How Mavericks emerged from chaotic free agency with brighter prospects
UPDATE: Since the time of publishing, DeAndre Jordan reneged on a four-year, $80 million contract agreement with the Dallas Mavericks to re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers for four years, $88 million.
The future of the Mavericks rested on the whims of DeAndre Jordan. Had he chosen any team but Dallas in free agency, the Mavs were prepared—according to team owner Mark Cuban—to "take a step back" and regroup. Dirk Nowitzki's 18th NBA season, one of the last of his career, would have coincided with a year of deliberate losing.
Fortunately for Dirk, Jordan exercised his free agency to make himself a Maverick—though not before pushing Dallas to that critical brink. NBA teams face a never-ending string of decisions that they can botch: Who to draft, who to trade, and who to hire as their coach being only the most obvious examples. Jordan's case, however, serves as a reminder that a team's trajectory is tied to factors at least partially beyond their control. No matter how well Dallas pitched, the choice that defined their franchise's path would ultimately be left with Jordan.
That he picked the Mavericks will generally define their off-season as a success. Any alternative would have projected it to many as a relative failure. So it was with Dallas's pursuit of Dwight Howard, Deron Williams, and Carmelo Anthony in previous seasons. The difference in getting Jordan's approval wasn't due to some drastic change in approach or front office personnel. It was a single choice by a single man outside their organization, which—along with the countless other factors outside the Mavs' control—would be painted over by many with those broad brushes of success or failure.
All of which is to say that being a smart, well-run organization (which the Mavericks very much are) isn't ever enough in the NBA. Any lasting success requires the right breaks in specific instances; a franchise that nails all of the little things can only go so far without luck and persuasion helping to acquire high-end talent. The right player can change everything.
Consider where Dallas was just a week ago. When entering free agency, the Mavericks were a franchise in limbo, caught in the pull between building around Nowitzki and preparing for life after his retirement. Just five players beyond Dirk were slotted in for the Mavericks roster, and only two of them (Chandler Parsons and Devin Harris) were proven rotation players. Aside from angling for the top free agents available (Jordan, LaMarcus Aldridge, etc.) alongside contenders and glamor markets, Dallas had no clear way forward.
Jordan and Wesley Matthews have adjusted that forecast. This Mavericks team won't likely challenge for the title with the same credence as the Warriors, Spurs, or Thunder. Dallas will, however, move forward with a recontextualized lineup by adding a quality center in his prime and a wonderful supporting wing player (when healthy). Years of reloading the roster with short-term veterans had maintained a sort of fizzling competence. Now, having secured the commitment of one of the summer's top free agents, the Mavericks begin the work of building something more lasting.
That begins with both Jordan and Parsons taking on expanded roles. Part of Dallas' reported appeal to Jordan was the opportunity to do more within Rick Carlisle's offense than he was allowed under Doc Rivers. He'll be the primary roll man for the Mavericks next season and, we can suspect, a more-than-occasional post-up target. The latter will take some adjustment. Jordan was used in such a specific capacity with the Clippers that he averaged just 18.2 frontcourt touches per game, per SportVU—seventh among rotation regulars and less than a third of Blake Griffin's season average.
Parsons was more involved in Dallas's operations, though he served largely as a facilitator alongside Monta Ellis and Rajon Rondo. That will change. A ball-dominant point guard was less of a priority for the Mavericks this summer, given the difference between how Parsons was used and how he could be. According to Synergy Sports, Parsons rated as one of the most efficient pick-and-roll scorers in the league last season with moderate usage. His game could easily accommodate more opportunity of that kind and will be tested along those lines this season.
Ramping up a player's usage rate in that way can sometimes create problems for teams lacking in alternatives. Dirk gives Dallas a way out. Whenever the learning curve threatens to get the better of Parsons or Jordan, Nowitzki will be made available to reroute a possession to safer ends. This is the kind of transitional role the Mavericks have long envisioned for Dirk. Neither Parsons nor Jordan is a ready-made superstar, though there is enough established utility and upward mobility between them to make the Mavericks interesting.
Wherever that takes Dallas this season is nice, but almost beside the point. Matthews's recovery from a torn Achilles' will go beyond getting him back in the lineup; it will take time for his body to adjust to full-speed basketball and the rigors of the NBA schedule. Parsons, too, is recovering from offseason knee surgery. That a significant portion of the roster will also need to be filled by minimum-salary additions (Richard Jefferson and Jeremy Evans have committed already) also puts the Mavericks' short-term viability in question relative to the elite teams in the Western Conference.
The real play is for the summer of 2016. Dallas will be good—quite good, really—in the coming season. Next summer, the core four will draw a combined salary of around $58 million (or less if Dirk opts out) relative to a salary cap expected to hit $89 million. Due diligence will be required on free agents like Kevin Durant, Al Horford, and Mike Conley. Beyond that, the Mavs' max-level cap space could be used to absorb any contract from around the league as the market goes bananas.
The enduring lesson of this summer, confirmed by the returns in New York and Los Angeles, is that cap room and extracurricular appeal won't be enough to attract premier talent. The most important part of the pitch is implicit; good players want to be a part of great teams, the likes of which cannot be guaranteed by slotted salary on a cap sheet. Dallas has the infrastructure and the winning culture. It has the space under the cap needed to play ball. Now it has the actual, burgeoning talent that could make a star of note look their way.
The Mavericks, with their fate again in another's hands, will wait for that star's decision just as they did Jordan's. They'll do so for the same, simple reason: The right player can change everything.