For the first time since Mark Cuban became the owner, the Mavs have to start thinking about the draft lottery in January. Even with Dirk Nowitzki rounding back into shape, Dallas may have already dug too deep a hole through the first two months to get back into the playoff picture. According to John Hollinger’s Playoff Odds, the Mavs have a 0.1% chance of making the playoffs and they’ll need to hurdle the LA Lakers, Utah and Minnesota just to get to No. 9.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a Tim Duncan, LeBron James or even an Anthony Davis-type prospect in this year’s draft. However, just because there isn’t a franchise-changing player available doesn’t mean 2013 is a “weak draft”. So while Dallas may be tempted to shop their pick, unless they are blown away by an offer, they would be wise to upgrade their talent base with one of the many excellent prospects that might be available to them late in the lottery.
While the Mavs have been selling their fan base on using the cap flexibility they created two years ago to find another superstar, that ship has almost certainly sailed. Most of the players on the NBA’s “superstar carousel” have found long-term homes, while the two biggest prizes this summer — Chris Paul and Dwight Howard — are unlikely to choose Dallas over Los Angeles, especially when the Mavs have so few on-court assets to woo them with.
Dallas isn’t going to find a player who will make them a contender in the draft, but they can start accumulating assets that move them back towards respectability. Potentially, the slotted positions of three players in next year’s starting five appear spoken for, with Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion (who should be able to maintain his current level of production at small forward indefinitely) under contract and O.J. Mayo, whose elite shooting ability makes him a viable long-term answer at shooting guard, a potential returnee should he opt to become a free agent. And while finding a center in the draft who can contribute immediately is almost impossible, almost every draft has a few quality, NBA-ready point guards. The class of 2013 is no exception.
Dallas seems to be one of the few teams in the NBA that doesn’t have a quality young point guard. The uptempo nature of the AAU game has made it harder to develop big men, but it has done wonders for the guard positions, as prospects have more game opportunities than ever before to learn how to run a team and make decisions on the fly. Just as important: the height standards for the point guard position create a deep talent pool, if only because there will always be more 6-foot+ players with NBA-caliber athleticism than 6’10”+ players.
This year, Damian Lillard has become the prohibitive favorite in the Rookie of the Year race, even though the Trail Blazers’ savvy young PG came out of Weber State, far off the national radar. In my opinion, 2013 features at least three PG’s who will be as good, if not better, than Lillard. Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State), Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse) and Trey Burke (Michigan) aren’t perfect prospects, but all three would instantly improve this team’s fortunes.
Smart, a highly-touted freshman who won two consecutive 5A state titles at the Dallas-area Flower Mound Marcus, will be the highest-rated of the three come draft time. Not only does everyone rave about his intangibles, but he’s a massive 6’4”-220 athlete with a rare combination of size and speed at the position. He took over the Cowboys team as soon as he walked on campus and he’s been stuffing the box score ever since — averaging 14 points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals and one block per game. The only real areas of concern are his low shooting percentages (41 percent from the field, 29 percent from deep), but that’s more a function of poor shot selection (which should improve with time) than any permanent wrong with his shooting form.
Carter-Williams will be the most polarizing. The Syracuse sophomore doesn’t have an outside shot, but like Rajon Rondo and Ricky Rubio, he has the size, athleticism and court vision to overcome it. At 6’6”, he’s a pure point with the length and quickness to impact the game as a rebounder, defender and passer. So far this season, he is averaging 12 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and three steals a game. His game wouldn’t be a great fit on many NBA teams, but he could slide right into a Mavs squad with a ton of outside shooting and not a lot of ball-handling.
Burke, despite standing just six-feet flat, is the most NBA-ready. As a sophomore, he is the quarterback of an undefeated Michigan team ranked No. 2 in the country. The only hole in his game is a lack of ideal size: he can get to the rim, shoot from the perimeter, distribute the ball and hold his own on the defensive end. He’s averaging 18 points, seven assists and three rebounds on 54/75/41 shooting — numbers which compare favorably to what Chris Paul did in his two years at Wake Forest. He’ll probably never be that good, but he’s one of the most underrated prospects in the country right now.
Dallas is currently in line to have the ninth pick in the draft (or somewhere thereabouts, given the random draw of the lottery system), so Burke and Carter-Williams will probably be on the board even if Smart isn’t. The average return for that position in the draft isn’t great, but if you look back over the last 10 years, there are almost always at least 2-3 high-level players who were on the board at No. 9, even if they weren’t selected. The Mavs front office hasn’t been great at finding value in the draft recently, but that’s no reason to give up on the easiest method of acquiring young talent.
With more stringent luxury tax penalties coming into place, quality young players on cost-controlled contracts will be more important than ever before. Cuban is one of the more popular owners in the NBA, but Dallas will never be New York, LA or Miami when it comes to attracting free agents. They need to start prioritizing the draft, in much the same way Houston and San Antonio do. Over a dozen teams have found their point guard of the future in the last few drafts; the Mavs could join that list this coming off-season, weak draft or not.
Jonathan Tjarks 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.