It doesn't look like it right now, with their sub-30 percent winning percentage, but the odds are decent enough that this year will turn out to be typical of the Mavericks' performance over the last couple of years. They haven't won a lot, but they've been competitive for about a month now. There have been few big losses, and a couple of big wins. They'll hit their stride and start winning around half their games And what that will do is again costume the fact that the Mavericks front office has been around the worst in the league for half a decade now, at least as far as talent acquisition goes.
Rick Carlisle can win at least a few with almost anything, the training staff is top-notch, and much of the rest of the staff is talented and professional. But Carlisle, and the fact that Dirk forms a living link to the glory days of the Mavs, is hiding the fact that the cupboard is as bare as any team's in the league, and more bare than most. Dennis Smith seems like a someday star, and there's no guessing at the extent of his potential. But then what?
The Mavs' best offensive players, right now, are Harrison Barnes, who is perfectly fine, Yogi Ferrell, who has been a pleasant surprise, and four guys who are absolutely not a part of the next generation of Mavericks basketball: Wes Matthews, Dirk, J.J. Barea, and Devin Harris. Smith has had some really good games, but he's still shooting well under 40 percent most nights. Dwight Powell is starting to be a little more effective, but in the second year of a four-year contract where he'll make $9 million a year and more, is averaging fewer than 20 minutes a game, scoring fewer than seven points, grabbing fewer than five rebounds and so on and so forth.
Unlike every other bad team in the league, the Mavericks have punted on the draft for years. Not swung and missed, but punted. What they did get, they traded for guys they also didn't keep. Smith isn't just their first really promising rookie in a long time, he's the only guy besides Dirk who the team both drafted and kept the whole time. You can't think of another team that's been mediocre to bad for five years now that's true of because who else would do that?
Unlike every other bad team in the league, the Mavericks never take a flier on young talent, at least, on young talent that they have to compete for. Obviously, Yogi Ferrell, Maxi Kleber, Salah Mejri, Dorian Finney-Smith and a few others are young guys the Mavs have hope for, who came from somewhere. But the only even moderately big investments the Mavs have doled out in recent years went to Barnes, Powell, and Matthews, in a spasm of spending over the course of a couple of offseasons that, given where they are now, seems a bit like a fit of pique.
That is, having failed to secure their big name free agent for the fourth year in a row or so, the Mavs signed Wes to prove they keep their promises, offered a max contract to Barnes to prove they were capable of spending money – even though a disastrous finals made it unlikely he'd get that anywhere – then invested big in Dwight Powell to prove they were nurturing young talent, even though there's no way anyone else was offering anything close. At the moment, you'd want at least two of those contracts back. None are terrible players, but none are doing enough in the situation to merit what they're getting.
There's a “Shark Tank”-ness to all this – an entrepreneurial approach waiting for the right pitch at the right time. Waiting to commit 'til the product actually demands it. Mark Cuban has never seemed to internalize the fact that, unlike on the show, most players they want are already in demand, and unlike in the studio there are 29 different rooms of investors waiting to make a pitch. And rather than young people desperate to make their dreams a reality by any means, good NBA free agents are making their own decisions, with a lot of options, and part of what they want to be offered is a team capable of competing.
When the Mavs were good, they were also different than most other good teams. They had one star and a lot of guys, where the Lakers had two, and the Spurs had three. But they had a deep and talented bench, for two reasons: they weren't afraid to offer contracts to talented players with something left in the tank, and they knew that if you did that and it didn't work out, you'd be able to trade those talented players for a different set to try again. From Jerry Stackhouse, to Antawn Jamison, to Antoine Walker, to heck, even Keith Van Horn, the lesson of the 00s Mavericks is that talent begets talent.
The lesson of the post-2011 Mavericks is that nothing begets nothing, especially if you're not trying to draft. It's that no normal, talented players, guys who command the same kind of attention from lots of other teams, will take their money just because. It's all guys like Barnes and Matthews, who, good or not, needed someone to take a chance on them; old favorites like Harris and Barea; and guys like Mejri and Kleber who come from markets no one else was looking at. If they want to change their stars, what they have to do is keep drafting and spend some money. I believe they'll do the first, I don't know about the second.
But any progress will have to come from the recognition that they've been bad at this – that they've been not unlucky, but wrong for five years now. That they have to stop trying to hit home runs, and start stringing together some singles and doubles. I thought they had learned that when they got Nerlens Noel, but then it went – unpredictably and entirely predictably – much more poorly than anyone imagined it could. After five years of trying, their future is a fine role player making max money and a rookie guard who can't yet shoot straight. It's time for a change.