Four years after they broke up a championship team and let Tyson Chandler walk for the first time, the Dallas Mavericks finally figured out an approach to free agency that makes sense for their situation. The original plan was to form a North Texas version of the Miami Heat, with Dirk Nowitzki serving as the Dwyane Wade figure who attracts other stars into the cap space that had been created. The problem was that with Dirk aging and the rest of the roster in flux the on-court product wasn’t enticing enough for any of the top players on the market. Guys like Deron Williams, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony just weren’t all that interested in what Mark Cuban was selling.
The Mavs have a reputation as a player-friendly organization, one of the best coaches in the NBA and a long tradition of success under Cuban. It was enough to get them meetings but it wasn’t enough to close the deal. The best players in the league don’t switch teams all that often and when they do they prefer ready made situations. The San Antonio Spurs offered LaMarcus Aldridge the chance to contend for a championship from Day 1. The Mavs offered a hazy plan to remain relevant while building a team over a multi-year process. Superstars want to be the final piece of the puzzle. The real appeal of the Mavs' pitch was to guys who wanted to be bigger pieces in a new puzzle.
It was the same story for DeAndre Jordan as it was for Chandler Parsons. They were supporting players on elite teams who wanted to be a featured player on a relevant team. As long as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were in Los Angeles, DeAndre was going to be a rim-runner and a shot-blocker. As long as James Harden and Dwight Howard were in Houston, Parsons was going to be a spot-up shooter and a secondary creator. While those might have been the roles best suited for their games, they wanted something more while they were still in the prime of their careers.
Sacrificing individual statistics is always easier for older players, guys who have already made their money and their mark in the league. It’s difficult to ask younger players to play a role for the good of their team. Not only does accepting a role usually mean accepting a smaller salary, it means swallowing your pride and accepting limits on your game. No one makes the NBA without an almost unlimited amount of confidence in their ability. That’s why managing egos and maintaining a pecking order is one of the toughest parts of being an NBA head coach.
DeAndre got a taste for what he could accomplish in a bigger role when Griffin went down with an elbow injury last season. In 18 games without his Lob City partner, DeAndre put up an eye-popping stat-line of 15 points and 19 rebounds on 68% shooting. Without another high-flying big man in the game to catch lobs and clean the glass, it was all DeAndre all the time at the front of the rim. The Clippers' offense was simplified and they became a pure four-out team that continually ran pick-and-rolls against a spread floor.
While Griffin is one of the best players in the NBA, his inability to stretch the floor out to the three-point line compromised the Clippers' floor spacing and forced everyone else on the roster to adjust to him. Blake and DeAndre turned into a devastating alley-oop combination over the years but the spacing was never ideal and both guys are most effective in the paint. There are only so many points, rebounds and touches to go around in that scenario and DeAndre was always going to be part of Blake’s supporting cast in Los Angeles.
Given the current hyper-competitive state of the West, it’s going to be difficult for any team to have three All-Stars. The Golden State Warriors won more games than the Atlanta Hawks and had half as many selections. Forget Dwight Howard and DeMarcus Cousins - DeAndre was competing with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul for a spot. Nor does he have the type of game that’s going to age like Tim Duncan. If he’s going to make an All-Star Game, it’s because he’s an hyper-athletic freak who can out run and out jump every other center in the NBA. The contract he signed this summer was going to take him into his 30’s so it was now or never.
In that sense, DeAndre to Dallas was the perfect marriage of spot and opportunity. After unloading most of their roster once again, the Mavs came into the summer with only five guys under contract and more opportunities available than they knew what to do with. Dallas was a franchise in need of a player to build around and DeAndre was a player looking for a franchise to build around him. What exactly they are building towards is what both sides still have to figure out.
The good news is that the pieces around DeAndre seem to fit together. That was the problem last season when they brought over Parsons, as Monta Ellis chafed at the fact that he was making almost half as much money as Parsons despite having a bigger role in the offense. The Rajon Rondo trade only made things worse -- there were suddenly way too many cooks in the kitchen and not enough guys comfortable playing without the ball in their hands. Even with Dirk taking a step back, there was only so many basketballs to go around and Parsons' usage rate improved just marginally from his time in Houston, from 19.3 to 20.6.
