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Are the Mavericks in NBA Hell?

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

Hopelessness is a strong word, perhaps too strong to describe the Dallas Mavericks future. They aren’t hopeless, but it is difficult to find a path back to the NBA Finals for the 2011 NBA Champions. The Mavericks have spent years in what I would call NBA Hell.

I don’t know who coined the term NBA Hell but I first heard it listening to 670 The Score in Chicago, it was a common term used by hosts Terry Boers and Dan Bernstein to refer to the Milwaukee Bucks miraculous run of playoff berths in 1980s.

A truly underrated team, the Milwaukee Bucks could lay claim to being one of the top teams of the 80s. With the legendary Don Nelson at the helm, the Bucks reached the playoff every season in the 80s. In the end, Brew City had three Eastern Conference Finals appearances but little else to show for a run of tremendous consistency.

When the rebuild eventually had to happen, the Bucks were left with no assets after riding the coattails of Sidney Moncrief, Terry Cummings, Paul Pressey and Ricky Pierce for so long.

As a result of so many above-average seasons, the Bucks routinely picked in the high teens or twenties resulting in a less than stellar run of first-round draft picks: Jeff Grayer, Terry Mills (traded for Danny Schayes), Kevin Brooks, Lee Mayberry, Todd Day.

It wasn’t until 1993 when the Bucks drafted Vin Baker that the influx of good young talent finally made it’s way to Milwaukee. It would take until the 98-99 season for Milwaukee to return to the playoffs and 00-01 until they reached the Eastern Conference Finals again.

Now what about the Mavericks?

It’s hard to criticize their method of team building, they won the 2011 NBA Championship after making nine straight NBA playoffs. They also reached the Finals in 05-06, so they’ve been able to break the ceiling more than those 80s Bucks teams but this season has been a crossroads for the Mavericks.

After narrowly missing the playoff last year, all calculations show the Mavericks as a playoff team this season. Basketball-Reference’s playoff odds report has them at 79.4% and Sports Club Stats has them at 85.1% to make the playoffs.

This is good, right? I’m not sure. The Mavericks and their fans are anxious to return to the playoffs after sitting home last season, but what’s the real value. Head coach Rick Carlisle and owner Mark Cuban have paid lip service to the “just wait until we get into the playoffs” mantra:

“We haven’t played our best basketball yet” – Mark Cuban

“If we get into the playoffs, we’re gonna be a team people don’t want to play.” – Rick Carlisle 

We shouldn’t immediately discount the Mavericks but it’s hard to imagine this team, this year, in this Western Conference against either this year’s Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers making a run to the NBA title, but we’ll give them some benefit of the doubt.

Regardless, it may be all for naught. At some point, the Mavericks are going to need to re-energize their roster with new talent. The Mavericks are 7th in the NBA in average age, but of their top five scorers four are over the age of 30. The only one outside of 30 is 28-year-old Monta Ellis, not exactly a spring chicken.

Dallas will unload some of that age this offseason as Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter all see their contracts expire after this season but Dirk will likely (and should) re-sign with Dallas.

Since 2000, their first-round draft picks are, yeah: Etan Thomas, Josh Howard, Maurice Ager, Byron Mullens, Jordan Hamilton, Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk. Obviously more of those have been sent away in trades and the only contributor out of that lot was Josh Howard.

Of course, there are other ways to build a successful team and the Mavericks have proven that over the past decade. They deserve some benefit of the doubt but isn’t the bill going to come due soon?

Are we there? Even in those aforementioned seasons, they were considered contenders. With Dirk, Terry, Jason Kidd and the like, they seemed to be a pseudo-contender and they were — multiple Western Conference semifinals and finals appearances. I’m still not sold they have a chance to win more than a few playoff games.

Zach Lowe discussed the Mavericks’ future in a January piece and the hopes are quite optimistic. The range from Kevin Durant, Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol, even Texas native Chris Bosh, potentially this offseason. But like I’ve long felt, the Mavericks are in NBA Hell:

“Dallas is on the dreaded treadmill now — a so-so team, too good for the high lottery, but not good enough to contend. That’s supposed to be the worst-case scenario.”

Dirk’s quote at the end of the Lowe piece is one of the most telling:

“After winning a championship, you wanna get back there so bad,” Nowitzki says. “You want that feeling again. You don’t want to play for the eighth seed.”

Dirk and the Mavericks don’t want to play for the eighth seed but I’ll be damned if they are doing it. The Mavericks will once again miss out on the lottery, one of the more well-regarded drafts in NBA history. Worse yet, if they finish with one of the NBA’s 10 best records, they’ll lost that first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder (pick is top-2o protected through 2017).

To some Mavericks’ fans including Mavs Moneyball’s Hal Brown, that wouldn’t be the worst thing:

Despite their checkered past in the draft, the Mavericks have been able to work the trade market to their benefit but as I mentioned earlier, at some point the bill comes due. They’ve always been able to maneuver assets to their benefit. The question now though: do the Mavericks have valuable trade assets? What is Ellis or Jose Calderon‘s worth? Brandan Wright is a nice piece but is he really the type of player the Mavericks should be sending off? Wayne Ellington? Where are the assets of year’s past? Where is the desirable talent that can land you a rotational piece? I don’t think it’s there. Are teams anxious for a non-lottery first round pick and Shane Larkin?

So let’s review, the Mavericks are old, not really talented but good enough to consistently make the playoffs as a 6th-8th seed over the next few years. They have struck out on numerous drafts and some of their most devoted fans have no faith in their ability to draft in the future. They have success in free agency and there are a few big names available to them in the future but this is the same team that was shunned by both Deron Williams and Dwight Howard when space was cleared for them.

Yup, the Dallas Mavericks are in NBA Hell.

  • Dodgson

    Making the playoffs is hugely valuable though. The players don’t get paid so every home game is pure profit. 7th/8th seed is WAY better than being at the bottom of your division. There are a lot more borderline teams that continue to make the playoffs then teams that succeed through the draft (normally if your team stinks it is because management stinks, getting picks will not fix that). Unless there is a Lebron type talent in the draft you probably won’t be improving your team THAT much and you would need the number 1 pick to get that once in a generation player. People love to bring up the Thunder as the way to rebuild but I would content that they just got lucky as hell. More frequently you have a team like the Cavs that is lucky to go 1-4 with their high lottery picks. Meanwhile the Mavs/Spurs haven’t gotten a great pick in 10-15 years and remain great year after year because they are well run.

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