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Hal Brown | June 2, 2015

A complete Mavericks free agency primer

The introduction of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011 radically changed the way Mark Cuban and the Mavericks do business. Cuban, convinced that players would be moving teams a lot more in the offseasons, decided that coming into each offseason with as much money as possible was the best possible strategy.

In some ways he was right: players moved a lot more from offseason to offseason since the lockout. Still, he was really wrong about one thing: for wooing the guys that matter, a team having max money wasn't going to be the end all and be all for a lot of teams.

A lot of teams ended up coming into every offseason with max money, and every year, odds were that there would be two or three teams more compelling to free agents than Dallas. Even the teams that didn't necessarily have the max money coming in -- see the 2013 Warriors -- could find their ways to it.


Whether we've really noticed or not, the Mavericks' modus operandi has changed a lot in the last few offseasons and it seems to be changing still. Perhaps that's no surprise with a brand new CBA likely on the horizon in 2017. But it seems like, at least, Cuban has realized he made a mistake with his understanding of the current CBA -- though for all the fans tired of Dallas dumping their favorite players and re-tooling every season, saying that may seem like insanity.

There's a really important difference in what they did before and what they're doing now, though. Before, the Mavericks came into every offseason with A PlanTM. They had a free agent or two to try and sway, and that was it. If that failed, it was panic and cleanup mode.

The last few years have seen a Mavericks team much more well prepared for the reality that the demand is far greater than the supply of game-changing free agents. Money is the game -- Cuban was right about that much -- but now Dallas comes into the offseason NOT assuming that if they come in more well-planned than everyone else they'll win, largely because they're not more well-planned than everyone else.

Instead, Dallas comes in with flexibility -- but importantly, not only flexibility. The team certainly is more full than in years past, but now there's room to maneuver. And they come in with the prescience to know that they don't know what's gonna happen in free agency. Instead, Dallas is banking on being able to read the NBA market and make the highest value play before anyone else.

Cuban thinks he's the best in the league at making moves like that, and whether or not that's true, it's certainly his best strength as an owner, far more so than convincing the superstars of the league that Dallas is for them (though of all years, ironically enough, they seem to legitimately have the best claim now).

So, if Dallas is going to be spending the entire summer dowsing the market, what does that market actually look like? What do the Mavs have to offer, and what are they most likely to do?

There are essentially two major scenarios that play out and which one happens is totally out of Dallas' control. Monta Ellis' player option is going to have a huge part to play in the upcoming summer dealings, and that might be the biggest thing to look out for of all.

meeks(Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports)

If Monta opts in


Monta's contract is so important to the Mavericks this offseason because he has a player option, meaning that before free agency starts Monta gets to decide if he'd like to stay on the team for one more year at his current deal (which would net him about $8.3 million) or if he'd like to test free agency. Which option Monta chooses has some pretty obviously huge implications on the Mavs' cap situation beyond it deciding where Monta will actually be playing.

Monta opting in makes the finances of the team much harder. Monta's deal is actually pretty light, especially for what he brings to the team, and it's about $2 million less than what his cap hold would be on the team if he were to opt out. Still, the extra $8.3 million in guaranteed salary closes a lot of doors that would be available to them.

And, of course, his cap hold (the amount Monta takes up in the finances until he's signed somewhere or the Mavs declare they're not interested in retaining his rights) can be gotten rid of, where his actual salary cannot, but still, Monta's current deal is far more team friendly than anything he'd take up with the team if he opts out and then re-signs, or if he opts out and his hold sits on the team's finances.

Most people seem to expect Monta to opt out of his contract in favor of more security and a better deal after proving his worth in Dallas, but I'm not actually sure that makes a lot of sense. It's certainly possible, and players have a long history of opting out of contracts in favor of more immediate security even when it's not the best financial move, but it would seem to me to make more sense for Monta to opt in.

If Monta opts in to play this next season with the Mavericks, he'll be hitting free agency when the cap explodes up to $90 million from the $67 million expected this offseason, giving every team by default max cap room, and the teams that already have a good amount of space carved out will have even more.

So far, Monta can expect a small bump in his current salary this offseason from some team, but if he opts in and even plays an especially poor year next season, and teams decide that he's only worth the equivalent of his current deal, given after two outrageously bad years in Milwaukee, that would still be about $11.5 million a year, or roughly 12.5 percent of the $90 million dollar cap. If he continues playing next season as he has the last few, he could be making as much as $15 million after next season instead of the $10-11 million-ish I'd expect him to get this offseason.

A three-year deal at $11.5 million a year, after opting in for next season, is worth a little more than if he got a four-year deal at $10 million after opting out, and that's his worst case financial situation if he opts in.

