Maybe my title is a bit inflammatory, but what Mavs fan hasn’t had this thought at some point? Let’s face it, the Mavs front office has never made the draft a priority. In the Cuban era, only two players drafted by the Mavericks have actually been major contributors to Mavericks teams: Devin Harris and Josh Howard. And even those successes were a mixed bag. Between Harris and Howard (one a top 5 draft pick and the other a former ACC Player of the Year), there are only two all-star appearances (one each) and no All-NBA selections. Harris spent the prime of his career playing elsewhere, and Howard flamed out rather spectacularly when he became a little to open about his marijuana usage, then had a series of increasingly controversial off-the-court incidents. Harris did find his way back to the Mavs, playing a major role on a team that pushed the Spurs to seven games. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Mavericks drafting players, Harris is the exception, not the rule.
The more usual story for Mavs draftees is this: you either never make it into the rotation, or if you do, you almost never get a second NBA contract. Dominique Jones averaged 9.3 minutes per game for three seasons, then he was out of the NBA. Roddy Beaubois was electrifying as a rookie and averaged just under 16 minutes per game in his NBA career, but that career still only lasted four seasons. Maurice Ager did get a contract after his rookie deal, but played a total of four games in his lone season with the Timberwolves. Jared Cunningham managed to turn a 10-day deal into a contract to finish the season with the Kings, but he has averaged just 5 minutes a game in his two years in the league and is by no means a lock to be on an NBA roster next season. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.
To be fair, Dallas has only had a lottery pick three times since Cuban became the majority owner. However, the first was used on Etan Thomas, an undersized center who never played for the Mavs and averaged 5.7 points per game in his 9-year NBA career. The second, obtained by trade, was used to select Devin Harris. And the third was last year, when Dallas traded out of the lottery to save money to throw at Dwight Howard. Other than Harris, the Mavs have not exactly made the most of their best draft opportunities.
Some Mavs fans tend to argue that it is hard to be successful in the draft if you are almost never in the lottery. I’m not buying it anymore. When a front office values the draft and hires the appropriate staff to scout and develop talent, the results speak for themselves. For example, let’s look at a few of the guys San Antonio has picked outside of the lottery: Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Ian Mahinmi, Tiago Splitter, Dejuan Blair, George Hill. Just for comparison’s sake, the best I could find from the Mavs were Shane Larkin, Jae Crowder, and Roddy Beaubois.
In short, the Mavs’ problem isn’t that they are consistently picking later in the draft. The problem is that the Mavs simply don’t value growing their own young talent. Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson would rather trade for or sign an established star than develop their own. This philosophy is odd, especially considering that the greatest Maverick ever has never played an NBA minute in anything but Mavs blue. The problem with relying solely on outside talent acquisition is that you are beholden to the market. Sometimes you don’t have trade assets. Other times, you don’t have cap space. Also, the current CBA incentivizes big name players to re-sign with their current squad. I’m not saying the Mavs should abandon trades or free agent signings; I’m just saying that it is unwise to completely ignore one of the three major methods of acquiring NBA talent.
Because the Mavs refused to develop their own talent, they shot themselves in the foot when they couldn’t convince big name free agents to come sign in Dallas. When they swung and missed on Deron Williams, they were left with little more than castoffs and spare parts like OJ Mayo and Darren Collison, and we all saw where that went. Jose and Monta were a much better consolation prize to Dwight Howard, but the Mavs paid a premium on Jose, who is only getting older and contributes only on one side of the court. Again, the Spurs don’t have to go chasing the D-Wills and Dwights of the NBA world, because they grew their own in house.
This is why the short-lived tenure of Gersson Rosas was so disappointing. The Rosas hire seemed to be a concession by Cuban and Nelson that they finally realized the flaws in undervaluing the draft. Rosas was not just an analytics guy, but a major part of the front office that drafted Chase Budinger, Patrick Peterson, Chandler Parsons, and Terrence Jones. But of course, it blew up before Rosas could even influence a Mavericks draft, and the fact that Cuban hasn’t hired a replacement tells me that this hiring was probably a whim, not a serious reconsideration of the direction of the front office.
The jury is still out on young draftees like Shane Larkin, Ricky Ledo, and Jae Crowder, but ultimately, the Mavs will probably continue getting their best players through trades and free agency, while ignoring the cheapest and possibly most dependable source of talent acquisition. And, as frustrating as that may be for some us, life will go on. The Mavs will probably continue to be good. But that nagging question will always be there: just how good could they be if the front office didn’t limit itself?