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Aging Off The Cliff

Before their 102-91 victory on Wednesday, the Phoenix Suns had not beaten the Dallas Mavericks in Dallas since 2007. That game, a wild 129-127 double-overtime shootout between two high-octane offenses, was the highpoint of one of the most exciting rivalries in the NBA. With Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki squaring off, every matchup between Dallas and Phoenix was must-see TV. Six years later, there are few late-season games more depressing than a meeting between these two franchises. In the NBA, if you can’t sell wins, you sell hope. It’s hard to have much hope for below .500 teams giving so many minutes to players in their thirties.

For both, the road to mediocrity began when they lost their All-Star big man in free agency. Re-signing either Amar’e Stoudemire or Tyson Chandler would have been a gamble, but the bigger one was losing that type of asset without getting anything in return. The Suns went from going to the Western Conference Finals with Amar’e to missing the playoffs; the Mavs went from winning a title with Chandler to being swept out of the first round. They didn’t realize it at the time, but they were essentially committing themselves to a rebuilding process with a franchise player in his mid-thirties. And without much young talent on either team’s roster this season, there’s no telling when that process will end.

Ever since Robert Sarver bought the Suns, they have had a penny wise, pound foolish attitude towards the draft. From 2004-2008, they sold the rights to the picks that became Luol Deng, Rudy Fernandez, Rajon Rondo, Nate Robinson, Serge Ibaka and Wilson Chandler. Instead of embracing the value of securing talented young players on cost-controlled deals, they sweated giving someone on the end of their bench a guaranteed contract. As a result, as Nash got older and Amar’e began breaking down, there wasn’t a Tiago Splitter or a Kawhi Leonard around to pick up the slack.

The Mavs haven’t gotten a player out of the draft since Devin Harris in 2004. It hasn’t been a question of money; they actually bought a first round pick in 2010. Unfortunately, they used it on Dominique Jones, a third-year guard already languishing in the D-League. A lot of teams draft players who need two or three stops before they stick in the NBA; the Mavs draft players who wash out of the league as soon as their rookie contract ends. Maurice Ager, their first-round pick in 2006, played in 82 total games in his NBA career. There’s a good chance Rodrigue Beaubois, their first-round pick in 2009, never plays in the league again.

While it’s hard to draft well in the latter stages of the first round, that’s the only way all but a select few franchises can replenish their talent pool. The Spurs consistently find contributors with picks worse than the Mavs or the Suns have had. Drafting basketball players isn’t the game of chance that many GM’s like to pretend; there are certain teams that have been counting cards for years. Just follow the San Antonio front office tree, from Oklahoma City (Sam Presti) to Charlotte (Rich Cho) and Orlando (Rob Henningan). All those guys have proven they can evaluate young talent, which is more than you can say for the front office in Dallas or Phoenix.

Without any young building blocks, both teams had to dive head-first into the morass that is free agency. It’s possible to fit an undervalued free agent into your system (see: Tony Allen in Memphis), but giving out big contracts to guys who aren’t superstars is usually an invitation to pay for someone else’s problem. The Suns used the cap space created by Amare’s departure to bring in Josh Childress, Hakim Warrick, Hedo Turkoglu and Mickael Pietrus. And while their world-class medical team has squeezed production out of guys like O’Neal, Grant Hill and Michael Redd, what good is a player (literally) on his last legs to a rebuilding organization? There’s no point in having a mentor for young guys who won’t stick in the NBA.

The Mavs, at least, have had the decency not to commit long-term to a bunch of mid-level free agents. Chris Kaman, on a one-year $8 million contract, has the highest usage rating on the team and the lowest assist rate. On the other side of the floor, he plays defense at about the level you would expect for a lumbering 7’0 270 center on the wrong side of 30. OJ Mayo, who has a $4 million player option for next season, remains as inconsistent as ever, with a jumper that comes and goes and wildly varying levels of decision-making and defensive intensity. Here’s all you need to know about Darren Collison: in his last season before unrestricted free agency, he lost his starting job to a 37-year-old with a 9.1 PER.

What has to be most concerning about a lost season in Dallas and Phoenix is the lack of progress from their rookies. Kendall Marshall, whom the Suns drafted at No. 14 overall, has looked completely lost. He’s got good size and passing instincts for a PG, but he’s a poor shooter and a below average athlete. He has the game, athleticism and hairline of a guy 10 years his senior. Jared Cunningham, a shooting guard from Oregon State whom the Mavs drafted at No. 24, has barely seen the floor. His D-League stats might explain why: he’s a 6’4 200 guard who can’t shoot or run point.

It’s far too soon to give up on either, but the holes in their game were evident in college. Marshall played with four future first-round picks at UNC: Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock. It’s pretty easy for a pass-first PG to look good in that environment. Yet even with all the defensive attention his teammates drew, he averaged only 8 points on 47% shooting. Cunningham, the best player on a team that went 7-11 in the Pac-12, was a clear reach in the late first-round. To the extent he succeeded in college, it was by being the best athlete on the floor, which won’t be enough at the next level.

With the importance of the draft magnified by the new CBA, both teams have to turn some draft picks into home runs. Cunningham and Marshall don’t even qualify as getting on base. For the Suns, it became a worst of both worlds situation with Nash: they were too emotionally attached to pull the plug and he was too good to be on a bottom-feeder. As a result, they hovered around .500 for two more seasons without getting any younger. The Mavs are one more failed offseason before they are facing that exact scenario with Dirk, who will be 35 in three months. There was only so long Dallas and Phoenix could paper over their inability to find and develop young talent. This season, those chickens have come home to roost.

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