The "Walking Dead'' is back this week. This means a lot of us are scrambling to ignore spoilers, in the hopes that we can enjoy what we see on our TVs every week.
What? Oh, no, I’m not talking about that little show on A&E. I’m talking about every team in the NBA not named “The Warriors” or “The Eastern Conference LeBrons.”
I don’t know if you’ve heard—but the Golden State Warriors won more regular-season games last year than any team in history. They then lost an epic seven-game Finals series to LeBron James and the Cavs by the width of a LeBron James block.
And what was the Warriors’ solution for licking their wounds? They picked up a has-been named Kevin Durant to try to revive his flagging career.
Wait. Someone’s telling me that Durant ranked 3rd in scoring, 25th in rebounds, 24th in assists per game, 2nd in Player Efficiency Rating and 8th in Real Plus-Minus last season—so maybe he’s still pretty good?
(By the way: Two of the people ahead of him in Real Plus Minus are teammates Draymond Green (2nd) and Stephen Curry (4th)—so there’s a chance that the Warriors will also still be pretty good.)
If you root for any team that isn’t in Golden State (and given the fact that you’re hanging around at DallasBasketball.com and reading this story and reading Fish's "Mavs Season Preview For Worrywarts'' and grousing about things on DB.com Boards, I’m gonna guess that you do), this is pretty terrible news.
I do not ascribe to the notion that you need to be bad in order to get good. In fact, the 2011 Mavericks wouldn’t even have a trophy if they’d blown up their team in 2010. The 2011 Mavericks and the 2016 Cavaliers are also great reminders that there are also GOOD spoilers on TV.
Both teams were heavily favored to lose—but both earned their lone Larry O’Brien Trophies thanks to playing the role of spoiler to a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut.
Of course—both teams also had future Hall-of-Famers playing better than anyone else within 10,000 miles (Dirk in 2011, LeBron in 2016). Both had inconsistent guards step up with irrational confidence to help their teams win (Jason Terry in 2011, Kyrie Irving in 2016). Then, and in some ways just as importantly, both teams saw their opponent’s best player drift toward mortality (LeBron in 2011, Steph Curry in 2016).
I don’t think I need to belabor this point too much: It usually doesn’t work that way.
Usually, the best teams win the most games (R.I.P., 2007 Mavs). Usually the best teams win their conference. Before the 2015-2016 season started, the predictions were pretty uniform: The Cavs would sleepwalk to the Eastern Conference Finals and the Warriors would be favorites to defend their title.
We’ll use the Warriors’ collapse after a 3-1 series lead as an asterisk on greatness right up until people stop talking about NBA basketball—but real talk: falling a couple of moments short of back-to-back titles is the type of failure most teams can only dream of. The margin of victory was razor-thin, and required an already otherworldly LeBron James playing the best basketball of his life. The cut left by that razor’s edge just got filled by one of the best basketball players on the planet.
The Warriors are probably going to win the West this year, ladies and gentlemen.
We can talk about a thousand scenarios that undo that (maybe the entire starting five will hurt their knees during a feisty round of Double-Dutch; maybe they don’t mesh right away and they only grab a second seed before rolling through the playoffs like a thresher). What we cannot do is pretend that the NBA isn’t always a little bit predictable.
The Spurs are probably gonna win 50 games, LeBron-led teams are probably gonna represent the East in the Finals, and a team with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson is probably gonna have the best squad in the West. Hell, that roster reads like most of an All-Star team. The gap between them and the next-best team might not even be close.
If you pick anyone else to come out of the West, and you wind up being right—you’d better hope you took that irrational confidence to Vegas, because you’re gonna be rich.
So, if we can all agree that the Western Conference likely goes through Golden State—the real question of the 2016-2017 NBA season is this:
Is that good or bad for the NBA? More specifically—is that good or bad for the Dallas Mavericks and their fans?
As I said before—losing is not necessarily the road to winning. Teams tend to get better by playing OK-to-good basketball, and then adding a piece or two. They don’t usually get better by being terrible and then building from the ground up. If losing is the key to winning, we’d see teams like the Kings, the Hornets, and the Sixers in the playoffs more often.
