Is this what purgatory looks like? Is this rebuilding? After achieving championship glory, it seems that Mavericks fans have found the tunnel at the end of the light.
Or, if you’re not yet tired of metaphors, for a franchise that’s been buzzing on success for over a decade, trying to sober up after drinking deeply from a post-Larry O’Brien, $75k bottle of champagne is even harder to suffer, especially when it seems like everyone else is still imbibing.
Getting sober is never easy. Ask any alcoholic or drug addict. The highs achieved during intoxication pale in comparison to the symptoms of withdrawal and cravings for what used to make you happy.
Now it seems the hangover is going to get worse long before it gets better.
After hemorrhaging assets for the better part of eight months in exchange for a shot at landing a superstar, it seems Dallas will come up empty-handed. I have no problem with daring ambition. It’s said that fortune favors the bold. It’s also said that chance favors the prepared mind, but what happens with one doesn’t seem to be prepared for the most foreseeable catastrophe in this situation?
It’s ironic, really, but some of the NBA's reputed smartest minds look rather foolish right now. After perennially being one of the highest-spending teams in the league, Dallas’ new plan of fiscal responsibility seems to have become its undoing. Indeed, the Mavericks had to slash payroll to even have a shot at signing a marquee free agent, but in so doing, have left themselves a roster consisting of Dirk and parts that doesn’t seem attractive to anyone.
To wit: Deron Williams was said to be leaning towards signing with Dallas until Brooklyn traded for Joe Johnson. Dallas would never have touched Johnson and the massive amount of money left on his contract, because they’re the ‘smart’ ones and an early adopter of the virtues of the new CBA. However by winning the Financial CBA War, it looks like they’ve lost the Deron Williams Battle and their newfound thrift has cost them the piece for which they sacrificed an entire season.
Said Williams, ”I just felt like Brooklyn - the way they were going and willing to spend under this new CBA - was a better situation. But as far as basketball and the direction [the Nets are] going and their willing[ness] to spend money…swayed me the other way. "
Oh, the irony.
While the Mavericks' plan is not without its intrinsic merits, they have nothing to show for all their brains -- at least, not yet. Indeed, it seems Dallas is playing a different game from the rest of the league but trying to end up in the same place. It seems that even in the ‘new’ NBA, teams are still overpaying to acquire talent. Brooklyn is on the verge of building a Super Team by doing exactly what the Mavericks are avoiding (and ironically what they used to do): handing out above-market contracts, but we will get to that in a minute.
Even if you agree with the plan’s long-term philosophy, the execution seems to have gone poorly. Indeed, how do you put all your eggs into one basket and not take every conceivable precaution to ensure that basket makes it safely to its destination? How does Mark Cuban, one of Dallas’ key advantages over the hands-off Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, not make it to the Deron pitch meeting? How is Shark Tank more important than one of the most pitch meetings in his sports ownership history?
How does the franchise not research the psyche of Williams and understand what he wants and needs before being blindsided by Joe Johnson, the piece that gave Brooklyn the decisive advantage? Put aside any silly notion that Johnson is a superior player to Nowitzki, he’s not. But that doesn’t matter -- his acquisition was the piece that gave Brooklyn Deron.
I wish we could say we had no way of seeing this coming, but that’s simply not true. This franchise has a history of becoming penny-pinchers at the exact wrong time. When Dallas balked at matching Phoenix's offer for Steve Nash, they created a rival Western Conference power and helped turn a beloved, scrappy, niche point guard into a future Hall of Famer and two-time MVP. Put aside whether you believe he was overpaid, and overrated because he still can’t play defense, history will judge him kindly and he will enter the HOF as a Sun.
Similarly, after searching for 13 years for the ideal big man to pair with Dirk, finally finding him, and riding the tandem (and some lucky shooting) to a title, Cuban and Donnie did the unthinkable and let him walk away. Why? For the chance at Dwight Howard. You don’t give up a top-five center and heart and soul of your team unless you’re chasing the best center in the game. What if Chandler was still around? Would a frontline of Dirk and Chandler be something that most top free agents be interested in?
Even Chandler himself chimed in on the saddening situation in Dallas, “I am a little bit stunned, but I kind of felt like it was going to be that, honestly. If they weren’t able to land Deron Williams or Dwight I knew there would be trouble down the road. … I feel sorry for Dirk; really for Dirk and the coaching staff. You go from winning a championship to…a rebuilding stage. Especially for Dirk at this point in his career, I really feel bad for him.”
Speaking of Howard, he is fast becoming the poster boy for nearly everything wrong with the NBA today. The problem is, he’s not alone, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. The lockout was supposed to put an end to Superstar players hijacking their franchises with the threat of leaving in free agency.
Now it just seems like a shameless cash grab by the owners. Since the lockout, Steve Nash has gone to the Lakers to chase a ring. Chris Paul left the Hornets for the Clippers in an attempt to create a nascent Super Team of his own. Ray Allen, declining as he is, has joined the Heat, already NBA champions and loaded on the wing. Joe Johnson left smaller-market Atlanta to join Deron Williams in Brooklyn and now, if reports are true, we are nearing completion of the Dwight Howard saga where he will join Johnson and Williams to create another Super Team in New York.
What makes the Howard saga particularly odious is the combination of the selfish entitlement displayed by the center and the surprising accommodation of the franchise he has abused. Last season, Howard held the Magic hostage with a trade demand before the season started. After Orlando successfully convinced him to waive his Early Termination Option and remain under contract for one more season, Howard’s camp floated the notion that he felt ‘bullied’ by the Magic. Poppycock. Only the most immature among us would call a situation where one party has 90% of the leverage being ‘bullied’ by the other. Now it seems Howard will get his wish to join Brooklyn, ironically in the worst iteration of the deal that Orlando was offered.
When that deal is consummated nine of the twelve members of the 2008 Olympic team will play in either New York, Los Angeles, or Miami. This is the legacy of ‘The Decision.’ Ever sine Lebron James’ paradigm-altering choice, the NBA’s elite players have been scrambling to emulate. I wonder who will whisper secret plans to play together in London.
The problem with such a high concentration of talent in destination markets is that it creates a two-tiered league with a handful of elite teams, very few ‘middle class teams’ and a bunch of teams without any hope of winning. Like any two-tiered society, the have-nots will eventually revolt. That’s what we were told happened in the last lockout, but we know how that turned out.
The irony is that Dallas sensed the tectonic plates in motion last season and put in motion a plan to join the Super Teams. To do so, they chose to fall from the elite, the pinnacle, to join the ranks of the mediocre with plans to briefly join the have-nots in order have enough room to sign a superstar. In so doing they became an unattractive destination for the upper echelon free agents. Even their own free agents decided that they lacked time for a rebuilding process around Dirk after Deron Williams decided to stay in Brooklyn.
Now, Dirk sits alone atop a threadbare roster that lacks sufficiently attractive assets to swing a trade and showcases an embarrassing failure of a summer that wont lure top free agents. It wasn’t the worst plan, but like all high-risk gambles, whenever the big payoff doesn’t come, desolation ensues. Now a perennial “have” franchise joins the “have-nots” or even worse, the middling purgatory teams both good enough to avoid the lottery but bad enough to not contend.
Things can always change, and it only takes one move to turn things around. But right now, things look pretty bleak.
Chuck Perry is rarely this negative, but the Mavericks' current quandary called for this. For a more balanced approach and frequent jokes, follow him on Twitter at @thechuckperry.