Free agents: Rajon Rondo (Unrestricted), JJ Barea (U), Al-Farouq Aminu (U), Monta Ellis (U), Tyson Chandler (U), Richard Jefferson (U) Amar’e Stoudemire (U), Charlie Villanueva (U), Greg Smith (U), Bernard James (Restricted)
By now, most people believe they have the Mavericks’ approach to team building figured out, and to some extent, they’re absolutely right. In an interview with Grantland published right before the start of the playoffs, Mavs owner Mark Cuban chided the GM of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, for creating what he felt was a one-dimensional team. Cuban expanded upon that statement by stating his belief that the Rockets were only propped up by superstar James Harden, who happened to be his personal choice for MVP. In response, the Rockets rather unceremoniously obliterated the Mavericks over the course of a five game series, which included starting point guard Rajon Rondo’s premature departure from the team after a final spat with coach Rick Carlisle. While the Rockets eventually made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, the Mavericks were left with months to stew over what went wrong. Perhaps, in that time, Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson came to the conclusion that their approach to creating a team was not only just as predictable as Morey’s, but it was also an inferior approach. This summer, they look to rectify such a grievous double whammy and assemble a contender as tribute to the greatest player in the history of their franchise, Dirk Nowitzki, before the looming specter of his retirement finally arrives.
Ever since the Mavs won the title in 2011, the same criticisms have been hurled about Mark Cuban’s managerial style; “He meddles with team business too much as an owner! He pays no attention to the draft! He doesn’t understand that Dallas isn’t considered an optimal destination by superstars! God forbid the Mavs get a productive role player, because they’ll either be traded, or Cuban will be too cheap to re-sign them for full market value!” Those are all legitimate qualms that stem from Cuban’s interpretation of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement established after the 2011 lockout was resolved. Yet, even though the league is slowly starting to come around to that line of thinking as the lengths of player contracts are being shortened (among other practices), the Mavericks’ front office might be shifting philosophies again.
One can look all the way back to last off-season, when the Mavericks handed Chandler Parsons a max contract that was deemed virtually untradeable. Surely, committing that much money to someone who projects to peak as a good (but not great) starter would financially strangle the team later on. Cuban admitted to the overpay, but he slogged on, trusting his own ability to find undervalued veterans like Villanueva, Richardson, and Barea, who could all provide the team with intangible benefits in their leadership. He banked on Tyson Chandler still being able to protect the paint at elite levels when trading for him, and he placed the utmost faith in Rick Carlisle for his ability to coach the team as a whole to surpass the sum of its parts. In the early goings of the season, he was vindicated – analysts across the league lauded the Mavericks’ for their all-time great offense, which gave Cuban the mental go-ahead for one last gamble. He traded three key role players in Jameer Nelson, Jae Crowder, and Brandan Wright for Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics. Analytical models the front office had developed pointed against the decision, but he believed Rondo possessed the “It Factor” that was required for playoffs basketball. The rest, as you know, is a dark part of Mavericks history.
“[Virginia’s is] a program built on defense first, efficiency on offense. They play a very physical brand of basketball. We’re a team that needs to become more psychical at every position. This move gets us in that direction.”
Now, the Mavericks are in the same place as they have been for the past four years, but there is reason to believe they won’t look like the same bedraggled losers as they have been. For starters, they actually paid attention to this year’s draft. With the 21st pick, the Mavericks drafted Justin Anderson from the University of Virginia, and Satnam Singh Bhamara from the IMG Academy with the 52nd pick. While Bhamara will take many years to develop in the D-League and looks more like a marketing ploy than anything, Anderson has talent that is both legitimate and immediate. Rick Carlisle described Anderson as having a similar build to Jae Crowder and an NBA-ready body, but with all due respect to Crowder, Anderson’s strengths as a player are even more impressive. Anderson developed the reputation as an excellent one-on-one defender in college, radically reworked his shooting mechanics to become an elite three point shooter (from a catch-and-shoot standpoint, although he became a better shooter across the board, he still isn’t the best playmaker or shooter off the dribble) over the past season, and is more athletic than practically everyone from last season’s roster. Most importantly, he displays the work ethic needed to become productive in the NBA; for someone lauded as being a day-one contributor, all of the signs are promising. Singh, on the other hand, might be ready to make his NBA debut years after Dirk’s retirement. Being only 19 years of age, this is understandable. In fact, Singh’s ability to shoot the ball all the way out to the three point line as well as the respectable stats he put up during his final year at school (9.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks in under 20 minutes a game for one of the top ranked teams in the state, also his first season where he played unhindered by nagging minor injuries) are all positive signs of the development he’s made in the past five years. Still, whenever his number is called, he’s likely to be a backup big at the very best.
