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 more of a first-round eliminator than a title contender, but that’s what I believe.
Let’s go through a few reasons that spring to mind:
- The Nuggets, who are missing Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., and the Clippers, who are missing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, will fare much better with a return to health.
- The Warriors outclassed the Mavericks and proved that their one-dimensional attack on offense could be protected by an elite defense.
- On paper, the Mavericks are arguably the fifth or sixth best team in the Western Conference. If Zion Williamson and the Pelicans get going and the Timberwolves work out their point guard problems, they could end up in seventh or eighth place.
Right now, the Mavericks are in the same position as the 2019 Trail Blazers. After an unlikely finale of the conference, the team believed it was a step or two away from being a title contender. Subsequent early exits in the playoffs over the next few years proved that notion wrong.
So here we are at a crossroads. To put it bluntly, 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 Dorian Finney-Smith signed, but the Mavericks hesitated hoping to land a star by the deadline. Signing Brunson for that extension would have made it impossible to include him in any packages, and with limited trade chips, it would have been a non-starter for other teams to exclude him from trade proposals. While the Maverick’s logic may seem reasonable, a little self-awareness would reveal the truth. Should a Superstar become available, it seems unlikely that Dallas could outbid another contender.
The Mavericks went all in with pocket 2 and are now in a lose-lose situation. Here are the paths I see:
Door 1: Brunson goes to team with Cap Space and the Mavs lose him to no avail.
Door 2: Brunson picks a team without the required cap spot to sign him directly. Given the base year compensation rules outlined by our own @CBAMavs, it would be difficult to pull off a mark and trade and the Mavs are unlikely to bring in anything of substance.
Door 3: The Mavericks overpay for an undersized guard with no top athletics who will likely never make an All-Star game. I love Brunson and appreciate the hard work he has put in to maximize his talent. At the same time, I would be lying if I said he’s a top 40 player. In fact, he may not be in the top 50.
Doors 1 and 2 would be an instant hit for the Mavs’ near-term prospects and would certainly drop them a peg or two for the upcoming season. Door 3 would put the Mavericks well in control with a roster of six or seven playoff-caliber players in the current rotation, leaving them little, if any, realistic opportunity to improve the team in the near future.
So what will the Mavericks do? Unless Brunson believes the Knicks or another team can offer him a bigger role and opportunity to showcase himself, Dallas can and will offer Brunson whatever he wants. But should the Mavericks do that?
It shouldn’t be the goal to win over a team whose top performance is an unlucky WCF run. The taxpayer MLE isn’t getting Dallas over the top. Since there isn’t a player capable of making a meaningful leap, even internal improvement won’t get him there. I banged the table for Christian Wood before we traded for him, but even I can admit that he alone doesn’t make us a title contender. More 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 increasing usage could result in decreasing efficiency unless he’s attacking the rim at a higher rate.
Overall, the Mavs have a good team. This year has shown that with some breaks and off-shooting performances, they can keep up well with certain teams. However, having a top 5 player on your team just isn’t good enough. Anything less than a championship-level roster should be considered a failure for this team.
Let’s take a look at some of the arguments we see throughout the fandom
The Mavericks are already over the cap, why does it matter what we pay Brunson?
For years I’ve been irritated by the notion that Mark Cuban is cheap. Fans point out that he hasn’t paid the luxury tax in years, believing it reflects his unwillingness to spend. I screamed into the abyss that you can’t go from a cap-space team to a team in the controls unless you commit your own players to big-money expansions. One look at the last decade of draft picks should tell you that we’ve rarely resigned our picks to a second contract, let alone a big-money renewal. You can kid Cuban’s desire to use cap space to lure a star to Dallas, but that’s why we didn’t pay the tax, not because Cuban is cash poor and refuses to pull out his wallet.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say I was wrong and Mavericks fans were right all along. Mark Cuban is tighter than work pants you bought before the pandemic. Do you want to believe that after a decade of refusing, Cuban suddenly shelled out tens of millions in luxury taxes on a team that isn’t a title contender? Either it wasn’t true for the last ten years or it’s not true now. A few years later, when the repeat tax goes into effect, every dollar spent will actually be four or five dollars. Are you offering a marginally talented player $6 million with your taxpayer MLE? It will cost $24-30 million a year in cash to sign this player.
Only a handful of NBA owners can do that without blinking. Even the wealthiest owners have refused to write the league a check for $80 million to $100 million, and who could blame them. This current version of the Mavericks is no title contender. The team’s payroll will reach a breaking point and the team must find ways to reduce costs.
The Mavericks can trade Jalen Brunson across the board
A non-All-Star player making $28 million a year is not a commodity. While each contract can theoretically be moved, that doesn’t mean it can be moved against value. Kevin Hurter, Duncan Robinson, Terry Rozier and our very own Tim Hardaway Jr. should be examples of what happens when you pay non-stars money at star level. All four players are useful and can help you win games. However, their contracts make it almost impossible for them to move for money.
Assuming Brunson will be a giant trading chip is misguided. He was and will be paid like our second best player. However, it is difficult to find a competitive team where Brunson could qualify as the 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 those teams. This leaves him with the dregs of the league as a market. The Knicks were the Knicks because they paid out huge contracts to players who could never live up to them. Having Brunson in the books would make finding an actual number two harder.
There has been a recent debate in the Mavericks community as to whether they would be best served by chasing a second star or adding depth. The finale should have helped answer that question. The Celtics were a deeper team, but star-level talent dictates playoff streaks more than functional depth.
So how can the Mavs acquire that second star? If we’re playing in the 20’s it’s unlikely we’ll ever call up that type of player. trade maybe? Unlikely as they lack trading assets. I’m the old man who yells at the mass meme every time I have to remind someone that the Mavericks players just aren’t coveted by other teams. Does anyone think we could get a positive benefit back for Hardaway? The answer should be no. A player’s value for Dallas doesn’t match his worth in the league.
The truth hurts. The cold truth is that the Mavericks screwed up Jalen Brunson’s situation. I felt the Mavs would be best served by trading Brunson before the deadline. But nobody wants to hear that the team should take one step back to take two steps forward. Winning games in the short term is fun, and thinking long term in terms of team building just isn’t.
What should Dallas do then? Let’s talk about it soon because until the end of the week it doesn’t matter anyway. But the decision is not as easy as many think.