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What’s the Plan, Dallas Mavericks?

What’s the Plan? is a weekly series where we look at the long-term outlooks for teams that aren’t immediately contending for a championship. This week, we’re looking at a team who just had their contention pulled out from under them by a player changing his mind, the Dallas Mavericks.

So, things have shifted pretty drastically for the Dallas Mavericks since earlier this week. The Mavs have gone from having a puncher’s chance in the West to looking like a team that’ll be fighting just to make the playoffs thanks to the DeAndre Jordan flip-flop. They even lost out on Jeremy Lin, who chose to sign with the Hornets instead of Dallas. With the Mavericks now missing on their top target in free agency rather than hitting, they need to make a decision about their next move, and it probably won’t be an easy decision to make.

Mark Cuban said in an interview that if he missed out on this year’s big free agents, “…it was time to take a step back.” What he’s talking about is tanking. Unfortunately, the Mavericks have already been making moves toward trying to win and aren’t in a great position to lose games this season. At some point though, they’re going to have to take a move in that direction, or they’ll find themselves stuck in NBA purgatory.

If Dallas wanted to tank, signing Wesley Matthews wouldn’t have been a step in that direction. Matthews and the Mavs agreed to a contract with Dallas thinking it was signing both Matthews and Jordan. Matthews makes them better, but doesn’t make them good enough to challenge other teams in the Western Conference, especially considering he’s coming back from a serious Achilles injury.

Dallas could’ve started its “taking a step back” plan this year if they’d backed out of signing Matthews, and Cuban even gave him the option to look elsewhere. But Matthews wanted to stay, and the Mavericks wound up pushing his contract up to four-years, $70 million, a max deal. What this does is help build trust with the rest of the players in the league. People remember when an organization does right by its players, and the Mavericks agreeing to uphold their end of the bargain and paying Matthews more than originally reported helps their reputation with the rest of the league.

Another reason the Mavs won’t tank this year is the top seven protected draft pick they owe to Boston in next year’s draft. Unless Dallas can get to the bottom of the league next year, that pick is going to Boston. With the way the team is now after acquiring Zaza Pachulia and with more possible moves to be made, I don’t think they’re getting to the bottom seven in the NBA. They still have Dirk, Matthews, Chandler Parsons and a great head coach in Rick Carlisle, and all of them are good at winning basketball games, even if two of them are on the mend.

For this season at least, the Mavericks will try to be good. Dirk Nowitzki is reaching the end of his career, and I know Cuban doesn’t want it to end on a tanking lottery team. There’s been talk about Dallas signing Deron Williams if he’s bought out, and while Williams hasn’t been great for the Nets, he’d help the Mavericks’ poor point-guard situation. The Mavericks will be fighting for the playoffs this season, but making it will be a tall order, and they’d likely just get stomped in the first round. But they’re doing it for Dirk and for their image as a solid organization.

Image is important for NBA teams, both tangibly and intangibly. The Spurs, for example, won free agency this year entirely on their reputation, not their cap space. For the Mavs to tank effectively this season, they’d need to gut their starting lineup and potentially send players to places they don’t want to go. The other players remember that, and they’d also remember how bad the team was during the tanking period. Going from a perennial playoff team who stands by their guys to a tanking team with no sense of loyalty to their players isn’t a switch the Mavs want to make, even for a good draft pick. They’ll be sellers sometime soon, but for this season at least, they’re going to build their team to win as much as they can.

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