That said: There is probably some value in adding at least one quality draft prospect to your NBA franchise more than once every 20 years. The Mavericks haven’t had a really successful draft pick since they selected Dirk (we can debate the merits of other draft picks, and what it means to be successful later—I can feel some of you pointing at Josh Howard right now and fuming at me). Odds are, a rough year or two and the Mavs might have a guy like Towns, Porzingis, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard—the list goes on.
But, the worst-kept secret in Dallas goes like this: As long as Dirk Nowitzki is here, the Dallas Mavericks are not rebuilding. They are retooling, and going for it as hard as they can.
Rick Carlisle is going to coach players into more than their projected win totals. Dirk is going to continue to produce. Older players are going to use their savvy to sneak into the playoffs.
Until those things stop happening.
Because of this mandate, the team often seems run like a gang told that it has a terminal disease and might not make it another year. The team, instead of planning for its future, spends money and assets on the experience of today—a bucket list mentality that already has “championship,” scratched out near the top.
In some seasons, you might use the inevitability of a Warriors/Cavs rematch as the perfect excuse to get younger, grab some assets, draft in the top 10, and compete again in two years when the salary cap catches up with Golden State.
In fact, there’s some suggestion that’s exactly what’s happening in other cities (possibly even in San Antonio, as we hear whispers that the aging team is already thinking of parting ways with LeMarcus Aldridge—presumably to build around Leonard).
The Mavs don’t have that luxury—because, if I had to guess the top item on the front-office’s Bucket List it’s probably: “Keep Dirk happy.”
A tanking Mavs team is not going to keep Dirk happy.
Some guys are hypothetically too old to go into a rebuilding situation. That really just means they’re tired of losing and don’t want to deal with it again. Dirk is mathematically too old to help a team rebuild—at least if he hopes to be at the top of their roster when they’re competitive in a couple of years.
There are, to be sure, a lot of squads that would be thrilled just to break into the playoffs (they’d have a parade in Philly if that team won 42 games).
So yes, of course, there’s plenty for the average fan to root for this year, even if they’re pretty certain the Cavs and Warriors are Finals-bound.
This is especially true if you already expected your team to be a few years away—you’re thrilled to watch teams like Cleveland and Golden State price themselves out of their superstars over the next couple of years. You’re happy to watch your team enjoy modest successes, build through the draft, and then possibly poach one of those amazing players in Free Agency.
On the other hand, the NBA is a psychological wasteland this year for another 8 or 10 teams—at least if those teams have the aspiration of winning a title. Those teams have solid squads that will be tough to keep together by the time championship window opens again—but they’re too good right now to walk away from their rosters. They have to try to win now—which is a dangerous place to be.
Now imagine you’re the Dallas Mavericks. You’re looking at a row of windows closing on you like fangs at Halloween.
You’ve had years of free agency that proved that you’re great at picking up the pieces—just not the pieces you need. Years of getting to the playoffs—and then going home as quickly as possible. Years of watching your hall of fame power forward decline—slowly, but noticeably—yet still be the most productive player on the roster.
For this team—there aren’t a lot of small victories left to savor. Climbing back to 41-41 on the final day of the 2013 season was cute—because Dirk was gone for nearly half the season and they finally got to cut those beards. 42 wins and a first-round exit in 2016—decidedly less adorable.
Make no mistake: I WANT to believe, and when Wesley Matthews tells DB.com that he's going to MAKE me believe, I'm receptive. But when you know the final outcome—and you know that your team seems to be operating as if nothing has happened since 2011—the ending swings from predictable and boring—to something bordering on horrific. Like watching Donnie and Mark walk into a free-agency pitch, or another hopeless regular season, like it’s a dark room in a slasher film.
You know they’re going to try to turn on the lights. You know they’re going to say, “Hey guys, this isn’t funny, stop kidding around.” And then you know that their best-case scenario is somewhere between being worse than expected and wasting another year of Dirk Nowitzki, or being just good enough to get chewed to death in the first round by the unstoppable hoard of teeth that is Golden State.
Either way—the ending is gonna be bloody.
Sorry if that spoiled anything for you.