Dallas finds its future in question after a disappointing season devoid of any positivity and questions around its star players
Success in sports is such a fragile thing. One day you are on top of the world, and then the next thing you know everything comes crashing down and you go through years of futility and a lack of success. There is perhaps no better illustration of this delicate balance than this year's Dallas Mavericks.
On paper, the Mavericks should be a title-contending team. They have one of the best players in basketball (Luka Doncic), a player that is considered to be one of the best scoring guards we have ever seen (Kyrie Irving), an owner that most people respect (Mark Cuban), and a coach in Jason Kidd that has a winning record in seven seasons as a head coach in the NBA. And yet, the Mavericks are a mess, and they have missed the playoffs merely a year after making it to the Western Conference Finals. So how did we get here? A string of bad decisions has haunted Dallas.
Trade After Trade
To understand the sense of urgency that the Mavericks operate with, it is important to understand the career of their greatest player: Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk’s legacy in Dallas will forever be cemented because he led a historically bad franchise to the promised land and delivered a title. Before Dirk was drafted in 1998, the Mavericks only won 34% of their games and only made the playoffs once. While he was with the Mavericks, the team won 57% of their games and made the playoffs 15 times during his 19-year career.
But despite getting a championship with Dirk, many have often wondered if Dallas left some rings on the table by never getting him a true secondary star. Dirk was in his prime when the Los Angeles Lakers with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were winning titles. He was also in his prime when San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili were dominant and winning titles. Dirk’s best teammate was probably Jason Terry, a good, but not great, player in a historical sense. Many consider the title run of the 2011 Mavericks to be one of the greatest in modern basketball. But you can’t help but wonder what could have been if the Mavs front office could have lured a true second superstar to play with Dirk.
It seems that Dallas today is aware of those missed opportunities with Nowitzki. The Mavericks drafted European superstar Luka Doncic in the 2018 NBA Draft and he has been dazzling crowds at the American Airlines Center ever since. And during that time, the Mavericks have been attempting to find Doncic his sidekick. This has come in the way of players like Harrison Barnes, Kristaps Porzingis, Christian Wood, Davis Bertans, and most recently Kyrie Irving. Barnes was eventually sent off to Sacramento, where he has been an important mentor for an exciting Kings team. Porzingis was eventually sent to Washington after being a poor fit with Doncic in exchange for Davis Bertans and Spencer Dinwiddie. And since the Mavs acquired Kyrie Irving at the trade deadline, the team closed their season with a 9-18 record.
In terms of future capital and team building, the Mavericks still owe the Knicks a first-round pick from the Porzingis trade, and now owe the Nets their 2029 first-round pick as part of the Kyrie Irving deal. The Mavericks’ two main offensive threats after Doncic, Irving and Christian Wood, are both free agents this summer and could very well be looking for new teams. This leaves Doncic as a man alone, a superstar on a team filled with no-names and developing players.
What About Luka?
There is a notion that many accept in basketball that I affectionately refer to as the climb. Being a superstar in the NBA is more often than not a steady climb to greatness. We saw it with Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Steph Curry. And last year, when the Mavericks made it to the Conference Finals it felt like that was the leap, that a breakthrough was surely on its way.
But instead of being a leading candidate for MVP and leading his team on a deep playoff run, Luka finds himself on the outside looking in. Out of the playoffs and hoping to retain a lottery pick that can be used for acquiring yet another piece that will be helpful for the team in their ambitions to win a title.
The irony of the situation with Luka this past season is that he was objectively playing great. His scoring increased, his shooting splits remained consistent, and he cut down on his turnovers. There is an argument to be made that he will finish 5th in MVP voting, and sixth at worst. If he does receive enough votes to be 5th, it will set a historic precedent. There has never been a top-5 MVP finalist whose team finished below .500. The closest was Steph Curry in 2021 when he finished third on a Warriors team that finished the year at 39-33.
