“Get a new head coach,” they said. “Replace the long-tenured GM and president of basketball operations,” they angrily tweeted. “Free agents will flock to this city to play alongside Luka once those old, white, anti-analytic fuddy-duddies are gone,” they screamed to the heavens, fists shaking.
As I write, we’re fewer than 12 hours into free agency, and it looks like the Mavs’ front office shakeup — the one that was supposed to bring sex appeal to Big D — has netted the team former Rockets’ reserve Sterling Brown and journeyman 3-and-D wing Reggie Bullock. They’ve also retained the services of Willie Cauley-Stein, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Boban Marjanović.
In a vacuum, these aren’t bad signings. Brown, Bullock, and Hardaway all shoot at a high percentage from beyond the arc. Can you think of another player on the team who is really good at finding open shooters? Yeah, him! Bullock is also a competent defensive player, and Bobon is the sweetest, most precious being on God’s green earth. They’d have to be monsters not to bring him back.
Still, this offseason, the organization appears doomed to repeat its annual tradition of being snubbed by the biggest fish in the free-agency pool. Jazz point guard and frequent Mav target Mike Conley just inked a three-year deal to stay in the land of polygamy and tan, pleated chinos. Toronto’s two-way stud Kyle Lowry is taking his talents to South Beach — a team rumored to also be the landing spot for potential difference-maker DeMar DeRozan. Even Kawhi Leonard, who will spend most if not all of next season recovering from a torn ACL, doesn’t appear interested in collecting owner Mark Cuban’s checks while he recovers.
We can’t totally blame the new regime. Even after essentially trading last year’s mega-bust Josh Richardson to the Celtics for cap room (all that’s left of Seth Curry’s time here is cap space and Moses Brown, a promising if unproven big man), the Mavs’ front officers are still hamstrung by their predecessors. Kristap Porzingis alone is taking up more than $31 million of the projected $112,414,200 salary cap — and he’ll be here for another three seasons. That contract is practically untradable. Luka is on the verge of signing a lucrative deal of his own, and those two players combined should account for nearly half the cap room.
So what in the name of Spencer Dinwiddie can the Mavs do to field a team capable of moving past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the boys in blue won it all in 2011? What’s the plan moving forward now the big-name guys are off the table?
What do the Mavs have?
From last year’s squad, there are only a few players I’d care to keep. Obviously Luka. He is life. The front office has already committed dollars to the aforementioned Cauley-Stein, Hardaway, and Bobon. Aside from those four, Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Maxi Kleber, the second-best ever Würzburg native, are the only other guys worthy of a locker.
Last year’s first-round pick Josh Green and second-rounder Tyrell Terry didn’t do much at all last season, but they probably deserve a roster spot on draft pedigree alone. (The team’s second pick in Round 2 of last year, Tyler Bay, appears to already have been sent packing — yet another casualty of the terrible, bad, no-good Seth Curry trade.)
What do the Mavs need?
This squad’s needs are many and its resources few. The easiest answer to the “How do we fix this mess?” question is “by signing a second star,” but with KP cashing Tonto/Robin checks, it’s unlikely the team could afford one on the open market. GM Nico Harrison and Co. could make a run at Portland’s excellent sixth man Norman Powell, but Portland can probably offer him more dough to stay. He’d have to really hate the many ax-throwing and microbrew options of the Rose City to take less money somewhere else.
One of the most glaring holes in last year’s roster, aside from that gap in Dwight Powell’s teeth, was the lack of a secondary shot creator. When the ball wasn’t in Luka’s hands, the Mavs’ offense was basically a game of hot potato around the perimeter until someone clanked a 3-pointer off the rim. Count me as a fan of try-hard Pacers’ point man T.J. McConnell. He leads the league in #grit, and he can shoot the ball. Spencer Dinwiddie is another option. He’s a turnstile on defense, but he can really shoot, and his name is fun to say.
Besides that, the Mavs need, in no particular order, a defending/rebounding big man (like the bubble version of Porzingis), an elite defensive game-changer — or maybe just a few 3-and-D guys who can take turns guarding the opposing teams’ best players — and more bench scoring. I’d take a flyer on a declining-but-still-solid Dewayne Dedmond for the big man. Among the leftover free agent crop, I’m all in on another Mavs white whale, Danny Green. Even at 107 years old, he’s still one of the most efficient and effective 3-and-D wings on the market.
How can the Mavs acquire talent?
The J-Rich trade freed up some cap room (roughly $10 million), but the front office still could use a few more million to lure its preferred plan B and C guys here or make a trade for someone who fills a need.
Oft-injured rim-runner Dwight Powell is allegedly on the trading block. The 30-year-old big man barely played in the playoffs and has two years and $22.8 million left on his contract.
The team appears to have a logjam of bigs (don’t google that phrase, please), including Bobon, Brown, Cauley-Stein, Kleber, and Powell. While Powell’s contract isn’t an albatross, it, along with his very recent and serious injury history, is significant enough to give teams serious pause about taking him on. The Mavs might have to package one of its useful young players to incentivize another team to take Powell. While that would hurt, I just don’t see another way.
Jalen Brunson might be such a candidate. He’s a gifted scorer but not a great creator or defender — and he’s soon due for a big raise. He’s great, but his skillset is hardly rare in the league. You could probably move those two for someone like, say, Luka’s countryman and one-time All-Star Goran Dragic, who was traded to Toronto.
I’d be bummed to trade either Finney-Smith or Kleber, both of whom are great role players on team-friendly deals, but I’d be willing to reunite them with their erstwhile coach Rick Carlisle in Indiana for, say, elite defense-first big man Myles Turner. Cauley-Stein’s contract would have to be included to make the math work.
The new brain trust is under immense pressure to do something to justify putting the franchise through this offseason’s tumult. You can sign only so many Reggie Bullocks and trade for Moses Brown-level players before fans are left wondering what the plan is. Luka has opened the team’s playoff window, but it’s up to the new front office to finally land a fish big enough to put the Mavs over the hump. If they can’t get that job done, get used to the idea of Luka in a Lakers uniform in a few years.