Rumor Mongering: Flawed Defenses

Posted by Rob Mahoney on June 30, 2010 under Commentary, Rumors | 2 Comments to Read


Another day, another rumor, this time less of the free agent variety. From Jeff Caplan of ESPN Dallas:

The Dallas Mavericks’ search for help to support star forward Dirk Nowitzki included inquiries about Minnesota Timberwolves center Al Jefferson prior to last week’s NBA draft, according to sources close to the situation. Sources with knowledge of the Mavericks’ thinking, however, told ESPNDallas.com that Jefferson is a “down the list” target for the team who is unlikely to be pursued further until after Dallas makes a series of sign-and-trade bids for top free agents.

Two sources said the initial round of Mavs-Wolves discussions never got beyond the preliminary stage. Minnesota still wants more than mere salary relief for Jefferson, and Dallas is not willing to part with any of its prime trade assets — such as Erick Dampier’s $13 million non-guaranteed contract — to acquire a player with proven low-post scoring skills but a troubled injury history. Sources with knowledge of Minnesota’s thinking told ESPN.com’s Marc Stein that the Wolves are determined to move Jefferson before the start of next season, seeing Kevin Love as a better (and more cost effective) fit.

Al Jefferson has long been a popular solution for armchair GMs who diagnose the center position as the Mavs’ most glaring weakness. That it may be, but acquiring a scoring 5 without considerable defensive abilities could be a mistake that would lock-up Dallas’ long-term options. I know the Mavs are in win-now mode, but it’s important that they don’t disregard their evaluation of skills in their acquisition of talent. Jefferson is a terrific back-up plan, and the fact that the Mavs have him somewhere down the list of their preferred targets is an encouraging sign.

At this point, the inner-workings of a Mavs trade are fairly well established: Dampier’s contract would be the centerpiece, with complementary talent or picks thrown in to sweeten the pot. With Jefferson, a line would need to be drawn: if a trade would include Rodrigue Beaubois or multiple first rounders, the Mavs would be wise to walk away. If not, aiming for Jefferson is worthy of consideration.

Al is a fine scorer, and one of the better face-up post threats in the game. Yet his defense could end up holding the Mavs back from truly progressing. It’s no secret that Dirk Nowitzki’s defensive abilities are a bit lacking, and even though he’s worked on that part of his game and become a decent (if unimpressive) defender, he needs a center beside him that can not only guard the most imposing big the opponent has to offer, but also protect the rim from penetrating guards and wings. Jefferson just doesn’t do that. He’s improved his defensive fundamentals since his early days in the league, but at best he’s a passable one-on-one defender in the post. At worst, he’s slow on his rotations, biting on fakes, and failing to use his size to his advantage.

The Mavs can’t afford that. Kidd is too slow, Terry too unreliable, Beaubois too green. The Mavs’ perimeter defenders need a safety net behind them, and Jefferson is talented enough to demand big minutes without providing it. That’s the problem with Al; he’s too good to leave off the floor and not a good enough defender to substantially improve the Mavs while on it. Plus, if Dallas acquired Jefferson, it’s highly unlikely that Brendan Haywood would re-sign with the team, regardless of the offer.

The question then becomes whether or not Dallas could be a dominant enough offensive outfit to make up for their other deficiencies. Without seeing how a Dirk-Al tandem would operate, it’s impossible to say for sure. While I’m confident that the two could coexist (Nowitzki and Jefferson are simply too versatile not to), additions such as these are hardly quantifiable. The Mavs would definitely be a better offensive team, but the trade talks haven’t developed enough to warrant a serious and specific analysis.

Rumor Mongering: Now Starring as the Hero: The Villain

Posted by Rob Mahoney on June 28, 2010 under Commentary, Rumors | 3 Comments to Read

Photo by Getty Images.

The morning’s rumor of a potential Joe Johnson sign-and-trade isn’t likely to satisfy Maverick fans’ insatiable palates for additional stars. After months of hoping and wishing that Erick Dampier’s contract would be able to score a truly remarkable player in return, Johnson may seem rather bland.

