Jonathan Tjarks is the managing editor of SB Nation Dallas. He writes about basketball and all that it implies at RealGM and SB Nation, and is a guest columnist here at The Two Man Game. Follow Jonathan on Twitter at @JonathanTjarks.
Over the last decade, the Mavericks and the Spurs have been the most consistent winners in the NBA. However, while San Antonio is renowned for an excellent scouting and player development operation, Dallas has always preferred getting veterans in either trades and free agency. For years, Dirk Nowitzki’s individual excellence and Cuban’s checkbook have papered over their inability to develop young players. In 2012, those chickens have come home to roost.
When Deron Williams decided to stay in Brooklyn, Dallas had to scramble just to fill out their roster. Aside from Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion, they had no one else they could rely on to fill consistent minutes. The result of that turnover has been an unbelievable lack of continuity; with their two star forwards dealing with injuries, there are many stretches of games where all five Mavs on the court were wearing different jerseys a year ago.
It’s not a coincidence that Rick Carlisle has used 10 different starting lineups in their first 21 games, but nothing represents the Mavs’ desperation more than the in-season signings of Derek Fisher, Troy Murphy and Eddy Curry. All three have names familiar to basketball fans, but it’s been years since any of them has been a functional NBA player. Curry hasn’t had a PER above 10 since 2008, Fisher since 2009 and Murphy since 2010. Since Dallas released them, neither Curry nor Murphy has gotten even a sniff from another NBA team.
Baseball analysts coined the term “replacement-level player” to represent what the average Triple-AAA veteran could do with a MLB job; the Mavs three most recent signings are well below the equivalent in basketball. The lack of imagination may be the most troubling part of the decision-making process behind bringing them in. Do the Mavs even scout the D-League or Europe anymore? With the amount of basketball-playing talent worldwide at an all-time high, it’s borderline negligent to restrict your talent search to guys with “NBA experience”.
Of course, it does no good to bring in a talented but unknown player on a 10-day contract if Rick Carlisle will refuse to play him. For all his many strengths as a coach, one thing Carlisle has never excelled at is developing young talent. Like Avery Johnson, another former NBA journeyman who stubbornly plays veterans years after their expiration date, Carlisle has a different standard for veterans who make physical mistakes versus young players who make mental ones. He stuck with Murphy to the bitter end — giving him 18 minutes the day before Dallas released him — rather than playing Brandan Wright, who has done well over the last two weeks.
There’s no better example of Carlisle’s difficulty with developing younger players than Rodrigue Beaubois. Say what you will about the inconsistent and often maddening young guard, but he did show a considerable amount of promise as a rookie. He’s gone from an “untouchable” prospect to a guy who will have to battle to stay in the NBA after his rookie deal expires. That’s partly due to injuries and a crowded Dallas backcourt rotation, but his confidence appears totally sapped by Carlisle’s constant yo-yoing of his role over the last three years.
Here’s the most depressing fact of all: despite his abysmal play of late, Beaubois is still one of the more productive first-round picks the Mavs have had in recent years. You would have to go all the way back to 2004 (Devin Harris) and 2003 (Josh Howard) to find the last players Dallas drafted who turned into solid NBA contributors. I won’t list picks made after No. 40, because the end of the second round is a complete crapshoot, but here’s the list since Harris: Mo Ager (2006), Nick Fazekas (2007), Beaubois (2008), Dominique Jones (2009). Doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence about the development of Jared Cunningham, who I thought was the No. 10 shooting guard in 2012, does it?
Nothing encapsulates the Mavericks reckless indifference towards finding quality young players on cheap cost-controlled contracts better than 2011, when they dealt the rights to the No. 26 overall pick (Jordan Hamilton) for Rudy Fernandez. Six months later, before Fernandez had received a minute of time in Dallas, he was dealt to Denver for a future second-round pick. In 2012, Hamilton, a talented 6’7” shooter, has a 16.2 PER. I’m not saying he’s a future All-Star, but he appears to be a usable NBA wing, something which is in rather short supply around these parts.
Just because it’s harder to find quality players late in the first-round is no excuse to give up looking for them. In contrast, here’s what San Antonio did in 2011: after patiently developing a late first-rounder in 2008 (George Hill) for three years, they flipped him to the Pacers for a mid-first round pick. That pick became Kawhi Leonard, a talented 21-year old small forward who looks headed for a productive 10-year career in the NBA. They also took a flyer on Texas PG Cory Joseph with their late first-round pick and selected a well-regarded European prospect named Davis Bertans in the second.
San Antonio, who has never operated under the illusion that they are a free-agent destination, has been squeezing blood from a rock for years in terms of maximizing assets. It doesn’t always work: Joseph, for example, has given them nothing in his first two NBA seasons. But when it does, it gives them the roster depth to survive injuries to their stars, like when Danny Green stepped in for Manu Ginobili for a good portion of last season. That, more than anything else, represents the difference between the two organizations’ philosophies: San Antonio signed Green off the waiver wire, Dallas signed Derek Fisher.
While Cuban has done an incredible job turning the Mavs into one of the most well-respected franchises in the NBA, as the last year has shown, Dallas is not in the league of a New York, Miami or LA in terms of being a free agent destination. With Dirk now in his mid-30s, the future of the Mavs has never been cloudier since Cuban took over. At some point, they are going to have to find and develop elite players in the draft. Unfortunately, Dallas fans have almost no reason to be confident in Cuban, Carlisle and Donnie Nelson’s ability to do that.