Mere hours ago, it seemed like the Mavericks were on the verge of landing their first big free agent in a long time. Reports claimed that Hassan Whiteside was leaning towards leaving the Heat to join Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas. It would have been a coup to add him in the first day of free agency, as it would have signaled to other interested players that things were finally turning around.
Instead, Whiteside agreed to return to Miami on a four-year, $98 million deal. Whether the Mavericks failed to close the deal or weren’t really the favorite in the first place, it was the latest blow to a franchise that broke up a championship team in 2011 confident it could built another contender through free agency. Since then, though, they’ve struck out year after year, with a couple of modest exceptions.
It's still very early in the process this offseason, but barring a late surprise, it seems the Mavericks will have to settle for additions that won't lift them to contender status. They’ve again failed to land their top target.
Let's see how we got here.
After winning the 2011 title, the Mavericks faced some serious questions in free agency. The new collective bargaining agreement severely limited the flexibility of teams over the luxury tax, which the Mavericks had been for years. They could commit to an aging, yet expensive core, or let several key players leave and try to reload on the fly around Nowitzki.
They opted for the latter, letting Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson go. Chandler was the lynch pin of their defense, but the Mavericks did not believe he would age well enough to commit a long-term contract.
Instead, Dallas tried to patch things up with short-term veterans. Most notably, they added Lamar Odom via trade, but his time in Dallas was a disaster and left the team during the season due to personal issues. Their other free-agent signings largely disappointed and the team went just 36-30 in the lockout-shortened season. They were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Thunder.
The Mavericks let Jason Kidd and Jason Terry leave in free agency (though they wanted to keep Kidd) and used the one-time amnesty clause to remove Brendan Haywood’s contract. That left Nowitzki and Shawn Marion as the only remnants of the championship team's core.
At the time, Brooklyn’s Deron Williams was their top target. Many Mavericks executives (though not owner Mark Cuban) met with Williams to make their pitch, but were spurned as he re-signed with the Nets. The hope was that Williams could help lead them to Dwight Howard, who was forcing his way out of Orlando. But without Williams, that push never materialized.
Instead, their big additions were Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo. They went 41-41 in the regular season and missed the playoffs altogether, two seasons after winning the championship.
The Mavericks once again had their sights on top tier free agents, so they let several players walk. Chris Paul and Howard (now really on the market) were the biggest stars available, and landing either would have gotten the franchise back on track. Paul quickly re-signed with the Clippers, leaving Dallas to chase Howard hard.
Dallas went after Howard, but frustratingly, he chose their Texas rival in the Rockets instead. Spurned by Howard, they had to settle for Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, Devin Harris and Samuel Dalembert. It was the second year in a row in which they completely whiffed on their intended target, and it started to become clear that the Mavericks were not the free agent destination Cuban hoped they would be.
The Mavericks made the playoffs as the No. 8 seed thanks to a splendid season from Nowitzki and a surprising revival by Ellis, but bowed out in the first round once again.
The Mavericks were rumored to be interested in LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony but realized quickly that neither would consider them. They had a meeting with Anthony but it was considered a formality. Instead, they quickly pivoted to make smaller upgrades, trading Calderon and others to get Chandler back. They also managed to pry Chandler Parsons from the Rockets, enacting some revenge on losing Howard.
Getting Chandler back was seen by many as an admission of the mistake it was to let him leave in free agency, but the Parsons addition was a relative success. He was far from a top free agent, but he had other options and picked Dallas. The Mavericks managed to sign Nowitzki at a discount and didn't lose any of their core players. They even got Barea back, as well.
They won 50 games, but once again lost in the first round of the playoffs. After the season, Parsons underwent knee surgery.
This summer was the most painful of them all. After landing Parsons the previous offseason and having cap space to offer a max contract in 2015, the Mavericks finally seemed to be turning things around. They once again let Chandler walk, but they thought had his replacement lined up.
The Mavericks got a verbal commitment from DeAndre Jordan, one of the biggest free agents in the market and a great fit next to Nowitzki. They had previously landed Wesley Matthews, who was coming off an Achilles injury but figured to be an upgrade at the wing. Finally, it looked like finally the plan to bet hard on free agency was about to pay off.
You know what happened next. Jordan went back on his word, and once the free-agent moratorium ended, he decided to re-sign with the Clippers. The Mavericks, devastated by his departure and out of top options, scrambled to find a center. They settled for Zaza Pachulia in a trade with Milwaukee.
Dallas started the season off well, but Pachulia couldn't sustain his great early play and injuries to Parsons limited their potential. They made the playoffs, but for the fourth time in five years, they were eliminated in the first round.
Here we are again. Both Whiteside and Nicolas Batum, another Mavericks target, have agreed to stay with their teams. So have other stars. Dallas doesn't have a meeting scheduled with Kevin Durant. There has been talk about Dwyane Wade having his representatives reach out, but most see that as a ploy to gain leverage for his negotiations with the Heat.
They are not reportedly in the running for any of the other top free agents in the market, except for Mike Conley. Unfortunately for them, it looks like Conley will return to the Grizzlies and maybe take Parsons with him.
If history is any indication, the Mavericks will pivot and try to sign mid-tier free agents to stay competitive. Unless they can pull of an unexpected move, another mediocre season, a potential first-round exit (at best) and another year of Nowitzki’s lonely journey into his twilight seem to be on the horizon.
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In 2011, Cuban was right that outspending opponents was not going to be an option anymore with the new CBA. Flexibility is important. He simply overestimated the Mavericks' ability to land stars in free agency, and seemingly neglected other ways to get talent, like the draft.
Everything would have been different had Jordan stayed committed to Dallas last offseason. By most accounts, Whiteside considered the Mavericks this year. Yet, if another summer goes by without the Mavericks landing a star, that should be considered to be sufficient proof that the strategy Cuban banked on has failed.
The Mavericks have wasted five years of Nowitzki's career by stubbornly committing to one way of acquiring talent instead of exploring every avenue at their disposal. If they don't learn from this mistake, that lack of vision will haunt the franchise even after its biggest star heads off to retirement.