It’s impossible to tell fans of a team like the Dallas Mavericks who just made it to the Western Conference finals that they’re closer to being a first-round exit team than they are a title contender, but that’s exactly what I think is true.
Let’s go through some reasons right outside my head:
- Nuggets, missed Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. and the Clippers, missing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, will get much better with a return to health.
- The Warriors outclassed the Mavericks, proving that their one-dimensional attack on offense could be protected by elite defense.
- On paper, the Mavericks are probably the fifth or sixth best team in the Western Conference. If Zion Williamson and the Pelicans hit the ground and the Timberwolves solve their point guard questions, they could end up on the seventh or eighth.
At the moment, the Mavericks are in the same position as the Trail Blazers in 2019. After an unlikely conference final, the team thought they were a move or two away from being a title contender. Subsequent early outings in the playoffs over the next couple of years proved that the perception was false.
So here we are at a crossroads. To be clear, the Mavericks have no one to blame for the current situation but themselves. ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported on the Hoop Collective podcast that Jalen Brunson was willing to accept an extension similar to the one signed by Dorian Finney-Smith, but the Mavericks failed in the hope of landing a star by the deadline. Signing Brunson to that extension would have made it impossible to include him in any packages and with limited trading chips, and omitting him from any trading proposals would have been a no-starter for other teams. While Maverick’s logic may seem sound, a little self-awareness would reveal the truth. If a superstar were to become available, it seems unlikely that Dallas could outbid any other suitor.
The Mavericks went all-in with pocket 2s and are now in a lose-lose situation. Here are the paths I see:
Door 1: Brunson goes to a team with cap space and Mavs loses him for nothing.
Door 2: Brunson selects a team without the required amount of cap space to sign him directly. Due to base year compensation rules outlined by our own @CBAMavs, a sign and trade will be difficult to get out of, and it is unlikely that Mavs will provide any substance.
Door 3: The Mavericks pay too much for an undersized guard without elite athletics that will probably never be an All-Star game. I love Brunson and appreciate the hard work he put in to maximize his talent. At the same time, I would be lying if I said he was a top 40 player. In fact, he may not be in the top 50.
Doors 1 and 2 would be an immediate hit for the Mavs’ short-term prospects and would certainly knock them down a stick or two for the upcoming season. Door 3 would push the Mavericks well into the treasure with a list that had six or seven playoff caliber players in the current rotation and would give them few, if any, realistic opportunities to improve the team in the near future.
So, what will the Mavericks do? Unless Brunson thinks the Knicks or another team can offer him a bigger role and the opportunity to show off, Dallas can and will offer Brunson what he wants. But is that what the Mavericks should do?
Locking in a team whose roof is a lucky WCF run should not be the goal. Taxpayer MLE does not get Dallas over the top. With no players capable of making a significant leap, internal improvements will not get them there either. I knocked on Christian Wood’s table before we switched for him, but even I can admit that he alone does not make us a title candidate. Several minutes for Josh Green is not the answer. Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock are what they are. Spencer Dinwiddie is a question mark, but an increase in use can lead to a decrease in efficiency unless he attacks the rim at a higher speed.
Overall, Mavs has a good team. This year showed that with some breaks and extreme shooting performances, they match well with some teams. But with a top five player on your team, it’s simply not good enough. Anything less than a list at the championship level should be considered a failure for this team.
That said, let’s take a look at some of the arguments we see through fandom
Mavericks are already over the roof, why does it matter what we pay Brunson?
For years, I’ve been annoyed by the notion that Mark Cuban is cheap. Fans point to the fact that he has not paid the luxury tax for years and believe it is a reflection of his unwillingness to spend money. I have shouted into the abyss that you can not go from a cap space team to a team in the treasure unless you sign your own players again for big money. A look at the last decade of draft picks should tell you that we have rarely given up our picks on a second contract let alone an extension of big money. You can fool the Cuban’s desire to use cap space to lure a star to Dallas, but that’s why we did not pay the tax, not because the Cuban is short of cash and refuses to break out of his wallet.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say I’m wrong and Mavericks fans have been right all along. Mark Cuban is tighter than a pair of work pants you bought before the pandemic. Do you think that suddenly, after refusing to spend for a decade, Cuban will suddenly spend tens of millions in luxury taxes on a team that is not a title contender? That has either not been true in the last decade or not now. A few years later, when the repeater tax starts, every dollar spent will actually be four or five. Are you offering a marginally talented player $ 6 million with your taxpayer MLE? It’s going to cost $ 24- $ 30 million a year in actual cash to sign that player.
Only a handful of NBA owners can do that without blinking an eye. Even the richest owners have rejected the prospect of cutting the league a check for $ 80-100 million dollars, and who can blame them. This current version of Mavericks is not a title contender. The team’s payroll will reach a breaking point and the team must find ways to cut costs.
The Mavericks can replace Jalen Brunson down the line
A non-All-Star player earning $ 28 million dollars a year is not a trading asset. Although any contract can theoretically be moved, it does not mean that it can be moved for value. Kevin Hurter, Duncan Robinson, Terry Rozier and our very own Tim Hardaway Jr. should be examples of what happens when you pay money at star level that is not stars. All four players are useful and can help you win games. However, their contracts make them almost impossible to move for value.
Assuming Brunson will be a big trader is wrong. He was and is being paid as our second best player. However, it is difficult to find a competing team where Brunson can qualify as their second best player. Either the Los Angeles team? Denver? Milwaukee? Miami? Golden State? Boston? Brunson would not be the second best player on any of these teams. That leaves the league as a market for him. The Knicks have been the Knicks because they have paid out huge contracts to players who could never live up to them. Having Brunson on the book would make it harder to find a true second.
There was a recent debate in the Mavericks community about whether they would be best served by pursuing a second star or adding depth. The final should have helped answer that question. The Celtics were a deeper team, but star-level talent does more to decide the playoff series than functional depth.
So how can Mavs get the other star. By choosing in the 20s, it is unlikely that we will ever draft that type of player. Trade, perhaps? Unlikely, since they lack trading assets. I’m the old man who shouts at the crowd every time I have to remind someone that the Mavericks players are simply not sought after by other teams. Does anyone think we can get back a positive resource for Hardaway? The answer should be no. A player’s value for Dallas is not the same as his value around the league.
The truth hurts. The cold truth is that the Mavericks screwed up the Jalen Brunson situation. I thought Mavs would be best served by shopping Brunson before the deadline. But no one wants to hear the team take a step back to take two steps forward. Winning games in the short term is fun and long-term thinking when it comes to team building is simply not.
What should Dallas do then? Let’s talk about it soon, because at the end of the week it does not matter anyway. But it is not as simple a decision as many feel it is.