DALLAS — Now that the NBA season has ended — with a majestic crescendo if you’re a “Fear the Deer” fan, or with a rather lethargic thud if you were riding the Suns’ wave — it’s time to assess where the new Dallas Mavericks stand in all of this.
I never think it’s good when the Western Conference champs lose the Finals because it simply makes that team hungrier to finish the job a year later. And I’m not sure how much the Mavs have in common with the Suns other than the fact they both lost four of their last five games.
Dallas just did it six weeks ago.
I’m not much for beating up on local teams for draft failures because the best organizations in every professional sport miss on all kinds of players. You can play that “what if” game with anyone. The Cowboys weren’t the only team to miss on Randy Moss — after all, he went 21st to Minnesota in 1998 — but they were certainly the club that heard about it the most, sometimes directly from the Hall of Fame receiver himself.
Still, it feels like one mention of what happened in the NBA draft eight years ago — a frequently told story — bears repeating. The Mavericks, at that moment, were in the business of trading down and saving money for free agency. Donnie Nelson, who had only been scouring Europe for prospects since taking Sarunas Marciulionis from Lithuania to Golden State in 1989, liked this kid from Greece named Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Owner Mark Cuban stuck to the plan, worked his way down the board and ended up with Shane Larkin three picks after Giannis went 15th to the Bucks.
Milwaukee has reaped the rewards — two MVP honors and now a 50-point showcase in Tuesday’s title-clinching game — ever since. Instead of a Hall of Fame big man to run the floor, the Mavericks got a Hall of Fame shortstop to sit in the stands for a year.
(Shane is the son of Cincinnati’s Barry Larkin.)
What I’m wondering about isn’t so much the Mavs’ specific mistake in 2013. Giannis went 15th. How different would Utah be had they not selected Shabazz Muhammad over Giannis at No. 14? How much trouble could the Suns have saved themselves by taking Giannis instead of Alex Len fifth?
Now, it’s all about the new brain trust in Dallas. I believe on many occasions the elder statesmen running the basketball operation under Cuban — Nelson and Rick Carlisle — could get their way, even if Donnie came up short on Giannis. How will it go with Nico Harrison, fresh from Nike, and Jason Kidd, one of Cuban’s former players who is beholden to the owner for giving him a third chance as a head coach?
I guess you could say the same about Carlisle initially although his stays in Indiana and Detroit were less turbulent than Kidd’s first two stops. Surprisingly, both Carlisle and Kidd were 48 when Cuban hired them.
Kidd has been brought along to get the most out of Luka Doncic, which is interesting because he got so little out of a young, developing Giannis. Admittedly “the Greek Freak” was not the same player and did not have the same body build in his early days in Milwaukee. But in 3 1/2 seasons there, Kidd’s teams never won a playoff series and had an overall losing record. The day Kidd was fired, the Bucks GM said, “If something is inevitable, why wait?”
The question is what’s inevitable in Dallas. Mavericks fans hope it’s something more than the first-round exits which have been the best that the team has done for 10 years now. Kidd is here to see that Doncic can do for his team what Giannis just did for Milwaukee. Harrison is here to see if there isn’t some way, at long last, to get free agents to land in Dallas although that’s not the immediate goal given the team’s salaries in place and the expectation that Doncic will sign a $200 million max contract extension.
First, barring an unlikely trade of Kristaps Porzingis’ contract, Kidd gets his own opportunity to try to achieve a perfect blend of the two European stars. The most comical thing heard at last week’s introductory news conference was Cuban saying that Porzingis did just what the Mavs asked of him in the playoffs. Unless this was a veiled parting shot at Carlisle, the club apparently asked a $30 million a year player to average 13 points, five rebounds and sub-30% shooting from three-point range against the Clippers.
The best thing about Kidd’s head coaching experience is that he has given no indication he’s a toe-the-line company man. He will challenge authority, and in Dallas that should be an asset. I don’t know when either Nico or Kidd will present their Giannis moment to Cuban as Donnie did back in 2013. But when it happens, whatever it is, they have to win this time.