Why not bet on himself after ending last year so poorly, given that so much of his poor play was a result of a bad fit with Rajon Rondo? Why not opt in to the smaller deal, assume that he'll play well enough to keep his value, and then cash in on the market when the money's flowing more freely? The pay increase could be substantial for the long term if he opts in, and I'm not sure why a confident guy like him who likes his current situation would turn down as much as $6 million extra for the sake of immediate security.

So, let's say I'm right and Monta does opt in: what does that do to the Mavs' finances? What are their possible paths? As far as I can tell, there are three big moves Dallas can make: keep the team largely intact, shift the team radically around Monta as either the point guard or a bench scorer, or trade Monta for someone who fits the team's ideal identity.

Keep the team (largely) intact

If Monta opts in to his deal for next season the Mavericks technically come into the summer roughly $4 million dollars over the cap. That, however, is largely a function of the cap holds that will be taking space on Dallas' finances from free agents hitting the market, and Dallas can clear a lot of money really fast by simply declaring that they have no interest in keeping the rights to a slew of their players.

If Dallas renounces Charlie V, Greg Smith, Richard Jefferson, and Bernard James immediately, they can whittle that committed money down to less than a million over the cap. I would expect them to renounce them immediately as well, given that even if they want to re-sign these players Dallas likely won't want to pay them more than the minimum salary, making their Bird Rights, rights that allow the team to sign the players when over the cap, functionally useless.

The rest is where Dallas' decisions get interesting. If Monta opts in, the Mavericks have $43.7 million tied up in Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, Devin Harris, Raymond Felton (who has already opted in to his player option), Dwight Powell, Petteri Koponen (who may or may not take an actual roster spot but has a cap hold regardless), and the waived salary of Gal Mekel. After adding the roster charges for unfilled roster spots, that could bring Dallas to up to $21.3 million in cap space, or almost exactly max salary money for the likes of DeAndre Jordan or LaMarcus Aldridge (because they fall in the 7-9 year max).

The problem is, though, that Dallas has at least three guys that they have real interest in bringing back who have cap holds that the Mavs may not want to just get rid of in Tyson Chandler, Al-Farouq Aminu, and J.J. Barea. When you add up their cap holds, which count for at least 1.5 times their salary from last year, that eats up all the remaining cap space.

So, Dallas has to decide almost immediately into the offseason whether they're interested in bringing these three guys back. If Dallas waits too long to decide, they'll lose out on the chance to sign early free agents. If they decide too quickly, they risk missing on big name free agents and being able to bring their highly capable players back into the fold.

The really compelling question here comes in the form of Tyson Chander and his $20-million cap hold. A cap hold that size cripples the Mavericks, but his actual salary from this year -- $14 million -- would be more palatable by itself, and a likely decrease from that, given Chandler's role, age, and likely performance, would give them enough space to sign at least one very good role player. Getting rid of the hold entirely would give them nearly max cap room.

Therein lies the Mavericks' dilemma: they have to make a decision about Tyson Chandler before they can do anything else. Do they want to renounce his Bird Rights immediately, ensuring max cap space, but also that Tyson can't be signed once over the cap and thus severely limiting Dallas' capacity to bring him back, or do they want to re-sign him immediately to a deal that gives Dallas some breathing room to start filling in the holes on the team?

The elephant in the room here is clearly DeAndre Jordan, and the reported mutual interest between him and the Mavericks. For what it's worth, not only has he been linked to Dallas several times by sources close to both the Mavericks and to the Clippers, but the story is that DeAndre and Chris Paul have not been getting along, something I've heard as well. Getting this young hyper-talent is, for once, a real possibility.

The only way to make a deal happen with DeAndre, though, would be to renounce Tyson's Bird Rights. Dallas could do so, pitch the Mavs to Jordan, and try and sign Tyson back while still under the cap if Jordan goes elsewhere. But this assumes that Tyson won't sign elsewhere in the meantime (big name free agents rarely make decisions quickly). And if Dallas decides to sign anyone else (Aminu?) Tyson may not even fit under the cap if they tried.

The question of Aminu in this case is really interesting. I've heard that the Mavs front office LOVES Aminu and desperately want to bring him back next season. They have the resources to do it, and with his Bird Rights and (if Tyson re-signs) somewhere between $11 million and $9 million in cap space, it shouldn't be a problem at all.

If the Mavs go after DeAndre hard, getting Aminu back is going to be more difficult. Aminu's sub-million dollar cap hold may actually be the difference between the Mavs having a lot of money and the Mavs having a true max, but it's really, really close, and according to my math the Mavs have just enough to fit Aminu's cap hold under the cap and sign DeAndre to the full $20.1 million salary he'll command. So they could sign Aminu to any contract over their cap after the DeAndre deal is done.

