Could this summer get any worse for the Mavericks? Well, Dirk Nowitzki could start having second thoughts about his intention to stay in Dallas for a drastically reduced salary when his deal expires after the 2013-14 season.
Actually, sad as it is to say, that might be in the franchise’s best interest long term.
Owner Mark Cuban’s biggest fear has been for the Mavs to get stuck on the mediocrity treadmill. That drove his decision to strip down the 2011 title team, ensuring that the aging Mavs wouldn’t decay into an expensive team incapable of contending or making necessary upgrades.
Instead, the decline in Dallas was steep. The Mavs have a grand total of zero playoff wins in the past two seasons and zero big-fish free agents hooked in the past two offseasons.
Cuban, as stubborn as he is smart, is trying to pull off the most difficult task in pro sports: rebuilding without hitting rock bottom. To pull that off, the Mavs' front office must be willing to gamble -- and have a bet or two pay off big.
Here they are, stuck in the middle again.
This isn’t a case of another name-brand free agent turning down the Mavs. The Mavs didn’t make an offer to Bynum because they were scared away by the bad knees that kept him sidelined all of last season. All Dallas had to do to get the 7-footer, who was an All-Star in 2012, was trump Cleveland’s offer that included only $6 million in guaranteed money. The Mavs weren’t willing to take that chance.
That’s an awfully conservative approach for a franchise that rolled the dice so boldly after the lockout.
There’s a good chance the Mavs are right about Bynum’s knees and he’ll spend big chunks of this season sporting wild hairstyles while watching from the bench. But this would have been the time for a boom-or-bust swing for the fences.
The potential reward if Bynum worked out: a foundation piece. The risk if he didn’t: money down the drain and a ticket to a loaded lottery.
It’s not as if the Mavs were going to be on the hook long term if Bynum was a bust. After all, he went to Cleveland for a two-year deal that has a team option on the second season. And the Mavs, with $35 million of expiring contracts on the roster, are guaranteed to have salary leeway next summer anyway.
But the Mavs decided not to make a bold move after missing out on Howard. They played it safe. They’ll plug in Samuel Dalembert or someone of that unimpressive ilk at center and try to make a blockbuster trade despite lacking attractive assets.
The reality is that the Mavs will have to scrap to have a shot at one of the last couple of playoff seeds in the loaded West next season. Dallas seems destined to finish around .500 again with a draft pick that isn’t high enough to get one of the can’t-miss prospects and isn’t low enough to unload to Oklahoma City, which owns a Mavs pick that is top-20 protected through 2017.
(On a related note, Cuban’s two biggest mistakes since stripping down the title team: 1. Pulling off what seemed like a steal for Lamar Odom, giving away only that protected pick, which has since bounced from L.A. to Houston to OKC, helping the Rockets land James Harden to make them an appealing team to Howard; 2. Not going all-in on recruiting Deron Williams, skipping the face-to-face meetings while filming "Shark Tank," when Cuban really preferred to make a run for Chris Paul or Howard this summer.)
The Mavs’ biggest splash so far this offseason has been signing a soon-to-be 32-year-old point guard who has never won a playoff series. Cuban has acknowledged that it’d take a two-year process to put the Mavs in position to contend again, but the strides this summer haven’t been nearly big enough to provide any optimism that the plan will come to fruition.
Cuban’s biggest fear is coming true. The Mavs might not have a bloated payroll, as the Boston Celtics did before realizing their run was over, but they’re still a noncontender that can’t find a way to get better, handcuffed by a lack of assets and a sudden aversion to risk-taking.
Dirk, as loyal a solider as you’ll see in this NBA generation, can’t put a so-so supporting cast on his back and make the Mavs a legitimate threat in his mid-30s. Hard as he might sprint, the Mavs aren’t moving forward, at least not enough to matter.
They can’t compete with the Spurs and Thunder and Rockets and Clippers and Warriors and Grizzlies. Given that reality, with Dirk, they’ll probably be too good for their own good.
The Mavs are stuck on the mediocrity treadmill. Does Dirk really want to stick around for that?