’ title run reached unbelievable (and unprecedented) heights at just the right time.
It took an untouchable Dirk Nowitzki, an endless supply of magical comebacks, and improbable performances from a wide variety of veterans to even get the Mavs to the Finals in the first place. It took all of that and a bizarre LeBron James letdown to usher the Larry O’Brien to Don Carter. It was absolutely, positively earned, but the Mavericks won the title as a dark horse, and that shouldn’t be forgotten merely because the team didn’t arrive at the following season intact.
All of which may seem like a slightly unnecessary reflection on year-old decisions, but Williams’ choice provides a far-too convenient looking glass for a franchise at an interesting juncture. Dallas didn’t play safe or play sure — they merely did what gave them the best chance to transition from one period of the franchise’s history to another. They opted for the possibility of cleared books rather than the comfort of a binding cap picture, and though Williams shuffles from New Jersey to Brooklyn, Dallas isn’t altogether without options. Their approach simply demands a bit of refocusing and a dash more patience, and while the latter is undoubtedly in short supply these days among the Maverick faithful, it nonetheless bears the more frustratingly promising potential.