The NBA Lockout is (Almost) Over. Here's What the Mavs Need to Do Before Christmas Day.
Editor's note: Rob Mahoney writes about the Mavericks on his ESPN-affiliated blog The Two Man Game and about basketball for The New York Times's Off the Dribble blog. Presumably his New York Times bio will henceforth note that he now writes about the Mavericks for Unfair Park.
Photo by Mike Mezeul Cubes has some decisions to make.
Hark: The NBA season is finally almost upon us. After a months-long depressing cycle of minute progress followed by negotiation implosion, the league and its players have finally agreed in principle on the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement. The deal itself will still need to be approved by larger parties on both sides, but with an agreement on the fundamental issues that caused the rift between the NBA and its players in the first place, there's good reason to believe that the lockout is over, even if not formally so just yet.
Once all the paperwork is out of the way, we can turn our attentions to actual basketball considerations and -- in case you've somehow forgotten -- the NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs are in good shape to contend in the coming season, but only after dealing with a crucial off-season to-do list. Dallas isn't exactly ready to go; many of the team's key players may be secure, but there's a lot to figure out between the lockout's formal conclusion and opening day, which should come Christmas against the Heat.
There's no question that the Mavs' biggest off-season priority is the courting of their own unrestricted free agent center, the anchor of the team's defense and one of the its emotional leaders.Chandler was crucial in Dallas's championship efforts. Unfortunately for the Mavs, just about every other coach and general manager in the league is aware of that. Other teams will come at Chandler hard in the abridged free agent period to come, and Dallas will have to balance the near-essential need to secure his services for next season with an ever-important sense of fiscal responsibility. Overpaying for Chandler seems like the only option, but even overpaying has its reasonable limits; the Mavs will have to find the middle ground with an invaluable contributor, lest they risk falling into the West's second tier.
Order in the Wings
On draft night, the Mavs traded the 26th pick (which turned out to be Texas product Jordan Hamilton) for Rudy Fernandez, a proven wing commodity. Rodrigue Beaubois appears to finally be healthy enough to play significant minutes, supposing that it suits Rick Carlisle. Corey Brewer, whom the Mavs acquired mid-season last year, should be familiar enough with the system and his teammates to grab a more substantial role this time around. Dominique Jones, whom the Mavs selected in the first round of the 2010 draft, is a year older and possibly ready to contribute. Caron Butler, J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stevenson, Brian Cardinal and Peja Stojakovic will all hit the open market in free agency, but several of those players could return.
In other words: There's a lot of uncertainty in terms of how the minutes will be filled at shooting guard and small forward, and that's before we even consider how much playing time should be designated to Jason Terry and Shawn Marion.
The Mavs' most sensible option -- given their financial situation and the limitations of the salary cap and luxury tax -- is to re-sign Butler, as well as either Stevenson or Cardinal. Butler missed the entirety of the Mavs' playoff run last year and is functionally the best "addition" that can be made. With Butler, Marion and Terry filling the majority of the wing minutes in that scenario, Fernandez, Beaubois and Brewer would fight for whatever playing time fell through the cracks. That group boasts the production and positional flexibility Dallas needs to legitimately improve - an impressive feat for a salary-committed defending champion.
Bye Bye Barea?
J.J. Barea pulled off the most absurdly well-timed postseason "breakout" imaginable. With all eyes on the Mavs, he pick-and-rolled past the Lakers, lit up the Thunder and provided a much-needed boost against the Heat. His stock has never been higher; ESPN.com's #NBARank project -- in which 91 basketball analysts, including yours truly, rated every NBA player -- put Barea in the league's top 100 players.
That's a pretty gross exaggeration. Barea is a useful player, but a fair bit removed from that echelon. That said, if executives of other teams hold Barea in the same regard as ESPN.com's panel, he could get some pretty lucrative offers in free agency. Dallas, which already operates with one of the league's highest payrolls, won't be in much of a position to compete.
Plus, even if Barea's potential salary is within a reasonable range, Donnie Nelson, Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle will still need to weigh his impact -- and price tag -- against the possibility of an internal replacement filling the same role. Giving Barea's responsibilities to Dominique Jones, Jason Terry or Rodrigue Beaubois would result in roughly equivalent production, so retaining him for anything more than a modest increase from his $1.8 million 2010-2011 salary could prove foolish. Barea gave the Mavs a nice boost on their way to the title, but he's simply not a player worthy of a substantial, long-term financial investment.
The mid-level salary cap exception has long been the mechanism of improvement for contending teams, but the new CBA will put limits on its usage. As a likely luxury taxpayer, the Mavericks won't be entitled to sign a player for the full mid-level exception, worth around $5 million per season. Instead they'll have access to the "taxpayer mid-level exception," a new salary cap exception that allows taxpaying teams to sign a player to a three-year deal starting at $3 million.
That curbs the Mavs' free agent potential rather substantially. Five million per season is typically enough to attract some relatively strong free agents, but slashing that amount to $3 million limits the pool. There are still useful players to be had, but they typically come in a more limited form than those who earn the full mid-level.
Considering the Mavericks' depth, they may elect not to use the taxpayer mid-level exception at all. But if Donnie Nelson sees a hole in the rotation worth filling, he could choose to invest in one of the following players:
James Jones, Miami Heat
Jones is an archetypal "three-and-D" wing player who knows his limitations; he averages about 2.5 dribbles per season, as his offensive utility is limited strictly to spot-up shooting from the three-point line.
Jeff Foster, Indiana Pacers
The Mavs may not have an immediate need for Foster if Chandler and Brendan Haywood both return next season, but he'd make a more reliable third center than the foul-prone Ian Mahinmi.
Anthony Parker, Cleveland Cavaliers
Parker is competent in virtually every aspect of the game, but doesn't offer any specific strengths. He'll likely sign with a team that can grant him more playing time, but he'd be a nice, economical get for the Mavs.
Amnesty Clause: Now or Later?
In order to ease the transition into the new collective bargaining agreement (and its more punitive luxury tax), the negotiators have included an amnesty clause -- a provision allowing every NBA team to release one of its current players and remove all salary cap implications of that player's contract. It is the all-powerful "Get Out of Jail Free" card; general managers around the league will be able to undo one big mistake from their team's finances, giving franchises everywhere a new-found flexibility.
Teams will have the power to use the amnesty clause at any time during the life of the upcoming CBA, which could last as long as a decade. That presents every franchise with a pair of choices: Which -- if any -- of their players are worth using the amnesty clause on, and when is the best time to use it?
The amnesty clause could play a very important role for the Mavs, as wiping away a chunk of salary would ease part of the substantial luxury-tax burden that Mark Cuban will undoubtedly face. Cuban not only pays for every penny of his players' substantial salaries, but also the systemic tax-related penalties that come from employing so many highly paid players.
That in mind, the Mavs are most likely to save the amnesty clause for a rainy day, as the harshest changes to the luxury tax rules don't come into effect until 2014. It could prove useful somewhere down the line to release Brendan Haywood or Shawn Marion, but for the moment, the financial penalties are bearable for the on-court contributions of both players.