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Basketball

Jalen Brunson’s Departure Has Nothing and Everything to Do With the Mavericks

In some ways, the latest free-agent letdown is bigger than Dallas. In others, it's the same story all over again.
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There will presumably come a time when Mavericks free agency does not begin with a postmortem that attempts to determine who is to blame and why for another key player slipping from Dallas’ grasp. That time feels very distant today, as the second-best player on the third- or fourth-most successful Mavericks team this century walks out the door to spend the rest of his twenties steering the NBA equivalent of the container ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal.

Whatever you make of Jalen Brunson’s decision to sign with the New York Knicks for four years and $104 million, understand there are factors in play that transcend money. His father, former NBA journeyman Rick Brunson, is a newly minted assistant on the Knicks coaching staff after coaching high school ball for the last three years, a development that may or may not have had something to do with his being the very first client of Knicks president Leon Rose back when Rose was an agent for Creative Artists Agency (CAA). Rose, as it happens, also represented Jalen Brunson at the start of his Mavericks career, before moving into the front office. One of Brunson’s current agents? Rose’s son, Sam.

Yes, the nepotism is strong with this one. So is the money, which, per The Athletic’s Tim Cato, the Mavericks weren’t willing to match earlier in the week (Marc Stein reported Dallas never made a formal offer before Brunson agreed to terms in New York). Same goes for Brunson’s role as a lead guard on his own team, the status he’d never achieve in Dallas so long as Luka Doncic is around.

Most of these items fall outside Dallas’ control. The Mavericks have no answer to a power structure rooted in multi-generational business ties. Nor can they curtail Doncic’s role to a degree that would accommodate Brunson’s reported belief that “he has another level to reach that he just couldn’t reach with Dallas because he played with the most ball-dominant player in the league.” And good luck convincing Brunson, a childhood Knicks superfan, it wouldn’t totally rule to come out of the Madison Square Garden tunnel wearing his favorite team’s jersey. All of this is before the unknowns, such as whether the New Jersey native prefers East Coast weather or he’s big on Broadway shows or he’s pissed that I-345 might not get removed after all. A franchise can only negotiate around so much.

But it helps when that franchise leverages every advantage it does have. And like they have so many times since the dissolution of the 2011 championship team, the Mavericks left plenty of room for second-guessing.

They were the ones who set this in motion in the first place: by signing Brunson to a four-year deal with a non-guaranteed final season out of the 2018 draft instead of a traditional rookie contract that sends a player into restricted free agency, which would have given Dallas match rights on any outside offer. There was no imagining he would become this, of course, not while he was tethered to Rick Carlisle’s bench during last year’s playoff loss to the Clippers and certainly not as a second-round pick four years ago. It still neither explains nor excuses surrendering the upper hand in negotiations for the marginal benefit of an easy out on Brunson’s $1.8 million salary last season.

Bit by bit, Dallas backed itself into a corner. The Mavericks opted against offering Brunson a new four-year deal worth up to $55.5 million prior to last season, which was understandable given the uncertainty surrounding how Brunson would rebound from his playoff performance under a new coach in Jason Kidd. But once his play skyrocketed, they neither traded him at the peak of his value nor offered an extension until prior to the deadline, instead preferring to maintain the flexibility of keeping Brunson trade-eligible should a juicy offer arrive (players can’t be traded until six months after they sign a new contract). When it didn’t, a long-awaited contract offer immediately following the deadline was too little, too late.  

It’s worth noting that Rick Brunson told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon in April that his son would have accepted the four-year, $55.5 million proposal had it been made in January. Whether that passes muster is an open question given how Brunson had played well before his breakout performance in the Utah series. It would be the first of many murky developments over Brunson’s final five months in Dallas, most of which we won’t get to the bottom of. We’ll never know for certain what shattered the widely held optimism coming out of the Warriors series, or when, or why. Did hard feelings play a role in this decision, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe suggested earlier in the week? Would the intangibles working against the Mavericks have been moot had they tried to outbid New York?

But we know about that bungled contract structure, just like we know about the refusal to negotiate midseason until they couldn’t land something better. We know Dallas somehow was caught off guard by New York committing this much money to Brunson—the first non-All-Star to change teams for nine-figure money in league history—despite the Knicks, a self-professed family-first operation with a reckless streak, telegraphing their punches the whole way. And any acceptance of the Mavericks’ version of events—that they were somehow not given the chance to negotiate with a player on their roster—leads down corridors that make the team look bad.

Free agency is an outcomes business, which means none of this process, however opaque or flawed, would have mattered had Dallas convinced Brunson to stay. But it couldn’t, and so the old scabs get re-opened. The Jalen Brunson saga will fester alongside the Kemba Walker saga, the DeAndre Jordan saga, the Dwight Howard saga, the Deron Williams saga, the LaMarcus Aldridge saga, the Tyson Chandler saga, the Steve Nash saga, and every other free-agent saga in what’s become a veritable anthology.

Each of them traces back to the Mavericks’ original sin: the perpetual mismanagement of their own resources as they chase—and inevitably miss out on—the big score. It’s why Dirk Nowitzki’s supporting cast dwindled alongside his body in his golden years and why Dallas was so short on capable postseason contributors to battle Golden State and why this organization is shockingly light on assets for a conference finalist. The twist with Brunson was that this time, one of their own became the big score they chased and missed out on.

Deserved or not, the front office, whose record has been so pristine since Nico Harrison’s appointment as general manager, will wear some of this around town. Fairness goes out the window when there is this much emotional baggage and comparably few offseason wins to weigh that tonnage against. Weeks after the Mavericks gave this city a glimpse of the long-awaited brighter basketball future, they jolted their fanbase back to its vexing past, to feelings and shortcomings that aren’t dead and buried quite yet.

That doesn’t mean the Mavericks are doomed—far from it. The upside of having a roster too dependent on Doncic is things can only get so bad when he’s in the lineup. Even if Brunson emerges as a franchise-making talent in New York, he won’t be a franchise-breaking loss for Dallas. But the road back to the final four just got tougher, to say nothing of what must come after that. That’s an easy bottom line to reach, no matter how complicated the rest of Jalen Brunson’s exit became.

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Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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