There’s nothing wrong with Joe. He’s a fine shooting guard. One of the best in the league, in fact. He’s just not a talented enough player to radically change the way the Mavs operate. Dallas would be a better team on both offense and defense, but Johnson isn’t the kind of transformational talent some may have been hoping for.

Dwyane Wade is, and after months of internet silence concerning the possibility of him becoming a Maverick, it seems Wade may be more interested than initially thought. From Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (via DallasBasketball.com):

The Miami Heat just might win a triple crown. A source close to Dwyane Wade said the Heat guard believes his team is poised to pull off a free-agency coup of landing himself, Cleveland Cavaliers guard LeBron James and Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh.

However that same source, as well as a party inside the league, told the Sun Sentinel that Wade also plans to cover himself during the initial days of the free-agency negotiating period by scheduling interviews with the New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, and, in somewhat of a surprise, the Dallas Mavericks.

There are a number of reasons why Wade is unlikely to end up in Dallas, most of which I’ve already articulated. That said, the fact that Dwyane is considering the Mavs a legitimate possibility speaks to both the quality of the franchise and this opportunity. If Winderman’s source is indeed correct, Dallas has secured a spot at Wade’s table, even while other teams with cap space — New Jersey and Los Angeles being the most notable — are on the outside looking in. That’s big for not only the Mavs’ chances of stealing away one of the best players in the game, but also their viability in other trade or sign-and-trade scenarios.

Most reports concerning Wade’s future point to him staying in Miami while luring other talented players to the Heat. That seems a realistic outcome, given the ridiculous amount of cap room Pat Riley has cleared in anticipation of free agency. Supposing there is some truth to those reports — and there does seem to be, particularly to Wade’s affinity for Miami — the Mavs’ best chance of luring Dwyane would be a doomsday scenario in which Wade was somehow left out in the nuclear winter. For instance, if LeBron James and Chris Bosh go to the Bulls, Joe Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire sign with the Knicks, and Carlos Boozer picks the Nets, that would put Wade in a bit of a bind. Sure, he could push for Riley to sign David Lee and Rudy Gay, but something tells me that’s not quite the payoff Dwyane is looking for.

Even if the chips fall as described, Wade coming to the Mavs would hardly be a sure thing. Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson would face the same sign-and-trade pitfalls as they would with any other free agent target, putting a lot of power in the hands of competing GMs.

Regardless, I’m still entranced by the idea of a collision between Mavs fans and the man that set the 2006 Finals ablaze. It’s something I’ve discussed numerous times in this space as the possibility of Wade playing for Dallas has come and gone throughout the last year. Still, I remain fascinated by the potential acquisition as an invaluable case study in the power of laundry.

The Spurs may be the closest thing the Mavs have ever had to a true rival, but no singular source has done more damage to Dallas as a franchise than Dwyane Wade. He denied the Mavs their best opportunity at an NBA title, the one elusive accomplishment that burns a hole in Dirk Nowitzki’s résumé. He’s at least part of the reason that Avery Johnson lost his job, that Dirk doesn’t get the respect he deserves, that the Mavs traded Devin Harris for Jason Kidd, and that Dallas remains something of an NBA punchline. I know time heals all wounds and all that, but I’m sure the thought of Dwyane’s parade to the free throw line still leaves plenty of MFFLs a little queasy.

None of that can be repaired. Nothing Dallas ever does will win back that 2006 title, or take back everything that happened in the fallout. Yet if Mark and Donnie were to somehow put Wade in a Maverick uniform, not only would he be absolved for his sins against the franchise we know and love, but he’d be revered as a pillar of the team’s present and future, regardless of his past. That’s a pretty huge reversal, and a testament to Wade’s abilities. The league’s top players are viewed in a vacuum, and regardless of who Dwyane is, where he’s been, or what he’s done, he’d be welcomed like a star to the city he burned to the ground.