Going forward, it’s all about the Parsons-Jordan pick-and-roll in Dallas. Whoever the PG is, whether they keep JJ Barea, promote Devin Harris or bring in someone like Jeremy Lin or Mo Williams, he’s going to spend a lot of time playing off Parsons in a point forward role. In a best-case scenario where Dirk stays healthy and Wesley Matthews recovers 100% from the Achilles injury he suffered in Portland, those two are spending most of the game spotting up at the three-point line, running off screens and opening up the floor for Jordan rolls and Parson drives.
Maybe the biggest issue in Dallas will come on the other side of the floor, as has been the case for the vast majority of Dirk’s tenure with the club. The Mavs had the 20th rated defense in the NBA last season and they are losing their best two perimeter defenders in Rondo and Al-Farouq Aminu. If Matthews doesn’t immediately regain his explosiveness, there may not be anyone in front of Jordan capable of staying in front of their man. Most of the PG’s Dallas has been linked too are known for their offense, Parsons is an average defender coming off knee surgery and the less said about Dirk’s individual defense the better.
DeAndre will have to play a much more disciplined style of team defense than he became known for in Los Angeles. He can’t afford to be out of position, go for the highlight-reel block or get himself in foul trouble. DeAndre had the benefit of playing behind a perennial All-Defensive team selection (Paul), a savvy positional defender (JJ Redick) and one of the better 3-and-D wings in the league (Matt Barnes). He’s going to have to carry the Mavs' defense in the same way that Dwight Howard did for the Orlando Magic under Stan Van Gundy.
When you are making max money in the NBA, it’s not just about doing your own job. It’s about making everyone around you better. Great money brings great expectations. Parsons got a taste of that last season, when he initially struggled with the transition into a greater role and playing without Harden and Howard. Even then, Monta was still around at the end of the shot clock to bail out the offense and he had the capability of taking over a game at anytime. Matthews, especially coming off injury, isn’t nearly as capable of creating his own shot and that’s not really Dirk’s game anymore either.
The West isn’t going to be any easier. Fifty wins would have gotten the Mavs a No. 3 seed out East but it was only good for a No. 7 seed and a gentleman’s sweep out of the first round. Even if you figure the Portland Trail Blazers fall out of the mix, a healthy Oklahoma City Thunder team should slide right into their spot as a top-4 seed. The only other team in the top 6 looking to take a step back is the Clippers and they still have two of the best players in the NBA. The New Orleans Pelicans are counting on a new coach, a healthier roster and an even better Anthony Davis to become a consistent playoff contender.
The downside of the Mavs' strategy is they are counting on the third best player from the Rockets, the third best player from the Clippers and the third best player from the Blazers to put them over the top. Their emphasis on free agency means they don’t have a lot of young talent to put around those guys and internal improvement is the easiest way for teams make the leap in the NBA. The Warriors went from sixth to first because of the jumps that Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry - all guys they drafted and developed - made last season.
From that standpoint, the Utah Jazz are the team every playoff contender out West needs to keep an eye on in their rear-view mirror. The Jazz were a different team after trading Enes Kanter and sliding Rudy Gobert into the starting line-up and they can count on internal improvement from virtually every spot in the rotation, as all their top players are under 25. They have quietly become one of the premier draft-and-develop organizations in the league and their commitment to plus length and athleticism at every position on the floor makes them extremely difficult to match up with.
Where Dallas has an edge over up-and-coming teams like Utah and Phoenix is experience and savvy as well as Rick Carlisle’s ability to wring every bit of productivity from his players. On a game-by-game basis, no coach in the league does a better job of maximizing value than Carlisle. At the same time, coaching can only take you so far. The NBA is all about talent and Dallas got a needed infusion with the signing of DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews.
However, as even Cuban admitted, it was DeAndre or doom for the Mavs. Without a huge boost of youth and athleticism, there was no way they were going to be able to keep pace with the rest of the top teams out West. They don’t emphasize the draft, they don’t keep the young players they develop and Dirk is well into the decline phase of his career. They added Tyson Chandler and Chandler Parsons to a No. 8 seed that won 49 games in 2014 and they were a No. 7 seed that won 50 games in 2015. They have to run the Red Queen’s Race every summer - they are running as fast as they can just to stay in place.