After their title in June 2011 (and the lockout that proceeded it), the Dallas Mavericks opted not to bring back the core of their 2011 championship team with the hope of maximizing their financial flexibility to add a younger star to turn the team into a viable long-term contender. Two years later — after missing out on Deron Williams, Dwight Howard, and Chris Paul — it's clear that this plan has not been carried out in its ideal form. A lottery team in 2013, the Mavericks now face the reality of their new position. That championship season was a long time ago, given the short windows of NBA contention. Like many teams, they're now struggling to stay relevant.
According to the plan owner Mark Cuban described in late May, the Mavs' goal was to add a top-tier free agent (presumably either Paul or Howard) in free agency this summer, grab another in 2014, and ascend to the top of the NBA mountain on a rainbow made of taffy and gumdrops. This outlook was always a little too optimistic, but it was not a terrible idea for a team only two seasons removed from a championship. Although Dirk Nowitzki has seen a dip in his abilities (or maybe just health) over that time, the Mavs still retain much of the image from that title, plus Cuban's deserved reputation as an owner who treats his players well while they're in uniform. There was good reason to think those qualities meant something.
What we've learned over these offseasons is that Dallas's advantages didn't necessarily top the presence of a young star on the roster, the built-in appeal of a huge market like Los Angeles, or the new collective bargaining agreement's rules that allow a free agent's current team to give him considerably more money. Cuban's gambit didn't work, and the result is that the Mavericks have been forced to try for lesser free agents and short-term solutions. It was fitting that the announcement that Dallas had fallen out of the Howard sweepstakes was followed soon after by Adrian Wojnarowski's report that the team had agreed to terms with veteran point guard Jose Calderon on a four-year contract. Calderon is a very capable floor leader who could make real magic with Dirk Nowitzki on the pick-and-roll, but he's also 31 years old and likely best equipped to be a backup at this point in his career. Simply put, he's not the sort of guy who sets a time up for lasting relevance.
Barring a shocking turn of good fortune, the Mavericks are limited to adding these types of players for the foreseeable future. With their current roster, they're likely going to compete for one of the West's final playoff spots or fall to the back-end of the lottery. Effectively, Dallas would be able to base level of success without necessary improving their chances of reaching contender status any time soon.
Staying in the middle of the league isn't always an attractive option, but it could hold some interest for Cuban and the Mavericks. Since he purchased the team in January 2000, the Mavericks have missed out on the playoffs exactly twice, in 2000 and 2013. In other words, Cuban has not spent much time in charge of a bad NBA team, which could make the idea of a few rebuilding seasons less appealing. (This is just speculation, obviously.) Chasing a high lottery pick can be a useful way to improve, but it's also somewhat depressing, an admission that winning games — the events your business puts on to draw in fans — does not match up with the goals of the franchise. It's a logical move, but it also sucks.
Rebuilding is far from the only option for the Mavericks, but its newfound viability represents how things have changed for the franchise since 2011. After losing out on Howard on Friday, Cuban told the Associated Press that his team would move "on to Plan B." That option might eventually need to become their Plan A.
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