Rumor Mongering: When Life Gives You a $13 Million Instantly Expiring Contract…

Posted by Rob Mahoney on under Rumors | 7 Comments to Read

The weeks leading up to free agency predictably became a breeding ground for all kinds of rumors, most of which were no more than baseless speculation. Finally though, we have one Mavs-related rumor that passes the smell test, courtesy of Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski:

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban will pursue a sign-and-trade to lure Atlanta Hawks free agent Joe Johnson, league sources told Yahoo! Sports. The Mavericks are unlikely to engage the Cleveland Cavaliers into a sign-and-trade for LeBron James, but Johnson has emerged as a realistic target for the Mavericks. Johnson, is more likely to embrace a sign-and-trade to the contending Mavs than sign a free-agent contract with New York or Chicago, sources said. “New York is far from his first option,” one source with knowledge of Johnson’s thinking said.

Joe Johnson has been the most realistic free agent target for the Mavs all along; landing LeBron would be the longest of long shots, and neither Dwyane Wade nor Chris Bosh seem willing to even give Dallas a proper look. Johnson isn’t the answer, but he is an answer, which counts for something. It’s essential that Dallas cashes in on Erick Dampier’s value at some point this summer, and assuming they strike out on the bigger names as is expected, Johnson is a suitable replacement.

He’s not going to solve all of the Mavs’ problems; Joe is still, in his heart of hearts, a jumpshooter, and one who has grown accustomed to having the ball in his hands frequently, at that. Still, he can create his own shot and play some decent defense, which puts him a peg above Jason Terry on the shooting guard depth chart. Also, assuming the Mavs could hold on to their other rotation contributors, JJ would make Dallas incredibly deep. Supposing the Mavs start Kidd, Johnson, Marion, Nowitzki, and Haywood, not only would they have an excellent blend of offense/defense, but they would also have the luxury of bringing Jason Terry, Caron Butler, and Rodrigue Beaubois off the bench. That may not give Dallas the kind of size to counter the Lakers, but it could give them an eight-man rotation unparalleled in the Western Conference.

Then again, Butler could conceivably be part of the deal as well. That would still be something of a boon for the Mavs. Even though Caron is a solid player, Johnson’s talents and skill set seem a bit more in tune with the rest of the Mavs’ offense, and from a positional standpoint, he’s more of a natural fit.

Admittedly, this trade’s completion regardless of who is involved is a big assumption. The Hawks would have to be convinced that Johnson was on his way out, and agree to a trade centered around Erick Dampier’s contract and draft picks. Then, Joe would need to pick the Mavs over all of his other free agent suitors (name a team with cap space, and they’re probably at least a little interested), which is hardly a given. The sign-and-trade isn’t an impossibility, but also keep in mind that Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban would be dealing with one of the most disorganized and uncoordinated franchises in basketball. Too often, the Hawks’ ownership and management make even the most routine signings and re-signings seem immensely difficult, and I wouldn’t disregard that precedent with such a substantial trade. Securing a sign-and-trade is always a difficult proposition, but securing one with that front office? Good luck.

Watch the Ripples Change Their Size, But Never Leave the Stream

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 25, 2010 under Commentary | 2 Comments to Read

Jason Terry is the most important non-essential Maverick.

Although this year’s playoffs proved that Terry’s game is anything but unsolvable, he remains one of the few Mavs capable of creating their own offense. That’s a valuable skill regardless of team context, but given how stagnant the Dallas offense can be at times, Terry’s skills remain a crucial part to unlocking this current roster’s offensive potential. Had JET been a productive scorer in this year’s playoffs rather than handcuffed and tossed in the corner, it’s possible the Mavs would still be alive. He can’t do everything on his own like Dirk Nowitzki can, but you have to believe that Rick Carlisle, Jason Kidd, and the rest of the team can do a better job of enabling one of the team’s more efficient scorers. He may need a little help reaching that level of production, but the fact that it can be reached makes him valuable.

