On October 10th, 1984, Aaron and Marian Harrison were blessed with twin baby boys. Aaron Jr. and Andrew both grew to be 6-foot-6, played together at Kentucky and made it to the NBA. Aaron spent a couple spells in Charlotte before signing with Dallas late in 2018. At first glance, the move may have seemed odd.
In 26 games as a Hornet, Harrison was relegated to mop-up duty; the only time he ever played more than 10 minutes, the 2016 season finale, he played 15. The following season they waived him in January, after which he bounced around the G League from Greensboro to Delaware to Reno. He could score at that level, and shot well from deep, but he wasn’t doing anything to change the minds of a league that’d left him undrafted and unwanted. Until the Mavericks came calling.
With 11 games left in the season, the race to the bottom was as profitable as it was precarious. Executives were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar plums danced in ther heads, sugar plums with improbable wingspans and implausible skill. Dallas wasn’t going to catch Phoenix for the best lottery odds, but there was still room for teams to slide up or down a spot, especially teams willing to hand over the keys to a marginal player and let him run riot. Over nine games, he took three times as many shots as he did in 26 games as a Hornet. Nearly two-thirds of his field goal attempts were 3s. He made 21%.
Over those 11 games. the Mavs went 2-9, losing their last five. Orlando finished 4-7 to leapfrog Dallas in the standings, meaning fewer ping pong balls for them and more for Big D. The Mavericks earned the fifth pick, with which they chose Trae Young and traded him plus the pick that became Cam Reddish to Atlanta for Luka Dončić. The Magic, choosing one pick later, took Mo Bamba. Harrison’s number will never be raised to the rafters, but Dallas couldn’t have done it without him. He even accomplished something in the season finale that league MVP James Harden didn’t that year, playing the full 48 minutes in a 27-point loss to league-worst Phoenix. Harrison finished -27.
In 1980, NBA owners voted to award an expansion team to Dallas and, not coincidentally, award themselves $12.5M in expansion fees for their troubles. The league’s competition committee recommended placing the Mavericks in the Central division and moving the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Atlantic. The owners couldn’t agree on that suggestion; instead, the Mavs and the two other Texas teams, who’d both been in the Central, were put in the Midwest, meaning two Western teams would move East. One was Milwaukee. The other was four years away from drafting Michael Jordan and damning a generation of Knicks fans.
Since their inception, the Mavs have often carried themselves as if they’re better than they are. Consider the first major moment in their franchise history: in the 1984 Western semifinals, Dallas faced the Showtime Lakers. They lost the first two games in L.A. before winning Game 3 at home. With a chance to even the series in the dying seconds of a tied Game 4, the Mavs’ rookie point guard — fella by the name of Derek Harper — had the ball with the clock winding down, and he dribbled and dribbled and dribbled and dribbled some more until there was no time left. Harper thought the Mavs were up insted of tied. They went on to lose in overtime and then in Game 5, and that may be the last time you ever think of Harper and J.R. Smith having anything in common besides the New York Knicks.
By the time Harper became a Knick in 1994, the Mavs had bottomed out. After opening the ‘90s with 28 and 22 wins in 1991 and 1992, they won 24 COMBINED in 1993 and 1994. Over three consecutive drafts they picked fourth, fourth and second, landing Jimmy Jackson, Jamal Mashburn and Jason Kidd. Dallas was once again a ship on course for the stars. But their stars had more success thinking Toni Braxton was that into them than winning games; over a dizzying seven-week span from Christmas of 1996 till Valentine’s Day 1997, the Mavericks traded all three cornerstones.
In 2004 the Mavs were sitting pretty, having averaged 55.5 wins the prior four seasons. Their 29-year-old point guard, a two-time All-Star already, was heading into free agency. He was also BFFs with franchise totem Dirk Nowitzki, so you’d think the team would make it a point to keep him. Instead Steve Nash left for greener pastures in the American Southwest. For a few years Jason Terry manned the point, which wasn’t a disaster, but is like your summer action blockbuster casting Dwayne Johnson as the lead before ending up with Danny Trejo. It’s just not the same.
And yet, Dallas — thanks in literal large part to Nowitzki — won 50+ games seven straight seasons after losing Nash. They re-acquired Kidd a little over a decade after trading him away. They stole Tyson Chandler in a deal from Charlotte. In 2011, the world rooted for them as they upset the LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh Heat to win their first championship. Then they tore down a titleist before it had the chance to defend its crown.
If you know the old wisdom — that land remembers, and memories are watered with blood — you know how the state we call Texas came to be. It’s no more or less rooted in violence and injustice than the other 49, though it does seem to puff it itself up more than most, as if forever looking over its shoulder, fully aware of the redness of its debts. It’s hard to keep a respectable face in place over a corrupt foundation. It helps when that face belongs to the greatest jump-shooting 7-footer in NBA history.
Oh, you thought I meant Patrick Ewing? Fair. No, I meant Dirk Nowitzki, an all-time great whose individual brilliance kept his institution’s impotence in the shadows. They do have a lot in common (did you know in 1979 Indiana actually drafted a player named Dirk Ewing?). The tragedy of Ewing was the front office failing to surround him with remotely comparable talent at any point in his 15 years in New York, infamously highlighted by only three of his teammates being named All-Stars during his tenure: Mark Jackson, John Starks and Charles Oakley. In 21 years in Dallas it was the same for Dirk: Steve Nash (twice), Josh Howard and Jason Kidd were the only teammates named All-Stars. You can understand why beyond his basketballing, Nowitzki is so revered at American Airlines Center. After him, nothing good seems to last there. Even worse, it flourishes once gone.
