Dirk Nowitzki and a whole lot of Mavs that may not be around in March (Getty Images)
In a season hamstrung by the first knee surgery of his career, Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki is averaging just 13.3 points on 42 percent shooting, numbers that rank amongst the worst of his career excluding a frustrating rookie season. The forward is still clearly recovering from that operation, and things hit such a low over the weekend that he was even denied a good look at the basket television monitor by an older, smaller member of the Sacramento defense:
We kid, of course, and it should be noted that Dirk’s numbers in January (over 16 points, five rebounds and three assists per contest in only 30.8 minutes per game, shooting nearly 43 percent from long range) have been stellar and promising. Especially as the Mavs continue his minutes hike, and a hoped-for trip to the playoffs.
With Mavs owner Mark Cuban recently declaring that the “Bank of Cuban” is open, and all but promising that he’ll make a significant move or 10 before the Feb. 21 trade deadline, should the Mavs even attempt that miraculous comeback? It would be pretty jarring to work through the first NBA postseason since 2000 that wouldn’t include a Dallas Mavericks participant, but at this point blowing things up doesn’t seem like too awful an idea.
Since the team set to defending its 2011 NBA title by re-tooling on the fly, we’ve agreed with just about every Mavericks idea. Declining to head way into the luxury tax to re-sign Tyson Chandler hurt, to be sure, but it was understandable as the Mavs looked at a potential 2012 free agent class featuring Dwight Howard (who later declined to make himself a free agent) and Texas native Deron Williams. Lamar Odom, coming off of a Sixth Man of the Year flourish with Los Angeles, and reserve center Brendan Haywood hoped to stem the tide, but an out of shape Nowitzki and out of his gourd Odom never clicked. Dallas barely made the postseason last year, and was swept out of the first round.
Then Williams stayed with Brooklyn. Then Jason Kidd slipped out the back door to New York, throwing French fries in Cuban’s face along the way. Dallas rebounded by adding a stable of solid if unspectacular helpers, while retaining cap space for 2013. The plan was to give Rick Carlisle another crew of heady veterans to work with, and by and large we liked the idea, even if a trip to the second round wasn’t assured. Nowitzki’s surgery and slow recovery, though, has made it so that even a trip to the first round seems like a dwindling proposition.
Which is why Cuban should initiate a whole series of propositions to other teams. Dallas has won three straight, improving its record to 16-23, but it will probably take 44 or 45 wins to make the playoffs out West. With Denver improving by leaps and bounds as it plays more often at home and Golden State establishing itself as a playoff-worthy club, the final two spots (currently owned by Houston and Portland) seem like Dallas’ best chance. Of course, they’ll have to overcome the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz (two other defending playoff participants) along the way.
That’s a 29-14 end to a season that started 13-23, hardly a task that Dallas would seem to be able to follow through upon even after a boffo trade. Jose Calderon isn’t putting this team over the top, Rudy Gay might not be to Dallas’ liking, and Al Jefferson might not be the answer. Going for the best and brightest on the trading market may not make a heck of a lot of a difference.
So why not go into fire-sale mode? Smartly, of course.
The Mavs have already put together a fire sale for this July 1st, as Chris Kaman, Dahntay Jones, Elton Brand, and Dominique Jones will all become free agents. O.J. Mayo, working with a contract that pays him below the average salary, will likely decline his player option of $4.2 million (even if his production continues to decline between now and April). The frustrating Darren Collison and Rodrigue Beaubois may not be tendered the qualifying offer. The breakup will happen on its own, and cap space will result.
If Dallas starts peeling it away now, though? For a pick here or an asset there? Each of the players listed above sounds like the perfect “one player away” addition that most playoff qualifying teams would covet, though Brand is unable to be traded after being signed last summer after an amnesty clause waiving. There will be interest.
Mark Cuban hasn't been in a bank since 1991 (Getty Images)Again, each of the assets that Dallas picked up last year seemed like a fine choice on paper that could turn into a finer contributor in real life with Carlisle’s coaching and some Nowitzki-influenced spacing. Over the last three games, we’ve seen the Mavs team we expected to take in with a healthy Nowitzki starting last October. The problem is that we’re in mid-January, and that 13-23 start might be too deep a hole to crawl out of. There’s no shame in that, for any of the participants — this is what happens when your best player needs until the 40th game of the season to start playing All-Star basketball again.
Each of the trading parts comes with caveats. Kaman continues to be miscast as a low-post presence, and though he’s enjoyed a bounce-back year, his rebounding has fallen off a cliff. Collison can more or less be signed off on as a fine third guard, but the guy just cannot finish in the paint if a defender happens to look at him funny. Roddy Beaubois is making less than a third of his shots in 2012-13. Mayo has rebounded to average 18 points per game in January, but his 3-point percentage has declined for the third straight month. Jones (taking less than eight shots per 36 minutes) seems to have realized he shouldn’t be shooting that much, but his defense isn’t dominant enough to hand him big minutes. Brandan Wright doesn’t have that stellar an NBA reputation.
Individually, though, these are the sorts of players teams can talk themselves into. Especially when you pair them with the real players Dallas is trying to get rid of: Shawn Marion and Vince Carter, who will take up nearly $12.5 million of the team’s payroll next season. Marion and Carter have competed well, though VC still takes some clunkers from the outside, and could help a veteran team. A veteran team that is a lock to make the playoffs, that is, and Dallas is far from that realm. In spite of threats of suspension.
Of course, this could all be posturing. The team shrugged off Cuban’s trade discussions on Tuesday, good thing, and a continued winning edge could have them reconsidering things as the third week in February nears. The schedule won’t help much. Over the next three weeks, the Mavs will be allowed two games at Phoenix and one against Orlando, but they’ll have to take on seven other current playoff teams. That’s a tough haul, even if three combined games against Houston and Portland (whom they’ll take on twice) can help chip away at that playoff deficit.
Blowing it up — acting as a facilitator and clearing the decks in order to make trades and signings more feasible this June and July — might be the best route. A 6-4 run over the upcoming tough schedule would be quite the accomplishment, and only leave them with a 22-27 record. That’s respectable, given the new faces and Nowitzki’s absence, but the team would also have just 33 games to run off something like a 23-10 record. This, even with Nowitzki back in full gear or a new semi-star addition, doesn’t look like a 23-10 team.
It looks like a team on the verge of missing the playoffs for the first time since the Clinton Administration, and one that looks like a prime trading partner. One that is in the catbird seat, in spite of its record and some of the mitigating factors surrounding the players on its roster.
Shake it up, Mark.