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It's Time For The Mavericks To Choose Between The Present And The Future

It's been five mostly middling years since Dallas won a NBA Championship. There has to be a better way to honor Dirk Nowitzki's twilight than an endless status quo.

by Evans Clinchy
Apr 27 2016, 4:18pm

Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.

"What are you doing? Why are you waiting?"

The speaker was Danny Ainge, then a veteran NBA shooting guard and longtime member of the Boston Celtics. The year was 1988. The man Ainge was addressing, Boston personnel czar Red Auerbach, had an opportunity to make a bold move that might have dramatically altered the history of the franchise.

A pair of trade offers were on the table, giving Auerbach and the Celtics a chance to take apart their dynastic core and rebuild around a new group of rising stars. For Larry Bird, then 32 and on the decline, Auerbach was offered a solid three-man trade package from Indiana featuring Chuck Person, Herb Williams, and Steve Stipanovich. For Kevin McHale, 31, the offer came from Dallas—Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins.

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The opportunity to reboot the franchise was both tantalizing and terrifying. On one hand, this was a chance to unload two aging star players and rebuild around a new core that was just entering its prime. On the other hand, Bird and McHale were the Celtics, and the two future Hall of Famers, along with Robert Parish, had led Boston to five Eastern Conference titles and three NBA titles in the previous eight years. They had dropped off slightly by the time the trade offers came in, but dealing them away would still mean dismantling a historic team. Any qualms Auerbach had were understandable. Ainge, even though Bird and McHale were his peers, had no trouble seeing past them.

"I was like, 'Are you kidding?'" Ainge told the Boston Globe many years later. His views on basketball personnel decisions were rigid and unflinching. To him, both then and now, there was no room for sentiment in the high-stakes NBA—you simply pursued the best assets, feelings be damned, and pushed forward. By this logic, it was easy for Ainge to urge his boss to unload two stars on the wrong side of 30. That they were generational players and Boston icons was inconsequential.

More than a quarter century later, Ainge now sits behind Auerbach's desk in in Boston. His basketball worldview hasn't changed much. His approach today can still be characterized as unsentimental and rational to a fault. Not everyone in the modern NBA shares his outlook, however, and this is a conflict that does not look likely to work itself out anytime soon. Which brings us to Dirk Nowitzki.

It doesn't really get any easier. Photo by Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

There aren't a lot of similarities between Nowitzki and Larry Bird. Various pundits have compared the two from time to time; the bases for these comparisons, historically, have ranged from the superficial to the plainly wrong. Both Bird and Nowitzki are shaggy white men who shoot basketballs extraordinarily well and have won a number of NBA championships not less than one or greater than three. Beyond that, there's nothing much tying the two together. There is one comparison between the two men that's genuinely interesting, though, and it's less about the players themselves than the circumstances around them.

In Boston, Auerbach and the Celtics let their once-great franchise wither as Bird fell from grace; the legendary forward retired as a Celtic, after years of injury-shortened seasons, in the summer of 1992. The team won precisely two playoff games during the nine-year period that followed. While it's still early in the process, there is reason to wonder whether a similar malaise lies ahead in Dallas.

Just as Auerbach refused to pull the trigger on dealing Bird some 30 years ago, Mavs owner Mark Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson seem intent on owning the twilight of Dirk's career, and they have tried to make the most of it by building and rebuilding their roster again and again in a series of one-year quick fixes, all in the desperate hope of fielding one last contender before their iconic leader moves on. As a result, the team has been trapped in a sort of respectable stasis—fully capable of stealing a game from a younger and more talented Oklahoma City Thunder team in the first round, but not much more than that.

That's honorable, in its way, but it's hard to see much of a future in it. That emphasis on an honorable present seems, almost, to be the point. But the future is coming, because it always is, and the Mavericks will have some questions to answer. What are their values? What are their goals? What can they accomplish, and whom would it benefit?

