A few hours after the Pacers beat the Mavs on Saturday by a 112-105 that wasn't really that close, Dallas GM Donnie Nelson scooted up the tollway to Frisco watch the Mavs' junior-varsity Texas Legends play. He was armed with his usual hail-fellow-well-met persona, offering hugs and high-fives to sponsors, players, fans, and yeah, even media members.
But it was a facade. Donnie is draggin'. Just like the varsity is draggin', five straight losses now threatening to expose not only the lack of a future for this group of Mavs but also exposing problems with the philosophy that's put them in this spot.
"When you look at the top two teams in the West and their record-breaking pace that the Golden State Warriors are on and the Spurs are winning so many games, it kind of puts the next tier kind of in a different category,'' Donnie told me the other day, pinpointing one of the undeniable issues with Dallas: That it's not Golden State or San Antonio. "We're kind of used to a 50-win mark and knocking on the door. But, look, the West from top to bottom has always been tough and this year is, when you have those two teams that are just absolutely just on this record-setting pace, there's just not enough wins out there to be got. So, yeah, we'd love to be talking in the conversations in the 50's and what not, but the reality is it's not going to be that high with that factor."
No, it's not going to be 50. Dallas is now in eighth place in the West at 33-33 with 16 games remaining, making 50 a mathematical impossibility.
“We’re a .500 team right now,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “We are our record. I told the guys after the game that we’ve got to understand that we’ve got to earn our way back up over .500. It’s not going to get easier.”
Rick is talking about the schedule and the standings and the playoffs. But there is a bigger picture here, and it's about the construct and the philosophy post-2011 that's caused that year's NBA champs to become this year's Treadmill-of-Mediocrity threat.
Monta Ellis, now of the Pacers (17 points and seven assists here), was asked after the game about former Dallas teammate Chandler Parsons: "I've got no comments about him,'' Ellis apparently mumbled, cutting off the question.
Why does this matter? Because it's a reminder that last year's Mavs, featuring Ellis and Parsons as teammates, were wildly dysfunctional. And yet Ellis, the season before, when Parsons wasn't here, didn't pout over money or on-court pecking order or locker-room hierarchy. He did that after Parsons arrived here (to make twice Ellis' salary) and he did that after Rajon Rondo got here (an acquisition that didn't take long to go sour and appear poorly-considered). Oh, and don't forget: Even our beloved Jason Terry went "CTC'' in 2011-12 when he realized he was just a "beloved'' Band-Aid. And our beloved Tyson Chandler? In the end, Rent-A-Player. Twice.
What is Dallas' talent-acquisition strategy? Is is fair to accuse the Mavs of having a talent-acquisition strategy that looks like they are throwing ideas against the wall to see what sticks?
The Mavs have plotted to use free agency to get their "big fish,'' as Donnie long-ago labeled it, but the hook keeps coming back empty. So ... they scramble. We've talked about how Rondo was a vision that Dallas held for two years before finally getting him (in exchange in part for a 2011 first-round pick that now leaves Dallas' cupboard even more bare) but maybe the Mavs' vision there was obscured. We've talked about how Dallas does a fine job on the second tier of acquisitions once the LeBron Jameses and the Dwight Howards and the DeAndre Jordans say "no'' but if those second-tier guys don't help you win playoff games, how fine a job has really been done?
Dallas, remember, didn't really want Monta Ellis in the summer of 2013 ... until there was no talent left on the top shelf. And then last summer, they didn't want him again, not offering a way to retain him on a team on which clearly he didn't mesh with designated alpha-dog Parsons. And when Dallas does get a "get,'' it's not top-shelf. Listen to owner Mark Cuban -- who is by no means happy about the way this is all unfolding -- defend his franchise:
"We think we have a good organization," Cuban said. "We've added Chandler and we added Wes (Matthews), D-Will (Deron Williams). That was the goal,to get guys that may not put you over the top right off the bat, but are team players that hopefully other guys will want to play with. If we were to get the one transformational guy, these would be guys that we'd want playing around him."