With the almost-certain departure of both Rondo and Ellis, the Mavs are looking at close to $30 million in cap space. By all means, they will almost certainly work as an under the cap team, needing to renounce their cap holds on their free agents (in extension, this applies to said players’ bird rights as well, which means the Mavs cannot go over the cap to re-sign these players) in order to access the full amount of funds they have at their hands. This will have to be done as quickly as possible, as time is not on their side when it comes to attracting names like DeAndre Jordan and LaMarcus Aldridge to sign with Dallas. For once, it seems like Dallas could land one of the ‘big fish’ they always mention – while Aldridge’s chances to come to Dallas look more fleeting with every day, Chandler Parsons has been communicating with Jordan ever since the end of the season as a recruiting effort. With numerous rumors swirling about Jordan’s thoughts about joining the Mavs, it becomes clear that it’s a two team race between Dallas and Los Angeles. Should Jordan choose Dallas, he will come in to replace Tyson Chandler in what would likely be a sign-and-trade of Chandler and Raymond Felton for Jordan. While Chandler can be argued as a superior team defender, Jordan’s youth and durability make him a solid piece for future contention. He also brings clout to the notion that Dallas could be considered a valid destination for premier free agents looking to switch teams. From there, Cuban could be a little hard-pressed to find the funds for a quality guards or depth in the backcourt (the first year of a max contract for Jordan would start around the $19 million range), and he could decide to call upon the services of players like Mo Williams or Jeremy Lin in hopes they outperform their currently low values. Similarly, they would have to acquire cheap veterans like Jermaine O’Neal and Sam Dalembert if backup big men aren’t considered a priority. The Mavs would love to retain the services of Barea, Stoudemire, Aminu, Villanueva, and perhaps Jefferson at the right prices, and it shouldn’t take too much haggling for the older players of that group to return, but Stoudemire and Aminu could easily go elsewhere. Stoudemire has been keeping his options open regarding a return to the Suns or the Knicks, but also has a reciprocated interest in staying with Dallas. Aminu has also expressed a want to stay in Dallas, but it is also entirely possible that the Mavs would not have the funds available to adequately pay him, which another team would, and Aminu would be obliged to take the other offer. The same scenario could play out if Aldridge decides to take his talents to Dallas, albeit a little more extreme; he would be owed a very similar amount of money as Jordan is owed, and the remainder of the Mavs’ cap room could be feasibly given to Chandler to man the center position. This pushes Dirk to a super 6th man role, a notion he has recently welcomed – given his noticeable decline in play last season.
Should the Mavericks strike out on both targets, assuming other notable big men are off the market by then (Love, Millsap, Monroe), this is where things get interesting. Tyson Chandler would most assuredly agree to take a lesser salary than the $14.6 million he was owed the previous year, one within the $8-$12 million range per year, which leaves the Mavericks a lot of space to pursue depth. They could look to sign players such as Danny Green or Patrick Beverley, and would definitely make re-signing Aminu a priority. They could even bring over the Finnish point guard Petteri Koponen from the Russian league, who is largely regarded as one of the top European players on the likes of Sergio Llull. This is still a longshot, however – Koponen does not want to play on his rookie contract and allegedly does not believe he would have an large enough role in Dallas to warrant a move. He also stated in a recent interview that he wants to be paid commensurate to his current contract, which roughly works out to $4 million a year in the NBA.
Prediction: Overall, the Mavericks are in a state of fluidity as far as to how their roster will look, but the belief they can achieve anything higher than a sixth seed is somewhat dubious. A second round berth would be a surprise for this squad, but with Carlisle’s tactics, the Mavericks are always a threat to overcome superior talent. An improved Chandler Parsons who is currently returning from injury on pace with his projected timetable could absolutely keep this team afloat. Of course, never count out a well-rested Dirk, whose minutes should be cut down even more this upcoming season (especially if Aldridge signs with Dallas). Disaster could also strike in the form of more untimely injuries, or a noticeably hobbled Parsons. This could lead to the Mavericks dropping out of the playoff race entirely, and unless their record is exceptionally awful (or they are exceptionally lucky in the lottery), their first round pick will be conveyed to the Celtics as a means of completing the Rondo trade. Personally, I would rank them as the 8th seed, giving the top seeded team a hard fought battle before eventually being ousted.