Dallas is better right now than it was last season, but after another mostly quiet free agency it’s time to revaluate what is wrong.
The Dallas Mavericks are better. To be fair, that’s not a very high bar to clear after watching most of the players around Luka Doncic fall apart in the seven game loss to the Clippers a few months ago, but they’re better. With free agency slowing down and most of the pieces off the board, it feels like the right time to discuss what the Mavericks did and what it means.
Let’s start with meaning first. It’s likely long past due to adjust the expectations for free agency and retarget the criticism of the Mavericks roster building strategy.
It’s really easy to say the Mavericks suck at free agency. It’s fun! I do it all the time. There’s a lot of truth to it, with the past 10 years as ample evidence that the Mavericks mostly fall flat on their faces when it comes to trying to accomplish their Plan A (and sometimes Plan B or C). The Mavericks Suck at Free Agency is not an original or new take.
Here’s the thing — they’re actually OK at it, they’re fine.
That sounds preposterous, but we have to step back and look at the broader view. There are 30 teams in the NBA and every summer those 30 teams are trying to sign from the same pool of available free agents. Those free agents range from the MVP, franchise player-tier all the way down to undrafted free agents. The cold truth is that great players rarely leave their teams in free agency, because, you know teams like having great players! Makes sense, right? When you look at an average free agency period, there are maybe four or five big money talents that actually change teams. Then you have the mid-tier guys and so on and so forth. That’s four or five moves among 30 teams. When you’re not a glamor market (Los Angeles, Miami, and the New York teams), the math is not in your favor.
Considering that, what the Mavericks do in free agency isn’t so bad. Grabbing valuable guys on reasonable deals that outplay their contract is a neat trick, one that not a lot of other teams can consistently do. Before you get the pitchforks out, really look at what the Mavericks have actually done in free agency over the years. They squeezed three great seasons out of Vince Carter, unearthed Brandan Wright, brought fun basketball back with Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis, they stole (which seemed good at the time) Chandler Parsons from Houston, got some reasonable production out of Devin Harris, picked up Al-Farouq Aminu for the minimum, and they grabbed Seth Curry (twice),
No one is going to give a team a gold star for those types of moves, but they helped. Much like Reggie Bullock and Sterling Brown will likely help. It doesn’t seem like much, but look at all 30 teams in the NBA and compare and contrast. What did Charlotte do this summer? Or Philadelphia? When was the last time Orlando had a great summer? Indiana’s biggest free agent move this year was bringing back T.J. McConnell. Obviously there are times when a team like Chicago this season or Atlanta last season goes buck wild and makes you envious, but that’s somewhat few and far between. Compared to all 30 teams in the NBA, the Mavericks do OK at free agency. Not amazing, but not terrible.
The problem is how much they rely on it.
Every season the Mavericks box themselves into a corner due to the public comments they make and the at times total disregard they have toward the draft. We’re three months removed from Mark Cuban doing an interview where he said he’s heard that star players want to play with Luka (Editor’s note: seriously go look at that Cuban quote). The draft boondoggles almost need no revision — the Mavericks haven’t signed a player they drafted to a second contract since Josh Howard in 2003. Doncic will remedy that shortly, but it’s a bleak history.
There are three avenues to building a roster — free agency, trades and the draft. All three intertwine — you sign or draft players to trade them later, or you trade players for draft picks, etc. — but those are the three. For the Mavericks, one of those avenues is basically closed. The Mavericks haven’t valued the draft in almost two decades, whether that’s casually tossing away draft picks in trades, trading down to save cap space or not being aligned on their picks. It wasn’t long ago when the trade aspect was considered a plus, but the Mavericks history with trades is starting to look dire. Since 2015 alone the Mavericks have suffered losses with trades involving Rajon Rondo, Nerlens Noel, Harrison Barnes, Delon Wright and Josh Richardson. So that just leaves one avenue: free agency.
The Mavericks continually make free agency the main priority, whether that’s clearing cap space or structuring deals to expire around future offseasons. Dallas mostly punted the summer of 2019, because they knew the potential of this summer, where Giannis Antetokounmpo could have been a free agent. Tyson Chandler walked away from the Mavericks twice in five years, because the Mavericks had their eyes set on a bigger free agent prize.
If you don’t prioritize accumulating draft picks, you don’t draft well with the picks you do have and you fail to string together winning trades, that puts an awful lot of pressure to do well in free agency. Which is where this week comes in.
Bullock and Brown are savvy moves. Bullock could be a potential starter and at the very least, becomes the second or third bester shooter on the roster. Brown is more unproven but has potential to crack the rotation as another shooter on the perimeter. The problem isn’t that the Mavericks signed those two players, the problem is that they needed more. More accurately, the problem is they needed more and free agency was the only way for the Mavericks to do it. If Dallas was a team that continually grabbed useful players in the draft or used their cap space to grab picks that they could use to trade for impact players, this week wouldn’t be so disappointing. Instead it would just be another smart series of transactions.
Instead the Mavericks do not draft well, do not value draft picks in trades and tell the media/public to “watch out” or “buckle up” for free agency, when in reality there are only a handful of deals every summer that truly feel like team-altering moves and the Mavericks are just one of 30 teams to try and snag one. If the Mavericks drafted Desmond Bane and Xaiver Tillman with the 18th and 31st picks of the 2020 NBA Draft, would signing Bullock and Brown be met with such disdain? I’d think not.
This is in contrast to dozens of other teams that do not broadcast such grand intentions or make free agency the focus. Memphis Grizzlies fans are not wanting to tar and feather their owner because the team didn’t spend $40 million in free agency and that’s because the team doesn’t have to. The Grizzlies have nailed the draft the last handful of years and just recently used their cap space to acquire the 10th pick in the draft. Meanwhile, the Mavericks signal they’re chasing Kawhi Leonard or Kyle Lowry.
There are only so many franchises that can show up to free agency and have their problems solved for them. Dallas is not one of them. It would behoove the Mavericks to build like a small market instead of a glamor market. The fact that the Mavericks had three picks in the 2020 Draft and selected all of them is a start, let’s see if they can be patient enough to get something out of Josh Green and Tyrell Terry.
The funny part about this is the Mavericks seem to have a good developmental pipeline. Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell — all second round picks or undrafted free agents that the Mavericks have molded into something. Imagine if they directed that same energy at the first rounders they’ve had in the last 10 years or, better yet, didn’t throw so many of them away. The Utah Jazz’s best and second best players were the 12th and 29th pick of their respective drafts. Could the Mavericks develop an All-Star with a late first round pick? Maybe! The point is, they seemingly don’t even want to try.
So maybe the frustration and angst about the Mavericks every free agency shouldn’t be directed toward free agency itself, or calling out why they suck at free agency. Until the Mavericks rethink how they want to build a roster, nothing will likely change. That is what sucks.
Here’s our Green Room podcast from Wednesday night. If you can’t see the embed below, go find us on your favorite podcast app by searching Mavs Moneyball podcast. Here’s the direct link one more time.
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