Thrust now to wander among fears granted life. Shoved into mud we'd hoped this team would be able to tread above. Standing in a moment flooded over by all we'd hoped would not come to be.
On the back of a four-game sweep in the first round to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the playoffs, while not mathematically forbidden, are very likely on the wrong side of the velvet rope for the Dallas Mavericks.
From playoff trips so consistent, 12 years in a row, as to leave their eventuality as a certainty taken for granted, from 11 straight 50-win seasons (excluding the shortened 2011-12 campaign), to … this … this emptiness of a season amputated at 82 games.
Two seasons ago we were blessed with the gift of a championship; now we beg the favor of the lottery.
And, a "new" fear is born … the fear of prolonged irrelevance, of wasted years, of an increasingly apathetic fan existence. The Mavs front office has stressed their free agency/trade acquisition dreams are not focused so narrowly as to wear a specific player's name. Ideally, this is the way it should be. In reality, the truth of seeing two years of Dirk Nowitzki's finite basketball life spent doing the equivalent of waiting in line demands that only two known names remain as worthy of the sacrifice: Dwight Howard and Chris Paul … two names that it has become harder and harder to see leaving their respective Los Angeles homes.
You can long for DeMarcus Cousins, Brandon Jennings or others some may view as superstars of the future, but you'll come to find that these are players likely to have their greatest impacts after Dirk's current relevancy has eroded.
You can consider players like Josh Smith, Danny Granger, Rudy Gay (before he was dealt to Toronto), but these are second-tier stars. They are, at best, exactly what was sacrificed in Tyson Chandler. They are steps sideways two years will have been sacrificed to make.
Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, Delonte West, Lamar Odom, Anthony Morrow, Dahntay Jones, Troy Murphy, Eddy Curry, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Derek Fisher, Mike James, Kelenna Azubuike, Yi Jianlian, and Sean Williams … and perhaps OJ Mayo, Elton Brand and Darren Collison ... such is the carnage left in the wake of two seasons of one-year deals and "rentals," the truth of what will define the past two seasons, beside their ultimate failures, on the court or off.
A list of players signed under the dictum of one-year commitments, rolls of the dice without the acceptance of anything beyond a single year, at least not in reality. You can note that Odom had a second year partially guaranteed, but the reality of this was that it was never going to be a problem to get out from under the second year if so desired ... as evidenced by the fact that things couldn't have gone worse for Odom, yet the possibility of unloading him for nothing remained … a swing for the best of two worlds, without complete commitment to either, an attempt to remain relevant as a playoff contender, while simultaneously retaining financial flexibility.
However, it carries another truth: a team almost barren of tradable assets beyond the value of simple expiring contracts.
Through their strong play this season, Shawn Marion and Vince Carter may have become very tradable, particularly with Carter's small salary in comparison to his level of contribution, but their value is at its peak to a championship contender that may view their plight as being "one piece away," … and you could argue that second-round picks Jae Crowder and Bernard James have created some value as well. However, in the game of superstars, this leaves you playing with a hand that isn't comparable to those you'll be competing against … without a star's complete insistence on finding his way to Dallas.
Through this approach, the Mavs have been left without a returnable core with enough depth or recognition to convince a star that immediate contention is a viable option. Deron Williams saw a core of Dirk, Marion and Carter around him and was serenaded away by the singular acquisition of Joe Johnson. Whether or not you agree with his assessment of the situations, it's what happened.
In a sense, by stripping down to create the needed cap space, or to at least make that space easily attainable, the Mavs lessened the attractiveness of their situation, relying almost solely on the presence of Dirk Nowitzki as a lure. Indirectly, they lowered the value of the asset they created, as they created it: cap space.
Congruently, the Mavs find themselves battling much better positioned franchises when superstars are made available via trade. Deron Williams (from Utah to New Jersey, at the time), Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and James Harden have all changed teams … and all went to franchises that made offers the Mavs simply couldn't compete with.
As a side note, we've yet to see one of the league's true elite ("elite" being defined as a top 10-20 player in the NBA) forfeit the fifth guaranteed year to change jersey via free agency. Perhaps this is simply a result of a small sample size, with only two offseasons since the new CBA was signed, or perhaps it hints at the difficulty any player will have in leaving that much money, security, on the table … time will tell.
Though Williams and Carmelo were dealt prior to the implementation of the new CBA, while the Mavs were in the middle of a title run, they remain examples of the expected return a franchise will seek when dealing a superstar. And, without the blessing of winning big in the lottery or the gamble of a late-first round selection proving to have elite potential, it stands to reason that Dallas is unlikely to be able to compete with the packages that teams trading away a superstar will demand, as Dallas would primarily be competing with franchises that can't help but have lottery talent, high picks and young players with high projected ceilings … the inherent gifts of consistently poor play.
Here are the highlights of those deals (leaving out some less details, such as cash or second-round picks):
Utah's return for Deron Williams: Derrick Favors (third overall pick in the 2010 draft), Devin Harris, and two first-round picks.
Denver's return for Carmelo Anthony: Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, and a first round pick
New Orleans' return for Chris Paul: Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu, and a high first-round pick (Austin Rivers).
Orlando's return for Dwight Howard: . Arron Afflalo (27-year-old with talent, under control through 2014-15 season with player option for 2015-16), Al Harrington, Moe Harkless (19-year-old 15th overall pick in 2012), Nikola Vucevic (22-year-old 16th overall pick in 2011), Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga, multiple first-round picks (as many as four).