There's a lot of meat in that quote. To wit:
*"We think we have a good organization.'' In terms of stability and leadership and character and want-to and "class,'' if you will, Cuban is right. The presence of Cuban, Donnie and Carlisle makes for a solid Triangle of Trust, a firm base. But fans are right in wanting the "good organization'' to manifest itself in a "good team.''
*If we were to get the one transformational guy ...'' This, of course, is the flawed elephant in the room: Cuban's belief that transformation must come with the signing of a Kevin Durant. Over the years, the belief has been so strong that other ways of acquiring talent have been back-burnered, if not ignored. And the "if'' now looks infinitely more difficult that ever. Indeed, this summer according to our calculations the Mavs are unlikely to manipulate their money in a way that even allows them to offer max money to the likes of Durant.
*The Mavs have "team players that hopefully other guys will want to play with.'' That would be nice. But not even the incredible Dirk Nowitzki -- age 37 and still capable of his present streak of averaging 24.6 points on 54.7-percent shooting in the past five games, including 30 points against Indy -- has proven to be a talent drawing card. And is Chandler Parsons a drawing card? The evidence stares you in the face: His "best pal'' DeAndre Jordan promised Parsons he'd join Dallas and then didn't. And his former teammate Monta Ellis doesn't even want to talk about him.
"We've added ... D-Will. That was the goal.'' Well, no it wasn't. In the days leading up to the Williams signing (to what amounts to a one-year deal worth $5 mil, nobody's "goal''), D-Will was no better than the Mavs' fourth preference among the scrap-heap point guards on the street. To understand the low shelf he was on: The top-ranked street-free-agent for Dallas at the moment was Jeremy Lin.
Deron Williams wasn't the Mavs' "goal''; he was all that was left.
Wanna win now? The track record says it's not happening, and it hasn't been happening in a way to which Dallas fans are accustomed, given that the Mavs have won just four playoff games since their 2011.
Wanna win in the draft? The assets say that's not happening, too bad for a team that turns over its roster every year and yet in the end fields the NBA's second-most-elderly team.
Wanna win in free agency? Even if Cuban's philosophy isn't wrong, this summer appears to be the wrong summer. Dallas has always wanted cap space above all else ... but this summer almost everybody has cap space.
So ... let's "blow it up''?!
"Look at the teams that have said, 'Let's blow it up,'" Cuban said. "Who has it worked for in the last six, seven years?''
It's true. How would Dallas get better by being worse? "Blow it up'' by not re-signing Parsons? And then replace him with ... whom? "Blow it up'' by letting Deron and Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee and Raymond Felton and Charlie Villanueva and David Lee walk after this season? Um, like Parsons, they are already free to "walk,'' as they are in the final years of their contracts. "Blow it up'' by parting with Matthews and Barea and Devin and kids Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell? They have guaranteed contracts for the future. Dumping them does nothing positive.
"Tanking'' to get a higher draft pick doesn't work as a surefire path to a title because that sort of "transformational player'' Cuban seeks comes along, oh, about as often as a Tim Duncan, a Shaquille O'Neal and a LeBron James comes along. Cuban also mentioned not wishing to tank because "Dirk keeps us from going that route because he's too good. Dirk's not going to give up on games."
Honestly, though: "Let's win it for Dirk'' isn't working.
And that's where the path around here always ends up taking you to. Up the tollway and around Belt Line and tour all of DFW and you find yourself back into the same spot: This player doesn't like that player and this promise cannot be kept and that idea can not be proven and this philosophy doesn't meld with that reality ... and then, Dirk is Dirk, promising to continue to "give it my best for the rest of my career'' and that's it.
Cuban said, "We still have every opportunity in front of us to control our own destiny,'' and you cannot be blamed if this sounds like Donnie sounds, an audio facade of hugs and high-fives when the truth is, in every way, from top to bottom, Dallas' "destiny'' is draggin'.