When the future is bright. Photo by Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

File this one under "life comes at you fast"—it's now been five years since the spring of 2011, when the Mavericks made a miracle run to the NBA Finals and toppled LeBron James and the Heat to win it all. During those five years, the Mavs have made the playoffs four times but never advanced past the first round. Their postseason record between 2012 and now is 5-16. Nowitzki, who was 32 when he captured Finals MVP honors, is now 37. Those miracle Mavs were an aging team without a clear path forward; they still are.

It's tough to pinpoint a single glaring reason for Dallas' stagnation, but a number of smaller ones are obvious enough. The team's aggressive approach to free agency has yet to yield a major prize—in recent years, their main signees have been either young and fraught with injury risk (Wesley Matthews, Chandler Parsons) or older, if somewhat effective, short-term fixes (Deron Williams, Zaza Pachulia). Dirk, who is still pretty great, has been the one constant. Everyone around him have been interchangeable and unremarkable. Free agency has masked the Mavericks' symptoms, but not cured their wasting disease. The draft, meanwhile, has been largely fruitless. It has been over a decade since a Mavs pick made a real impact.

There's no one correct way for a franchise to cope with the decline of a cornerstone player. However, a look at recent NBA history reveals a few templates. In Boston, Ainge opted for the quick rebuild in 2013 when he dealt Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn for a gift basket of draft picks. In San Antonio, the R.C. Buford/Gregg Popovich brain trust has engineered a sturdy bridge from the Tim Duncan Era to the Kawhi Leonard Administration, acquiring Leonard at the 2011 draft and then adding another star with LaMarcus Aldridge's signing last summer. The Lakers present the cautionary worst-case scenario, as they spent several years and tens of millions of dollars enabling Kobe Bryant throughout his protracted decline and warped the team's culture wildly out of whack in the process.

What is the Mavs' post-Dirk plan? This is not a rhetorical question, and it's not one I can answer. In an ideal world, they would pursue the Spurs' approach, and that appeared to be what they were after when they made a run at DeAndre Jordan last summer. That didn't work, though—so now what?

The alternative is just continuing to do this forever. Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Cuban's and Nelson's priorities depend on their loyalties. If they're loyal to Dirk, it's a no-brainer to continue with their current strategy and run it back for another year or three; their star has made it clear he wants to keep fighting, and the team remains good enough to get him another four to seven playoff games each year. On Tuesday, the morning after the Mavs' elimination at the hands of the aforementioned Thunder, Nowitzki told ESPN that he's not retiring, and that "as long as we go for it and compete, then I'll be a Mav." Again, this is admirable and brave and typically Dirk, but just the same, all those clichés about Father Time being undefeated are clichés because they're true. For this incarnation of the Mavs, the end of the road is near.

If Dallas' leadership is loyal to its fans and wants to field the best team possible, not just now but in, say, 2020, the question gets tougher. It might be time for the Mavericks, even if it offends their best player's sensibilities, to stop with the stall tactics and begin developing a new core in earnest. That doesn't mean kicking Dirk to the curb right away, necessarily, but it does mean putting a renewed emphasis on young talent. It would mean actually using draft picks to draft players. It would also entail not making mistakes like trading an emerging home-grown contributor such as Jae Crowder—to Ainge's Celtics, fittingly enough—for a four-month rental of Rajon Rondo. It's difficult to take the long view when your iconic player has only a short time left, but that's the challenge the Mavericks are facing.

Or, to put it more succinctly: "What are you doing? Why are you waiting?"

Dirk Nowitzki has had an amazing career, and it's not over yet. But if the Mavs really want to honor their franchise player, they'll do more than watch him decline, or deal him away to win a second ring as a supporting player on another team. They'll work to find a better balance between respecting Nowitzki and preparing for what's next. That's easier said than done, but the easy route—trusting gravity, and chasing the seventh seed for as long as Dirk is game—only defers the difficult part. Dallas' season just ended, but now seems like a good time to get to work.