Still, even if they don't have that space, the likelihood that the Mavs punt their chance of keeping Aminu because DeAndre won't budge on something like $100,000 in his salary seems incredibly low, though I suppose if it's all that's standing between Dallas and landing a young, talented, max-level player I can imagine they ultimately won't hesitate.

Basically, if Monta opts in, odds are that Dallas either: signs DeAndre and nothing else happens except they sign one mediocre role player for the cap room Mid-Level Exception (worth about $2.8 million) and some minimum guys; they re-sign Tyson immediately to maximize cap space, get a couple pretty good role players between around $10 million in cap space and $2 million in exceptions then go from there; or they miss on both and they're screwed.

If Monta opts in though, short of the possibility of signing, say, Patrick Beverley -- a serious possibility if Tyson re-signs; the Rockets likely won't want P-Bev for $8 million -- the Mavs will more or less be bringing the band back together with the most drastic change being the swap of DeAndre for Tyson or the swap of LaMarcus Aldridge (a far less likely prospect, but whose signing follows pretty much the same contingencies as DeAndre) for Dirk.

In those cases they'd get more value for money turning some of their cheap contracts from last season (Aminu, Amar'e) into bigger contracts with Bird Rights and then worry about getting some minimum guys. The roster would actually, for once, be about three-fourths the same.

If Tyson sticks around, the rest of the roster will more likely be radically different, but it will be so around the familiar core of Monta, Tyson, Parsons, Dirk, and probably Devin and Aminu. Keeping a core around season after season like that is unlike Dallas lately.

But...what if they don't bring the band back together? What else can they do if Monta opts in?

Getting weird with it

I don't think that assuming Monta will come back as the team's shooting guard is a given, and that's especially true if Monta opts his way back onto the team.

I have heard that the Mavericks have a strong desire to build a defensive identity not unlike the one the Warriors have cultivated. Perhaps "we want to be akin to the best defense in the NBA" isn't a shocker coming out of that front office, but their ideal construction is telling: they want a team of like-sized, big guys who can guard many positions and switch pick and rolls at will, just like this season's Warriors team.

That means many things: among them that they are going to take getting Aminu back extremely seriously as the only one on the team who might be able to, at some point, guard every position. But I think it also means that the team is aware that playing Monta at the two guard isn't going to cut it defensively.

Monta's not the absolute worst defender in the world, but he's pretty bad. If a play has just started and he's defending one on one he can be pretty solid: he's quick enough to stay in front of guys and has great instincts for poking the ball away. He's good with his timing and craftiness in helping on the post, too.

For all of that though, he starts at least half his plays on defense without even knowing where the man he's supposed to be defending is, and decides often -- especially when the offense is not going his way -- that he'd prefer to sit in the paint and play pretend help defense for no reason than to defend a three point shooter wide open on the wing.

These are egregious deficiencies, but they're far less bad if he's playing with four bigger, highly capable defenders, and indeed, such a scenario could even highlight his (few) defensive strengths.

Let's say the Mavericks actually pull off having a pretty good defensive team with three 6'6 to 6'8 players, a rim protector, and Monta (Monta, Danny Green/Khris Middleton, Chandler Parsons, Aminu, and Tyson, for example). Monta would be capable of at least switching the one and two spots if not the one through three against teams going small without a size mismatch, and his gambling that typically leads to horrible defense could be covered by others and lead to more incredibly valuable steals. Suddenly, his defense goes from abysmal to "at least he's the right height" which is a pretty huge jump.

The Mavericks, I imagine, are well aware of this, and given their apparent desire to create mismatches all over the floor, I wouldn't be shocked to see the team move Monta to the one, and fill in the gaps from there.

There are certainly risks, but Monta's assist percentage, even at his worst, is fairly commiserate with that of high-scoring point guards, and there isn't a lot of data to corroborate the idea that he's a turnover machine when he runs the show. It's not at all unreasonable.

But, most importantly, the market this offseason is far more favorable for Dallas filling in the roster with off-guards rather than point guards. So, who does Dallas go after if they're looking for two guards?

If the Mavericks have actual cap money -- i.e. if they re-sign Tyson or miss on DeAndre -- I expect them to go hard at Danny Green with their cap money. The Spurs' cap situation is equally weird, but it's highly possible that the Spurs get hit with some huge cap holds and can't afford to re-sign Green at between $6-$10 million in restricted free agency, where the team with his Bird Rights is allowed to match offers levied at the player.

Green is the kind of guy who, in the right matchup, can defend the one through four from a guard spot, and he's one of the best transition defenders in the NBA. That he's an ace from the arc is just a bonus for the Mavs who are looking for a guy exactly like Green.

