- After striking out in free agency several times, the Mavericks have struggled to put together a contender since their title run in 2011. Mark Cuban and co. are finally back on track after finding their next generational star in Luka Doncic and trading for Kristaps Porzingis.
The story in Dallas since the Mavericks’ 2011 Finals stunner over LeBron James and the Heat has been a tale of frustration. The Mavs haven’t finished better than sixth in the West since 2011-12, failing to win a playoff round since their magical title run nearly a decade ago. While the Spurs hummed along as Finals contenders and Golden State’s dynasty began, Dallas slid in the West hierarchy. The Mavericks lost four round one series from 2012-16, then bottomed into the lottery in each of the last two seasons. Dirk Nowitzki continued to climb the all-time points leaderboard, but a second championship was far out of reach.
The central culprit for Dallas’ decline is a string of free-agency failures. But it’s not for a lack of spending. Mark Cuban and Co. made their first stab at a second star next to Nowitzki in 2012, pursuing Deron Williams after his fifth-straight All-Star appearance. Williams spurned Dallas for a return to the Nets, ultimately an ill-fated signing for Brooklyn. A pair of missed swings at big-name centers followed, with Dwight Howard signing with Houston in 2014 and DeAndre Jordan re-signing with the Clippers after the great emoji war of July 2015.
Dallas still spent significant cash despite missing out on the top-flight free agents, at times recklessly so. Harrison Barnes signed for four-year, $94 million in 2016, a pretty penny for a career 13.5 points per game scorer. Monta Ellis earned $25 million in 2013. Chandler Parsons earned $46 million over three years in 2014. After missing out on elite pieces, Dallas made a critical mistake. Devoting significant cap space to middling players, hoping to cobble complimentary pieces into a contending core. The ill-fated formula led to Dallas wasting Nowitzki’s post-Finals years.
The Nowitzki era is on its final legs, with full Lukamania now encompassing Dallas. The Mavericks have their next generational star in Luka Doncic, a true heir to Nowitzki’s throne in the Metroplex. But after years of missed opportunities with Nowitzki, a dominant question emerged as the Mavericks’ phenom burst on the scene: how can Dallas build a winner around Doncic?
An answer came on Thursday. The Mavericks swiped Kristaps Porzingis from the Knicks, sending disgruntled guard Dennis Smith Jr. as well as salary relief to New York. After years of losing in free agency, Dallas found its second star on the trade market, a key shift into a new era. We won’t see how Luka and the Zinger mesh together until 2019-20, but for now, we can use Dallas’ blockbuster trade as a lesson for front offices throughout the league.
The Mavericks find themselves in a situation similar to many teams throughout the NBA. They don’t hold the prestige of big-name markets like New York, Los Angeles or Miami, and are often outside the picture for the league’s top free agents. Their route to relevance runs nearly exclusively through the draft—a difficult proposition without a deliberate tanking effort—or overspending in free agency. The tightrope can lead to years of irrelevance.
The trade market is a natural path to avoiding such woes. While not every mid-market team will be able to swindle a Unicorn in exchange for cap relief, the cupboard for impact players isn’t exactly bare. Utah should be a player for Memphis point guard Mike Conley, and center Marc Gasol can be acquired before February’s trade deadline. Kevin Love could be available this summer. Ditto for John Wall. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving’s free agencies will likely be relegated to the coasts, but there is still significant talent to be found via trade for teams that don’t reside in glamour markets.
The draft still provides the most sustainable formula for team building outside of a few select cities. The post-Dirk future would look bleak in Dallas if not for Doncic, similar to the Jazz before selecting Donovan Mitchell in the 2017 draft. Memphis will build around Jaren Jackson Jr. after Marc Gasol and Mike Conley leave town, and Phoenix will look to rise out of the West cellar with Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. But the Mavericks proved last week that there’s a third, often underutilized, way to find core pieces outside of the draft and free agency. Middle markets should heed Dallas’ formula, and strike on the trade market to build a winner around their top talent.