Then again, should the Mavs acquire an effective shooting guard in free agency, Terry’s impact is minimized. It’s clear that finding minutes for Rodrigue Beaubois will be a priority for Rick Carlisle next season, and with at least Shawn Marion and a scoring 2 taking up minutes on the wing, it’s easy to imagine a world in which JET’s role is diminished. Suppose Dallas hangs on to Caron Butler beyond this summer as well, and you’re looking at four high-minute players vying for for playing time on the wings (though Beaubois will certainly see some time at the point next year).

Terry averaged 33 minutes per game this season in 77 games for the Mavs, but that number could soon fall. In itself, that may not be earth-shaking news, but JET’s minutes could have a substantial impact on his future with the team, as noted by Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas last week. Should Terry’s minutes next season fail to break the 1,500 mark, only $5 million of his 2011-2012 salary ($11.16 million) would be guaranteed. That could potentially make JET an incredibly interesting trade chip going into the new CBA. Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban were able to turn Jerry Stackhouse’s similar contract — albeit with less guaranteed money — into Kris Humphries and a signed-and-traded Shawn Marion, which is pretty good return value on a player that had limited basketball effectiveness at the time and had only played in 10 games the previous season.

There’s too much to be determined before we know Terry’s role on the 2010-2011 Mavs for sure, but a drastic change would be necessary for JET’s minutes to duck under the 1,500-minute mark. Jason has never played fewer than 1,500 minutes in a season and has played fewer than 78 games only twice (77 and 74 games in the last two seasons). Barring a major acquisition, an unfortunate injury, or a supernatural occurrence that would transform Matt Carroll into a rotation player, we should expect Terry to meet that number rather easily.

Then again, the fact that we’re even having this conversation says a lot about the evolution of the Mavs as a franchise. Since the team evolved from the ‘Big Three’ model to a more Dirk-centric design in ’04-’05, Jason Terry has been an integral part of the team. He started off as Nash’s replacement at point guard, but ultimately became the league’s most effective scoring reserve, and it was Terry’s success at the 2 that helped to elevate the Mavs in 2006 and 2007. Though Dallas’ top defense have more or less operated in spite of JET’s deficiencies, the iso-heavy offense employed throughout most of this Maverick era only works because of a player of Nowitzki’s unique talents and due to the supplementary contributions of a player like Terry. His game may not be perfect, but no one Mav (aside from Dirk) has been more valuable over the last five years.

Yet now, superlatives all fall in the past tense, and this very post is discussing the possibility of shipping out Terry in the Stackhousian method of player marginalization. JET is merely a season removed from being named the Sixth Man of the Year, and yet many Mavs fans are hoping that in twelve month’s time, Terry will be reduced to a tradable contract. It’s off-putting to think about in those terms because of what it means about the nature of both the NBA and the Mavs’ offense.

If Terry, whose skills really haven’t diminished all that much from his most successful NBA seasons, is no longer a viable candidate for major minutes on this team, is the Dallas offense as we know it truly dead and buried? Is that a condemnation of Dirk’s style of play, or an evolution of his supporting cast to better fit his needs? When the Mavs assembled Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, and Caron Butler — three of the best mid-range shooters in the league — in the same place and the template flunked out of the first round, does that make the Dallas model flawed beyond repair or in desperate need of personnel upgrades elsewhere on the roster?

It’s difficult to say. There are so few easy questions in team construction, especially for a team like the Mavs that need to be fixed but isn’t necessarily broken. Terry epitomizes the issues Dallas faces moving forward, and the questions of how best to use him in the offense, how to hide him on defense, and whether or not his production is worth the effort moving forward are all valid. They’re just not easy, and whether JET hits the 1,500-minute mark in ’10-’11 or not, what the Mavs choose to do with Jason Terry will greatly influence both their immediate and long-term futures.

