Changes are coming to the Mavericks roster. Contrary to the suggestion made by Bill Simmons on NBA Countdown that the Mavericks would catch “lottery-itis” and shelve Dirk, owner Mark Cuban has made it clear that he isn’t content to embrace a year without a trip to the playoffs. “There’s a one hundred percent chance that we’re going to try to do something,” Cuban told Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News. Soon after, Cuban told Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas that the Mavericks are “letting everybody know that the ‘Bank of Cuban’ is open.” Some caveats, such as the unwillingness to deal Dirk or “to do a trade just to do a trade,” were explicit, while others, such as retaining O.J. Mayo, are widely assumed. Those assurances aside, the future of Dallas is as unclear as it has been in recent memory. Cuban, blessed with extra salary cap space and a treasure trove of expiring contracts, will confront two inter-related questions: when to act and who to target.
There is pressure on Cuban to act quickly. The fan base is in disarray as it watches a team defending a 12-season playoff streak slip towards the bottom of the Western Conference. Dallas is still five games behind the eighth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, even after winning three straight, and the playoff window is shrinking quickly as the February 21st trade deadline looms. Aside from making the playoffs, Dallas wants to maximize every moment of Dirk’s last few productive years and demonstrate progress to potential free agents over the summer. Cuban also wants to quickly capitalize on the desire of other teams to avoid the costly repercussions of the luxury tax.
While the case for acting quickly has merit, Cuban would be wise to be patient and wait until the summer to make any big moves. The playoff streak is a mark of pride but it’s isn’t worth sacrificing operating room over the summer to impossibly chase. It is also of little comfort to fans when the season ends: streak or no streak, sneaking into the playoffs and being swept by Oklahoma City last year felt little better than the prospect of missing the playoffs this season. Meanwhile, a big signing could easily reverse those feelings and reignite disaffected ticket-holders. Cuban is wise to capitalize on the upcoming luxury tax but the looming hike won’t exert significant pressure on other owners to act until summer arrives. Dallas would avoid further mid-season roster turnover and find a significantly stronger group of available free agents if it waits patiently.
With Dwight Howard and Chris Paul likely to stay in Los Angeles, there are four prized targets for Dallas to pursue: Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins. Of the four, only Rudy Gay is thought to be immediately available. The Jazz and Hawks want to ride the seasons out with Jefferson and Smith, as both franchises embark on their own push to secure a playoff seed. Both would be unlikely to pursue a mid-season salary dump. Cousins, the target of heavy trade speculation, is the centerpiece on a franchise that is likely in the midst of being sold to a new ownership group. It is unlikely the Kings will dismiss their prized asset before the team’s ownership changes hands, wanting to leave that decision to the next administration.
In addition to the previous benefits to acting quickly, there are several upsides to pursuing the more immediately available Rudy Gay. As Derek Page at Hoopsworld notes, Gay would give the Mavs a young star to pair alongside Nowitzki, a solid #2 scoring option and a strong deterrent to double teams. However, Gay’s greatest strength, his scoring, represents one area where Dallas hasn’t struggled. Meanwhile, Gay does little to correct the Mavs’ greatest issues; their poor rebounding, ball movement and defensive pressure. The expiring contracts Dallas would need to trade for Gay, some combination of Darren Collison, Shawn Marion and Chris Kaman, are the Mavs’ best antidotes to the above-listed problems and their best trade assets as summer approaches.
Players like Jefferson, Smith and Cousins that may be available over the summer would do far more to shore up Dallas’ poor rebounding and interior defense than Gay would. Cousins and Jefferson are among the top dozen rebounders in the league, each averaging double-digit rebounds per game. Smith is also no slouch, ranking in the top 25 in rebounding and posing a permanent threat to make the NBA’s all-defensive first or second team. Each player has his own individual weaknesses but all possess rare skills that Rudy Gay does not. A lineup featuring Dirk, O.J. Mayo and any one of Jefferson, Cousins or Smith would provide great offensive force without sacrificing quality interior defense.
Dallas fans have grown accustomed to winning and Cuban will soon face difficult choices about when to act and who to target. Cuban isn’t afraid to make big acquisitions mid-season and faces pressure to act from a variety of different forces. The long term outlook for the Mavericks, however, would be far better if Cuban displayed patience by waiting until the summer to target players who will better address the team’s current vulnerabilities. This won’t be the most immediately popular approach but it represents the best way to maximize the last few years Dallas has to compete for a championship with Dirk.
Brian Rubaie is a high school teacher, debate coach, and full-time Mavericks fan. Follow him on Twitter: @DirksRevenge.