The Rock and the Hard Place

Posted by Kirk Henderson on June 3, 2013 under Commentary | 4 Comments to Read

HardPlace

It’s been a slow and frustrating descent for the Mavericks and their fans since climbing the championship ladder in 2011. The quality of team play dropped as fan favorites left for different opportunities, while new faces mostly failed to live up to expectations. To recall how the Mavericks got to this point, it’s illuminating to look back to an email sent from Mark Cuban to Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas on December 8th, 2011:

“The reality is that in the new system, cap room will have far more value than it had in the past…

The rules are different now, and while it makes it tougher this year because of the affection we have for many of the guys that are leaving, if we want the Mavs to be able to compete for championships in future years as well, it’s a hard decision, but I believe the right decision.”

Cuban has been consistent with his desire to construct a winning team within the constraints of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. During a May 28th radio interview with ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM Cuban said, “If we don’t get the big name, we want to start building that base of a team that can start having some continuity of playing together.” Despite Dirk Nowitzki being on the final year of his contract, it’s been generally understood that the Mavericks are trying to build a team around or with Dirk, while also building a team capable of being successful after Dirk retires.

But there’s been an elephant in the room that has not been acknowledged: What if those goals are mutually exclusive?

Mark Cuban has been very careful in what he’s said to the media over the last few years, mentioning how important cap flexibility is in the long term while also giving attention to Dirk’s dissatisfaction with the last two seasons. If Cuban and Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson are able to land either Chris Paul or Dwight Howard, then this point is moot. But what if they don’t?

The remainder of the talent in the 2013 free agent pool either doesn’t fit with Dallas’ plan, like Josh Smith, or represent risky gambles, like Brandon Jennings or Andrew Bynum. Signing one or more of the second tier free agents might benefit Dallas in the short term by making the team more competitive. However, it’s hard to imagine any 2013-2014 Maverick squad without Paul or Howard being a “championship” or “top-seeded team,” which Cuban insists is possible.

Any influx of talent might make Nowitzki happy as he heads into his final years in a Mavericks uniform, but at what point is doing something for Dirk detrimental to Dallas long term? He turns 35 on June 19th. Dirk’s offensive game remains amazing, but he’s also expressed a desire for someone to share the load. Do any of the non-superstar free agents really strike the Dallas front office as the kind of players they can build around after Nowitzki retires?

On the flip side, if Dallas elects to sign a roster full of project players and single-year contracts again, they’re essentially wasting a third straight year of Dirk’s career. For many Mavericks fans, Nowitzki is the alpha and omega when it comes to Dallas as a franchise, and putting together a competitive team while he finishes out his Hall of Fame tenure is an utmost priority. After all, when Nowitzki re-signed with the Mavs at a discount in the summer of 2010, he did so with the understanding that the front office would do its best to surround him with high-caliber players. The lockout and ensuing CBA changed the landscape drastically, and in the process limited Dallas’ team-building options. Yet another lost year for Dirk would be tough to swallow for all involved, even if such a course proves to be best for the Mavs’ greater efforts to construct a contender.

Nowitzki has long been a good soldier for the organization, despite playing with the least talented teammates of any superstar from his generation. While he’s on the record saying he’s willing to take a hefty pay cut when he re-signs after next season, another wasted season could change his internal calculus. Loyal though he might be, Nowitzki’s re-signing in that scenario would first require that he endure another year on the “mediocrity treadmill” without losing faith or interest in the Mavs’ rebuilding efforts. Dallas has been a step above bad for two seasons, held together mainly by Dirk’s brilliance. As he ages, he can’t be expected to carry a .500 team in a Western conference that only seems to get better each season. Nowitzki has seen the peak, and to trudge through the lowlands with a middling team through his slow decline would seem a painfully unfulfilling turn.

As the Mavs attempt to thread the needle in building a team for the future that will simultaneously make the most of Nowitzki’s twilight years, the front office is flirting with disaster. Despite all assurances to the contrary, Dallas’ plan seems to be to land Paul/Howard or bust. The Mavs are reportedly shopping this year’s pick for salary cap space, as has become something of a trend; Dallas traded away younger assets like Corey Brewer and Jordan Hamilton only to make cap space in the past, and the bid to have max-level cap room has left the Mavericks’ cupboard alarmingly bare. If Dallas strikes out with Paul and Howard, it’s quite possible the 2013-2014 Mavericks will be a bad team with a murky future. Despite trying to place themselves in the best possible situation for this off season, the Mavericks are left at the mercy of the decision-making of others.

It’s an uncomfortable situation with meager chance for positive resolution. Yet this is the lot of a team rebuilding around an aging star owed $22.7 million in single-year salary, left only to rely on the long-shot landing of Paul or Howard. For now, acquiring either superstar remains a vague possibility for a franchise in need of hope. Yet come July, the overwhelming likelihood is that both Paul and Howard will sign elsewhere, leaving Dallas to face difficult questions with few — if any — encouraging answers.