Nash was Dirk’s BFF, a 29-year-old two-time All-Star whom the Mavs lost in free agency, undoubtedly the fault of Jalen Brunson’s parents; Nash went on to win multiple MVPs as a Sun. The confetti had barely finished falling on the Mavs’ championship parade before they set course for a future so bright they’d need shades. A year later they finished seventh in the West and got swept in the first round, then went over a decade without winning a playoff series. Tyson Chandler was an All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year in New York. The Mavericks replaced him with Brendan Haywood.
In 2017 the Mavs hired Vince Collett, Frank Ntilikina’s former Strasbourg head coach, in the lead-up to that summer’s draft. They’d been hot on his trail longer than pretty much anyone else, getting intel from his Strasbourg teammate and former Mav Rodrigue Beaubois. After the Knicks took Ntilikina one spot ahead of the Mavs’ pick, Dallas took Dennis Smith Jr. It seemed they’d missed out on their top choice, but DSJ was an exciting prospect in his own right. It would have been enough to, like most teams, make a pick, say nice things and move on. But Dallas always gotta act better than they is.
After the Knicks took Frank, “There was an uproarious group applause in [our draft room],” then-head coach Rick Carlisle said. “It was thunderous. We’re very fortunate.”
It wasn’t enough to be excited about their guy. Most teams walk away that night excited, to some extent. Not the Dallas Mavericks. Fortunate. Thunderous. Uproarious.
People have laughed at the Knicks for years about their point guards. How can a team struggle so consistently with the same position, over and over? Especially now, in the era of the liberated point guard — hellacious handles, pick-and-roll precision and Mamba mentalities coming up in Queens, Chicago, Oakland, Seattle, Buenos Aires, Maribor, Suzhou, Mumbai? That takes a special kind of inept.
10 months after they were patting themselves on the back over DSJ, the Mavs were playing Aaron Harrison 48 minutes to lose and land Dončić, who rendered Smith Jr. supernumerary. The Luka era peaked when he was partnered with Brunson, a combo guard, and after Dallas added another to the mix in Spencer Dinwiddie, acquired after Dallas traded for, maxed out, and then traded away an ex-Knick who the Mavs, among others, laughed at the Knicks New York for trading in the first place. Dinwiddie was dealt a year later for Kyrie Irving, the little girl with the little curl of combo guards, whom they could lose for nothing this summer. Hilarious. Uproarious. (Fortunate, maybe, seeing how Kyrie’s teams usually fare in his absence.)
Since escaping Mark Cuban’s fiefdom, Kristaps Porziņģis had a career-year in Washington. Dinwiddie’s stepped right in as a starter for a playoff team in Brooklyn. Brunson has been so consistently and amazingly incredible as a Knick Cuban sounds a little obsessed about him, despite him having been able to offer Brunson more money than the Knicks. That’s the thing about screw-ups: they never come from your enemy. Those calls are coming from inside the house. The same Einsteins who were the first eam ever to cut the legs out from underneath a champ because that’d be the fastest way to a dynasty (the Reinsdorf/Krause Bulls wanted to rebuild; Cuban and Co. thought they could re-tool on the fly and keep contending) are also the first to quit a winnable game 81 — at home — with the playoffs within reach. Dallas collapsed like the anxious bag of dicks they are.
Imagine you’re Luka Dončić. This week you watched your owner go all Regina George re-hashing the gift horse he punched in the mouth last year, then order your team to give up on the postseason — something more than half the league takes part in. For all his accomplishments, what is Luka feeling today? And why do I get the feeling even though he’s made half of what Dončić has to this point, and will never make anywhere near as much money, that Mo Bamba is happier today in Los Angeles than Luka is in Dallas?
LeBron dishes a dime to Mo Bamba for the flush— NBA (@NBA) February 16, 2023
Lakers lead on ESPN. pic.twitter.com/RfTujwoshM
Remember this last bit, Knicks fans, and if you can’t stomach a little Marxism with your Monday skip ahead to the comment section: Cuban and the Mavs have chosen to be unabashedly and virulently capitalist, like so many kings of the earth. The bottom-line mentality, the idea that greed is good and more is better, is why they are where they are today. There’s no time for sentiment, for sustainability, for sense. Their actions reflect their neurosis:
Max Luka out because his promise suggests a certain future, even if history proves over and over that specific futures often never arrive. Get him a 7-foot-3 co-star, even if his health risks and cost could imperil your future. Co-star not hitting as fast as you like? Trade him for more
humans assets you can flip the moment they don’t suit your fancy. Dallas is viewed as “pragmatic,” a rough translation of “cynical”; that’s how sports’ brainiest brain trust can tank five years ago, land a generational talent and still be tanking five years later.
There is a world we can’t see, one made of stuff besides numbers and reason, and because it’s harder to turn that world into greater
unpaid worker wages profits, more energy is devoted to things like shareholders and shorting options. Orlando was a laughingstock for years, in part because they couldn’t — wouldn’t, even — lose like they “should.” Who you like better next year: the Magic or the Mavericks? Still, at least it’s not a total loss. At least the Mavs got Ntilikina.