OKC's return for James Harden: Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin, and two first-round picks (one of which is Toronto's lottery pick only top 3 protected this year, top two next and top one in 2016; the other is originally from Dallas and is top 20 protected through 2017).
Was there a miscalculation in the value placed on cap space, an overestimation of the attraction of playing in Dallas, or an under-appreciation of what teams that have wallowed in mediocrity, or worse, for years have to offer in trades?
Was there also a missed assumption that the price of stars would come down with the hit of the new CBA's harsher restrictions on tax-paying teams?
A logic this thinking seems to overlook is a truth the NFL, MLB and NBA has proven again and again: max players will always have "max" offers, regardless of the CBA governing them. The second-tier stars and below, the passed-their-prime-used-to-be-superstars may bear the brunt of any reduced spending, but the true "franchise players" will always be offered max money. For a true top 10-15 player in the league, there will always be someone willing to offer the most allowable by rule.
And, won't those teams that do see the writing on the wall, that feel the fear of losing their franchise's greatest asset, be obligated to get something while they can … and get the best "something" possible? That's certainly how it played out with ‘Melo, Deron, Paul, Dwight and Harden.
By turning to one-year deals, and a harsh adherence to enough financial flexibility to allow a clear and attainable path to a summer max offer, the Mavs have limited their options … they've indirectly forced themselves to rely on cap space, on summer free agency … or, for a franchise to be so desperate to dump salary that they'd be willing to dump their best player and do so with little regard for the return beyond savings.
In time, this may prove to be a very prudent, particularly for a team with a core already in place to supplement and build around.
Yet, given the stated goal of obtaining a player capable of making Dirk the "Robin," it minimizes one reality: teams will not be most willing, most hoping, to part with their best player, but rather the most overpaid or expendable … see Rudy Gay. James Harden, a CBA casualty, was dealt because the team had three players they choose over Harden in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. Notice that it wasn't Durant being shopped.
If you're waiting for another team to deal off a guy they view as their fourth most important piece to build your franchise around, you may find yourself waiting many years for a worthy candidate.
You can hope that Miami, Brooklyn, or either Los Angeles team is forced to breakup their expensive cores, but again, who is most likely to go? LeBron James or Dwyane Wade … or Chris Bosh? Dwight Howard or Kobe Bryant … or Pau Gasol or Steve Nash, who turns 40 next season? Deron Williams … or Kris Humphries, Joe Johnson or Gerald Wallace? Chris Paul or Blake Griffin … or DeAndre Jordan, Caron Butler, or someone else?
As Joe Johnson and Rudy Gay have once again reminded us, there are no untradeable contracts.
Looking for players dumped purely to placate financial motivations more often than not leaves you browsing a shelf of second-tier talent … not the guys that make Dirk the second best player on the Mavs.
Undoubtedly, some very good players will continue to become cap casualties, but logic dictates that should the truly elite fall into this category, more than savings will be demanded in return, primarily because "more than savings" will be offered by someone.
Hypothetically, had Dwight or Chris Paul become available at the deadline, could the Mavs, without the assistance of Paul or Dwight clearly stating they would only re-sign with Dallas, have made offers competitive with what would have flooded in from the rest of the league?
Punitive luxury tax laws, the constricting rules (such as teams over the tax apron -- $4 million above the luxury tax line -- being unable to acquire a player via sign-and-trade) that are forcing teams to act were always threats hovering just beyond this season, 2012-13 … lending to another question, another fear: did the Mavs act too soon, too quickly?
Are we forced to wonder if being the smartest people in the room left an inevitability of the Mavs being left in at least two years of purgatory as the rest of the league gradually caught on … if one of the three free agency pitches didn't succeed (remember, it was supposed to be Paul, Dwight and Deron on the market)?
Once more, we're rerouted back to the root of this fear: flexibility around the Mavs rosters in the last two seasons was overly dependent on cap space … more specifically, summer cap space, room to sign free agents. There was the intrinsic flexibility this carried with it to make trades; but again, there were not necessarily the assets to capitalize on that branch of the freedoms flexibility created.
Flexibility is ingenious. Flexibility without the housing of enabling assets allowing for action on that flexibility is ultimately nothing more than summer cap space … and cap space without the stars looking to fill it, and proving willing to turn their back on tens of millions of dollars in that fifth guaranteed contract year, money that can no longer be retained by the player via a sign-and-trade, is essentially worthless.
This is a statement of our fears … not a thesis to be gripped tight and defended to the death.
It's a fear of watching Dirk wither away without the chance to contend, of being condemned to wonder "what if" in regards to Tyson Chandler, and of slipping into an ugliness Mavs fans have been lucky enough to avoid for 12 years … it's the fear of prolonged irrelevance, of being forced to tie our hopes to next summer, next deadline, next year … an avalanche of "next."
Fears fester in the dark, in the realm of the unknown, in the haunts of plans gone astray … even if only temporarily. A funny thing about fear, sometimes when the lights flip on and the unknown is unzipped to reveal the reality hiding beneath … sometimes we find that our fears were misguided and unfounded.
Sometimes our fears flee the light.
Sometimes … sometimes things end up working out. Time will tell. Soon enough, time will deliver us to or from our fears.
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