Encapsulating a team’s essence in one word is difficult, particularly when that team is the 2012-2013 Dallas Mavericks and one isn’t supposed to curse. Those conditions standing, however, the word which best describes both the current and future outlook of these Dallas Mavericks is “unpredictable.” The instability which characterized the Mavs this season will become the new normal as Dallas prepares to enter another hyperactive off-season.
As the primary topics of discussion shift away from the playoffs and beards, talk of free agency will ramp up. A rush of predictions, rumors and opinion pieces will attempt to assign a method to the ongoing Mavericks madness. It is a void into which I will willingly plunge as an analyst, but I wish to first beg your forgiveness. The task of predicting Dallas’ moves this offseason, or offering reasonable advice to its ownership, is a tall task, and potentially a fool’s errand. Anyone searching for a definitive answer would be wise to remember that little in this Mavericks era can be anticipated; most everything has yet to be determined.
The Mavericks entered the season riding a wave of change few foresaw, bidding farewell to Jason Kidd and Jason Terry and welcoming an entirely new cast of characters. After Delonte West’s unfortunate preseason departure, Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion were the only rotation-level holdovers who remained. Nowitzki, the team’s only superstar, started the season facing an indefinite period of recovery after the first surgery of his 13-year career. The new cast of characters was assembled hastily and tasked with somehow creating chemistry both before and after Dirk entered the lineup.
Joining this existing patchwork of one-year contracts was a revolving door of free agents, including former washouts (Eddy Curry), retirees (Derek Fisher and Mike James), and journeymen (Troy Murphy, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Anthony Morrow) among others. The departures became so regular that they ceased to be stunning, instead representing typical occurrences in a season where the only unifying object was inconsistency. In the process, Rick Carlisle set a team record for starting lineups while trying to find the ideal unit, a Sisyphean task which remains to be completed.
The coming summer could make 2012 look calm. Last season’s departures of several former starters certainly won’t be the last. The Mavericks sport the NBA’s largest contingent of free agents (nine) entering the summer of 2013. Add to that list of free agents those who may not return due to trades or other considerations, and only one meaningful name is omitted: Dirk Nowitzki, the nexus of the team, who joins the Mavericks ownership as the lone bastions of familiarity.
Each of Dallas’ alternating number-twos could start next season in a different uniform. Shawn Marion, who took up the mantle of leadership in Dirk’s absence and anchors the team’s defense, is an unrestricted free agent and it’s uncertain if he’ll return. Vince Carter, who alternated the crown with Marion in Dirk’s absence and is one of the few Mavericks who can both between create his own shot and play in the rhythm of the offense, is an attractive trade piece. O.J. Mayo, who has quietly logged more minutes per game than Russell Westbrook, has a player option and seems certain to test the waters. Mark Cuban has made it clear that he wants to keep Mayo but it remains to be seen how the market will value Mayo’s body of work.
Younger players like Darren Collison and Brandan Wright, who scratch the surface of being starter-quality without breaking through, will present very difficult cost-benefit equations to compute. Each has, at times, provided reason for hope, buttressed by youth, but their return depends as much on their play in these last five games as it does on an unpredictable market. Wright’s string of quality play has been duly noted by Grantland’s Zach Lowe and a large contingent of The Two Man Game’s staff: it certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by other teams.
Wright embodies why it’s best to approach free agency with an open mind and embrace the unpredictability that has enveloped the Mavericks. There is always a market for offensively-gifted, hard-working and relatively injury-free young big men. Wright is indeed a special prospect, and sometimes the bidding for players of his kind gets unreasonably high. I am one of a chorus of TMG writers who regularly sing Wright’s praises, but I acknowledge that the front office, in constructing a big-picture plan I can’t see using information and expert opinion I can’t access, may reasonably allow Wright to part. Another talented player would depart from Dallas, another interesting prospect would replace him, and Carlisle would go back to work trying to clean up the mess. Such is the way of these Mavs.
The elders, Elton Brand and Chris Kaman, are contrasts to Collison and Wright’s youth but they both find themselves facing uncertain futures. Brand has played as well as many expected, while Kaman has shown flashes of brilliance without finding any consistency.
The point guards, Rodrigue Beaubois and Mike James, hold the unenviable distinction of having been the least stable aspects of a remarkably turbulent team.
Decisions regarding all these players will obviously be made with an eye on the market, watching both big-ticket free agents like Josh Smith and smaller targets, such as Jose Calderon, who the Mavericks were rumored to covet in February. Brandon Jennings may also receive considerable attention. These are just the tip of the iceberg, the “known unknowns” of what seems certain to be another unpredictable market of free agents that the Mavericks will attempt to navigate without capsizing.
The only elements of stability — Dirk Nowitzki, Rick Carlisle and the front office — will be tested as never before. Dirk will enter his 14th season of NBA basketball at the tender age of 35, fighting time itself to continue his streak of dominance. Carlisle, no matter how much talent the free agency process blesses him with, will have little time to work with his roster while competing in a loaded Western Conference. The front office does have some cap room at their disposal, but may not have the free agent resources necessary to build a quality roster out of scratch.
That Dallas only has a few years – at most – of the Dirk era left is certain. Everything else is still unpredictable, and into this chaos wade Dirk, Carlisle, Cuban and everyone else brave enough to witness the adventure. It will sometimes be captivating, occasionally maddening, and often surprising. It may prove confusing, but never boring. This offseason will be an uncertain, trying and marvelous time to watch a proud organization go back to work in hopes of starting their playoff streak anew, and proving that they’re still among the best in the business.