The Denver-Dallas series mercifully came to an end on Wednesday night, with the Nuggets putting the Mavericks and their fans out of their misery in convincing fashion with an easy 124-110 vanquishing. Only the most delusional of Mavericks homers could have expected any other result after the Nuggets bullied and badgered on both ends of the floor all series, proving to be the superior team in nearly every respect beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The era of proud Dallas Mavericks basketball that began on draft night in 1998 when Dallas traded Robert “Tractor” Traylor and Pat Garrity for Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash is over. After an ignominious end to their 2008-09 campaign Dallas fans should be thinking one thing: burn it down.
In his post-game presser Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said what the rest of the NBA community has been forced to acknowledge in recent weeks, “These guys are legitimate, a legitimate championship-caliber team. They’ve got a great shot. They’ve got a real opportunity.” The Mavericks weren’t, they didn’t, and they haven’t for a few years now. As we said a month into the season: Dallas was a mediocre team. All year they sat mired in the ether somewhere between an aging squad making one more desperate, ill-advised run at contention and a complete rebuilding phase.
It’s been a good decade, but today it is impossible to deny which of those directions the Mavericks should be headed. The days of the Nowitzki, Finley and Nash triangle are a distant memory. And Dallas could easily have won a title if not for an internal collapse and the transcendent play of Dwyane Wade that led to four consecutive losses in the Finals in 2006, but it’s been all downhill since. They were embarrassed in the first round two seasons ago by former coach Don Nelson and his eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors. Last season the New Orleans Hornets again dispatched them with ease in the first round, 4-1. This year the Mavs actually managed to make it out of the first round, but don’t confuse that with progress – they merely leaned on the injured, older man that was the San Antonio Spurs.
The Mavs had the second-largest payroll in the league at $92.3 million this season, but next year that number falls to $68.8 million thanks in large part to the $21.4 million of Jason Kidd (the fourth-highest paid player in the NBA this season) coming off the books. Should Dallas make an effort to resign him? Absolutely not. At 36 and with deteriorating skills on both ends he can no longer be the starting point on a championship-caliber team, and hitching their wagon to the old man will only hold them back.
In fact, it’s time to clean house.
Why Dallas needs to clear the books, after the jump…
Trading for Kidd in the first place in an all-or-nothing attempt at a title last season or this is what put them in this mess in the first place, and it was a plainly epic, epic mistake from day one. It was a franchise killer, and even with Kidd’s expiring contract coming off the books it still stands as their biggest impediment to true, meaningful rebuilding. Not only did they ship out a potential franchise cornerstone in Devin Harris, who has developed into an All-Star caliber two-way point, they also included two first-round picks.
That means this team isn’t getting any younger next season, and they don’t have any pieces that will mature markedly. (Sorry, Gerald Green, I’m done sticking up for you.) It will also be the final season of Dirk Nowitzki’s contract (though he has a $21.5 million player’s option for 2010-11); he’ll be 32 afterwards, and given their short-term title chances are nil Dallas needs to start looking around for a trade partner who they can either work out a sign-and-trade with or who Dirk will want to play with for the next two seasons. He should easily net a first-round pick and young prospect from an offensively starved or power-forward needy team (Chicago? New York? Detroit? Charlotte?). If they don’t, he’s going to bolt and they’ll get nothing but salary cap relief – which isn’t all bad, but Dallas can do better if they’re proactive with this situation instead of clinging to past glories.
Alright, so Kidd’s gone and Dirk is gone. What’s left? Not much. For years I was in Josh Howard’s corner, claiming he could be a difference-making, two-way small forward, that he was woefully underrated. It didn’t take long, though, for Howard to get bumped into the “so underrated he’s overrated” category. This year he also confirmed the injury-prone label, missing 20 more games in a six-year NBA career in which he’s missed a total of 82 regular-season games, the equivalent of a full season. And when he’s not injured he’s often hurt, playing hobbled and at less than 100%. At 29 years of age and with a questionable locker room presence, Howard also wouldn’t fit with a youth movement, but the good news is that he can be another valuable trade chip. There’s no question he’s a useful player, and his $10.9 million contract next season isn’t outrageous. If they can’t find a taker, it’s a team option on the deal for 2010-11, so more money off the books.
There’s a theme here. The Mavs don’t have any notable young talent (but I still love ya, Gerald) and they’re short on draft picks, which isn’t an enviable position to be in for a rebuilding club. What they do have, though, is trade chips and imminent financial freedom. In fact, the guaranteed contracts for 2010-11? Erick Dampier, Jason Terry and Matt Carroll for a grand total of about $28 million. The year after it’s just Terry and Carroll for about $15.3 mill.
With aging stars on their way out, multiple juicy expiring contracts, and no building blocks to speak of, the point of attack for this script writes itself. It’s time for the story arc of the next act in the Dallas Mavericks saga to be set in motion. It’s time to start with a carte blanche.