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Hi! How Was Your Summer? Dallas Mavericks

2012 W-L: 41-41

New Places: Elton Brand (Atlanta), Darren Collison (Clippers), Jared Cunningham (Atlanta), Chris Kaman (Lakers), OJ Mayo (Milwaukee), Anthony Morrow (New Orleans)

New Faces: DeJuan Blair, Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Wayne Ellington, Monta Ellis, Devin Harris, Gal Mekel

Draft: Shane Larkin (18), Ricky Ledo (43)

I always liked to think you don’t want to build your franchise on hope. – Dirk Nowitzki, January 7, 2013

Well, that didn’t work.  Again.  A year after missing out on Dwight Howard and a superstar point guard, Mark Cuban and the Mavericks missed out on Dwight Howard and a superstar point guard.

But it’s not complete deja vu in Dallas.  Instead of signing a few middling veterans to one-year deals in hopes of an immediate playoff run and longterm flexibility, Cuban and Donnie Nelson went the opposite direction.  And while that may seem prudent given off- and in- season disappointments gleaned from the last 14 months, the straightest route isn’t always the one best traveled.

Extenuating circumstances be damned.

The Mavericks complete summer overhaul saw a whopping 16 players come and go.  Brand, Kaman, Mayo and Collison highlight the seven defections, and it’s hardly surprising Dallas let each of them walk in free agency.  Collison and Mayo comprised the most mercurial starting backcourt in the league for a time last season, and the former’s inconsistencies, in particular, drew the constant ire of Rick Carlisle.  Mayo’s loss is the bigger one, but certainly understandable from not just a price perspective but a chemistry one, too; like Collison, he’d worn out his welcome with the Mavs.  Kaman’s glaring deficiencies on both ends are well-documented by now, and Brand, while useful, is a shell of the two-way impact player he was several seasons ago.

That such an average quartet of journeymen played key roles for Dallas last season speaks to the team’s intentional lack of real ambition.  The 2012-2013 Mavericks were a patchwork group, thrown together last minute out of necessity.  That was no secret, obviously, and Cuban’s hope of luring a big free agent fish to Dallas this summer with hordes of cap space was sound justification behind that approach.

But then Nowitzki got hurt and the Mavs almost fell apart.  Dallas missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2000, ending an amazing decade-plus of contention mostly overlooked due to the Spurs’ superior one.  Nowitzki’s mounting frustration at that very possibility peaked in early January as the Mavericks lost for the eighth time in nine games and fell to 13-21.

Dirk’s pessimistic remarks deserve to be read in full, but their overarching message is conveyed by the quote above.  ”Hope” is fickle in the NBA even on its most basic principles, let alone those flimsy ones gleaned from the mere possibility of offseason additions.  Cuban learned that the hard way this summer and last when Howard and Williams/Paul spurned his advances.  The difference, this time, is that he elected against banking on it to the same extent.

Calderon reportedly agreed to his four-year, $29 million contract on July 5th.  He’s an innate floor general and dead-eye shooter, but the defensive issues that have plagued his entire career will only worsen as he ages throughout the length of this deal.  Calderon turns 32 years-old in September, and though his offensive game shouldn’t slip much over time, he certainly won’t be worth the $8 million he’s owed in 2015-2016.  Some would say he’s not worth that much now.

But at least he’s a surefire upgrade over the former Dallas incumbent and an ideal fit alongside Nowitzki.  Neither thing can be said for Ellis.

Reports of Ellis agreeing to terms with the Mavericks surfaced in mid-July, some 10 days or so after Howard announced his intention to sign with Houston.  What Cuban’s unexpectedly heavy salary pockets had to do with Dallas signing Ellis to a three-year, $25 million deal is only conjecture; what isn’t is that Calderon was already aboard when Ellis made his choice.

Think optimistically for now and agree that a Calderon/Ellis backcourt will be awesome offensively.  Now think a bit deeper, realize there are two sides of the floor to play in basketball and that whatever awesome offensive impact Calderon and Ellis provide will be mitigated by how truly awful they’ll be defensively.  Finally come back to harsh reality and see the problem: barring a radical stylistic transformation from Ellis, he and Calderon won’t be as fantastic offensively as they’ll need to be to offset their absolutely porous presence on the other end.

Now, there are ancillary factors that Dallas is banking on to prop up the two-way influence of its new backcourt.  Carlisle is a noted defensive genius, Nowitzki an all-encompassing offensive force, and additions like Dalembert and Ellington specialists that play on the strengths and weaknesses of Ellis and Calderon.  Players already on the roster like Shawn Marion, Brandan Wright  and even Vince Carter fill gaps, too.  But the Mavericks are asking far too much of so many limited – let alone aging – players here, and a coach’s impact only goes so far.

Calderon is useful.  Ellis is talented.  But playing them together could be a recipe for disaster, and the Mavericks have committed to doing so for the next three seasons at approximately $46 million.  There were other ways to spend this money and remake this backcourt.  At the very least, Dallas would have been better off signing Calderon, ignoring Ellis and going from there.  As it is, the Mavs have tied their future – and Dirk’s, mind you – to a pair of guards that are too expensive, and too similarly deficient.

Cuban’s summer acquisitions are his updated version of “hope.”  It isn’t unlimited cap space and future big name free agents anymore, and that’s obviously a step forward with this season in mind.  But a year of fighting for the playoffs and three more of playing with Monta Ellis isn’t the kind of “hope” that Nowitzki wants or deserves.  And should this season turn disastrous, is it crazy to suggest he might look elsewhere as a free agent next summer? That’s at least as likely as the most optimistic forecast – Nowitzki taking a paycut so “max-level X” could come aboard.

Cuban bet again and lost again, so it makes sense he’d hedge when faced with the same hand this summer.  And given Dirk’s January comments, placating their aging superstar could be a partial motive behind the Mavericks’ confounding moves.  But this isn’t the way to another run of sustained championship contention.  For Nowitzki’s sake, our hope should be that he not only realizes it, but does something about it, too.

Jack Winter