aAfter pulling off one of the worst tank jobs in NBA history on Friday, the Mavericks have set the stage for Luka Doncic to be gone from the franchise for the next two years. As soon as Dallas waved the white flag and sat five key players in a game they had to win to keep their playoff hopes alive, NBA commissioner Adam Silver opened an investigation into the Mavericks’ desperate, transparent attempt to preserve their first-round berth. draft pick this year.
How did the Mavs, less than 12 months removed from the NBA Finals, become the biggest poverty franchise in the entire league?
Last year, when Dallas was battling the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, their impending fall may have been hard to predict, but the signs were everywhere if you looked. It was the Mavs’ best year since their 2011 championship season, which will surely go down as the height of the Doncic era, as their Slovenian star added to his legacy as a generational talent and prospect seemingly overnight. But one couldn’t help but look through the smoke and mirrors at their bleak cap, contract and free agency future.
Fast forward to today, and things in Dallas couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to last spring’s playoff run. Obviously, in retrospect, it was fool’s gold; The Mavs were never as good as they thought they were. After missing the playoffs over the weekend in completely humiliating fashion, the Mavs finished with a losing record for the first time since Doncic’s rookie years. What does it all mean? That their doomsday clock has sped up to midnight; It’s no longer a question of if the Mavericks will lose Doncic, but when.
So how did they get here? Many delusional Mavs fans will point the finger at former general manager Donnie Nelson for assembling a weak roster around Doncic. Others will blame former shadow GM Haralabos “Bob” Voulgaris, who botched the 2020 draft by selecting Josh Greene over hometown hero Desmond Bain out of TCU. Voulgaris is also known for running Nelson and beloved coach Rick Carlisle out of town, and Doncic reportedly hates him, too.
Those two certainly share their share of the blame for where the organization is today. But they’ve both been gone for more than two seasons. To describe how the Mavs are on the verge of losing Doncic, you have to point to who currently fills the leadership roles.
Let’s start with owner Mark Cuban. I’ve criticized Cuban for consistently building a whiter-than-average roster around one white superstar after another. But it goes deeper than that. First, there are the rampant allegations of sexual harassment that have been reported over the past two decades. That alone has brought them into disrepute, as no other team at all levels of management has had allegations leveled against them to this extent. Not even the Phoenix Suns can claim controversy surrounding their owner, president, general manager and: head coach It’s like a misbehavior superfecta punch.
On the court, Cuban is responsible for hiring a shoe salesman in Nico Harrison, who had zero experience in an NBA front office, and Jason Kidd, who was fired twice and hated by two former fans he previously chaired. These are Cuban mercenaries. This duo was apparently a package deal, and what a package they were. Kidd quickly became the worst coach in the NBA. And like Bucks and Nets fans before them, Mavs fans turned on their head coach. organizing “Fire Kidd” chants in the arena. In their second season as the team’s leaders, the Mavericks surprisingly find themselves out of the extended NBA postseason looking on.
That disaster was compounded by the loss of Jalen Brunson, for which Cuban and Harrison share the blame. Losing an All-Star caliber point guard right before they reach the next level is classic Cuban. He did this to Steve Nash in 2004, refusing to pay him what he was worth. Sound familiar? Harrison had three chances to sign Brunson to an available extension and blew it on all three attempts. Before the summer and free agency hit, he left for a team that showed him every way he was wanted. After being drafted in 2018, Nelson declined to add a team option for a fourth year, allowing Brunson to enter restricted free agency in 2021. Instead, he received a straight four-year contract, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent last summer; Harrison saw the commotion Nelson had started and said hold my beer. He had multiple opportunities to sign a four-year, $56 million extension with Branson, and turned it down both times.
In doing so, he signaled to Brunson that he was not wanted, opening the door for him to consider looking elsewhere. Prior to the start of free agency, the Knicks had cleared the necessary cap space to sign Brunson without sending the Mavs a sign. With the Knicks, Brunson emerged as a superstar, averaging career highs including 24 points a night with 13 30-point games and four 40-point games this season, helping the Knicks to fifth place in the East. (Notably, Brunson had three 30-pointers and zero 40-pointers in his entire career with the Mavs.
Harrison proved inept in his feeble attempts to make up for Brunson’s mistake. He traded a first-round pick for Christian Wood, a player Kidd hated from the jump when he told the media in the preseason that Javale McGee would start under center. Kidd benched Wood to end games and seemed fed up with his defensive effort. He’s likely walking for nothing this summer, choosing a team that will give him a chance to start. He also traded an unprotected 2029 first-round pick, starting guard Spencer Dinwiddie and glue guy/best defender Dorian Phinney-Smith to Irving. The defense wasn’t great before the deal. Post trade, it’s abysmal.
You can usually tell how casual a Mavs watcher is by hearing them talk about the team’s problems. Doncic and Irving haven’t been a great pairing, but they aren’t responsible for the team’s current situation. Sure, both could and should be better defensively at this point in their careers, and Doncic is worse than ever at staying fit and whining at the refs, but the real issue is how this list was compiled. The team currently has the NBA’s third-worst scoring rate per game. Neither Brunson nor Doncic make the other better when they share the court. The offense has shifted to each star taking turns watching the other in isolation groups as the Mavs have become the NBA’s second-highest isolation team.
But Irving is not the cancer the media makes him out to be. Individually, he has excelled in Dallas, averaging 26.7 points, 5.9 assists, 5.1 rebounds and a career-low 1.8 turnovers. He is the only player in franchise history to record more than 275 points, 60 assists and 50 rebounds in his first 10 games with the franchise and has now done it twice. But he’s not the best positional or skill-wise compliment for Doncic, who needs a big, athletic arm alongside him and more of a defensive anchor on the rim. Additionally, Irving has signaled that he wants to sign a $50 million-a-year deal this summer. That would take up nearly all of the Mavs’ incoming cap space. It is hard to imagine that the future will be better than the present. If Irving re-signs, they won’t have the salary cap space available to fix the holes on their roster — a center, defensive wing and third-tier ball handler. If he walks, he’ll become just the second star-level talent in Dallas to do so in back-to-back summers. When you play Irving as your second star, it’s a lose-lose scenario. They can’t fix the holes on their roster if the Mavs re-sign him at his desired salary. So they either let him walk for nothing or trade him for a guaranteed less talented player than Irving. Moves made out of desperation rarely work.
You have to wonder how Doncic, who has given the Mavericks everything he has over five seasons, is doing when he watches Harrison, Cuban and Kidd falter every step they take. If he is smart, he will rather take care of himself. He’s already got the bag from Cuba, signing his max extension through 2021. He has achieved individual success by dragging his underdog teammates to the most likely West Finals appearances. But to prioritize real, consistent winning, he needs to escape the institutional poverty of the only NBA team he’s known.
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