Additionally, no player has ever finished that high in the award voting and was a seed as low as the Mavericks were at 11 this year. The closest to that was Russell Westbrook in 2015 when the Oklahoma City Thunder finished 9th in the Western Conference. But even that Thunder team was 45-37. Luka being in the conversation of this award is a showcase of two things. One is that he is an incredible offensive talent that will strike fear into any defense. But the second is that the Mavericks have lost so much talent since he has been there, that it seems almost destined that they would underwhelm this year.
From the end of last year to the end of this year, we have seen Luka Doncic lose his best perimeter defender in Dorian Finney-Smith (part of the trade to the Nets that brought in Kyrie Irving) and his secondary scorer in the back in Jalen Brunson (signed a free agent deal with the Knicks in the off-season). Now there has been reporting that if things don’t change that Luka will request a trade in the summer of 2024. So much has gone wrong in Dallas in one short year, but so much of it comes back to losing Brunson and the looming reality that players do not want to play for the Mavericks.
Losing More Than a Player
I remember a lot of the commentary from NBA writers and podcasters when the Knicks signed Jalen Brunson to a 4-year/$104M dollar contract. Many called the deal an overpay by the Knicks, a classic bungle by a team that has been bungling every negotiation since the new millennium hit. Many thought that Brunson was a good but not great player, that would shrivel in the big lights and pressure of New York City.
Those prognostications have proven to be incorrect. Brunson has activated another gear in his offense and has led New York to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, meanwhile, the Mavericks are just hoping to get lucky in the lottery. This is no coincidence. Brunson has brought professionalism to the Knicks and they look like a well-organized and structured team. His presence has brought the most out of players like Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes, and Julius Randle. He is a stabilizing force that even Luka Doncic himself has admitted that the team is missing.
Losing a player in free agency to the lure of a market like New York or Los Angeles is nothing to be ashamed of (not that Dallas is a small market by any means). But it is the way that Dallas lost him that deserves criticism. After the 2021 playoffs, the Mavericks were in a great position to re-sign Brunson for $55M over four years but declined to do so, to the point that they didn’t even meet with his representatives to discuss the options available.
Then the following year, there was another opportunity to sign him before hitting free agency where Rick, Jalen’s father (and the man that Mark Cuban has accused of leading Jalen to New York), told his son to take the security of a contract to stay in Dallas. And yet again the Mavericks did not rush to get a deal done. They instead opted to re-sign Dorian Finney-Smith, who we now know would be traded not even a full season later. This timeline of events, and Mark Cuban doubling down and projecting blame elsewhere signifies everything wrong in Dallas.
It seems that year after year, whether it is with Dirk Nowitzki or Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks cannot get out of their way. On paper, there is a lot to like about playing there. Texas is a state that has no state income tax, the weather is nice year-round, it is centrally located geographically so travel isn’t bad, and many around the league seem to be in favor of the owner. And yet they seem unable to attract high-level talent to play with their homegrown superstars. You can go back to the DeAndre Jordan fiasco years ago, or look at the fact that they gave up so many assets to get what is likely to be a useless rental of Kyrie Irving.
As it stands today, the Mavericks are at a bit of a breaking point. They are hoping to maintain their draft pick (if it falls outside of the top 10 the pick convey to New York) to flip a lottery selection into a win-now veteran to pair with Luka. Two of the team's top scoring options outside of Doncic, Christian Wood and Kyrie Irving, are likely headed elsewhere in free agency. They do have some promising young talent in Jaden Hardy and Josh Green, but those players might also be on the way out to make way for a second star. And it seems that the clock to retain Luka is now ticking.
So what is their course of action? To me, they must re-sign Kyrie Irving this summer. If they do not, then they are left with little maneuverability in the trade market and have to explore options in free agency. There are names like Fred VanVleet and James Harden out there, but they pose the lack of defense that currently ails the Mavericks. This summer will determine the foreseeable future of the Mavericks and by extension one of the game's best players. We may be on the precipice of seeing this team revert to the days of the pre-Dirk Mavericks which should terrify every fan in Dallas.