Try to Remain Calm

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 22, 2010 under Commentary, News | 3 Comments to Read

Marc Stein dropped the biggest bomb of the Mavs’ off-season thus far: barring a rapid advancement in the negotiations between Dirk Nowtizki and the Mavs over a possible extension, Dirk is expected to opt-out of the final year of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

I know what it sounds like, but relax and take deep breaths. Dirk becoming an unrestricted free agent opens the door for a potential disaster this summer, but it’s far, far more likely that Nowitzki will remain a Maverick in 2010-2011 and beyond. The real motivations for Nowitzki’s potential opt-out are not to test the free agent waters or flirt with other teams around the league, but rather because of two potential economic benefits (as outlined by Stein) that Dirk can only access by signing a new deal this summer:

Opting out to sign a new deal, for starters, would lock in terms based on the NBA’s current collective bargaining agreement through the life of the next contract. Under the league’s current system, Nowitzki is eligible for a four-year maximum contract from Dallas worth $96.2 million once he opts out. The most he could receive from another team is a four-year deal worth $93.1 million.

Signing a three-year extension to the last remaining season on his current contract, by contrast, would expose Nowitzki to potential after-the-fact reductions to his annual wage if league owners are successful in their attempts to lower the value of maximum salaries in the next collective bargaining agreement.

…Another motivation for Nowitzki to opt out as opposed to signing an extension is the ability to secure a no-trade clause in a new contract.

Only players with at least eight years of NBA service time and four seasons with the same team are eligible to have a no-trade clause in their contracts, but such clauses can only be added to new deals. NBA rules prevent major changes, such as adding a no-trade clause, to an existing contract or an extension to a contract, which is largely why Bryant possesses the league’s only active no-trade clause.

You can’t blame Nowitzki for wanting either of those things. It’s not necessarily selfish to act in one’s best interest, and in this case that’s exactly what Dirk is doing. By signing a new deal now, Dirk will lock himself into a more lucrative long-term contract than is likely to be allowed under the new CBA next season. It’s a no-brainer for him, and the possibility of adding a no-trade clause gives Dirk personal protection from being traded to an uncompetitive team in the future. This is how NBA players should protect themselves, and you can’t blame Nowitzki for doing just that.

Coincidentally, the move would actually help out the Mavs in ’10-’11 should Nowitzki choose to re-sign. As a player who’s been in the league 10+ seasons, the maximum salary Dirk could make in the first season of a new contract is equal to 35% of the salary cap, 105% of his previous salary, or $14 million, whichever is higher. Should Dirk re-sign with the Mavs on a new deal, his salary for next season would actually be just $20.8 million (105% of his previous salary), a bit less than his ’10-11 salary had he not opted out ($21.5 million). That’s only if Nowitzki pushes the Mavs to the max possible deal, which may not be the case. Dirk has already stated that he’s willing to opt-out and re-sign for a lower salary if it could help the team improve, and we could see Nowitzki sign for a sub-max contract this summer even if he’s worth max money.

That’s not going to clear any cap space for a team that will be well into luxury tax territory, but it does ease the burden on Mark Cuban’s wallet a bit. You’re looking at double the savings for Cuban and the Mavs next season after tax implications, which is a nice bit of financial relief for an owner already dishing some major shekels to keep the team competitive.

While there are plenty of teams around the league that would be interested in hiring Nowitzki at a competitive salary, this is a situation in which loyalty, personal relationships, and history all come into play, and Dirk’s long-term relationships with Nelson, Cuban, and the Mavs will certainly affect his decision this summer. On top of that, Dallas will likely field the most competitive roster among Dirk’s potential suitors, another factor which would give the home team the edge in contract negotiations.

This is a good thing, for both Dirk and the Mavs. Don’t neglect the possibility of the bottom falling out in this team, but signs from Donnie Nelson, Mark Cuban, Rick Carlisle, other GMs and coaches around the league, and Nowitzki himself all point to Dirk’s return. In all likelihood, Dirk will be a Mav next season, and the implications of his opt-out will only affect his and the team’s finances.