The Mavericks may use that money on a gamble for Wesley Matthews and bring back Aminu, hoping that Matthews recovers well from his torn achilles. They can fire away an offer sheet for Khris Middleton that won't really be competitive, or if they're really committed to defense they can use some of that on Gerald Henderson if all else fails.

Arron Afflalo will be gettable for around $8 million as well, as will Rodney Stuckey, Gerald Green, and Wayne Ellington, but these are all players not as committed to defense as Dallas wants, if shooting aces, and several have a history of not being played by Rick Carlisle.

I imagine if the Mavs attempt to get weird here it's Danny Green or bust, but a play for Wes Matthews wouldn't surprise me.

If the Mavericks get DeAndre or LaMarcus, of course, this gets complicated by their lack of cap space, and a move for Gerald Green or Wayne Ellington would make way more sense in that case, so this scenario is far more likely if the Mavericks commit to Tyson as a way of maximizing their funds.

Trade Monta

Of course, if the Mavericks have decided that their time with Monta is truly over even if he opts in to his contract, the Mavericks can trade him.

Ty Lawson is the obvious name to come up here and it's a trade unlikely to happen ... unless Monta opts in to his deal. Denver has no desire to actually win now, but they also have no leverage with Lawson, everyone knows that he wants out. If Dallas sends, for example, Monta, Peterri Koponen, and a late second rounder, Denver is getting a potentially productive young player, a small asset, and the potential to turn Monta into more assets. That may not be the best package, but it could be the best they get offered.

Lawson may not be what Dallas is strictly looking for, but he's a very good talent, and you don't pass up talent like at good value. Mark Cuban has been known to say that, I believe.

The Mavs are in more desperate need for guards than anything, and if they deal Monta, given the market, I think the most likely target is a point guard, and they'll try and fill the off guard position in free agency. So, other likely targets might be a sign and trade for Brandon Knight, a trade for George Hill, Brandon Jennings, Kemba Walker, or, least likely of all, a blasphemous trade for Dwyane Wade.

But if that's what happens if he opts in ... what happens if he opts out?

meeks(Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports)

If Monta opts out


Despite how much I wrote about Monta opting in, this is probably the most likely scenario. Players tend to eschew the best financial decision for more security, and even then, him opting in requires Monta's agent to tell him "your most likely offseason scenario is teams lowball you at $10-11 million a year" which seems unlikely.

Monta opting in is also a far more complicated scenario, and introduces a lot of dynamics that are important to Monta opting out, but in a less pronounced way.

The biggest result is that the Mavericks get a lot more cap space, about $8.2 million worth, upping their maximum cap space to about $29.5 million. The dynamics of how much space the team actually has works the same as if Monta opts in, except that on top of Tyson's cap hold they'll also have Monta's, worth about $10.3 million.

So, the Mavericks will have to decide very quickly if they want Tyson and/or Monta to figure out how much money they have to offer. The difference, this time, is if the Mavericks are not interested in holding on to Monta they could have up to $7.7 million in cap space before dealing with Tyson's cap hold, making them much more flexible in re-signing Aminu and attracting lower level free agents before signing a big name free agent with Tyson's cap hold funds.

Vying for Max Contracts

So, this gives the Mavericks a lot of leeway: if they can somehow net DeAndre or a similar max free agent, the Mavericks will still have about $8.7 million in cap space, and if they re-sign Tyson instead they can have as much as $18 million in cap space.

That's enough room for making bids for the likes of Khris Middleton and still being able to pursue targets elsewhere, just as it's enough to pursue a maximum free agent and still have enough to genuinely promise Tyson a healthy sum if he waits around in case a deal falls through, and even players like Tobias Harris start to be worth a look.

The Mavericks could conceivably do something here where they sign DeAndre Jordan and Danny Green and have money left over to re-sign Aminu over the cap and fill in the gaps with minimum deals (and bringing back Barea, Richard Jefferson, et al.) and the mid-level exception.

Unfortunately for particularly optimistic Mavs fans, there's nothing the team can do to bring in two max-level free agents. A pipe dream like DeAndre + LaMarcus in one summer isn't happening without, say, trading Chandler Parsons for absolutely nothing, a move that both the team won't and likely can't do. DeAndre and a rookie scale max player might be possible if Monta opts out, but even that's radically unlikely and will leave the rest of the team barren.

Of course, all of the avenues available for Monta opting in are available here as well: they can always re-sign him early (or late) and go about their business the exact same way as if he had opted in. Some of the numbers will likely be different -- the $2 or $1 million less might be difference between keeping and losing Aminu depending how the contracts shake out -- but the process will largely be the same.

Monta opting out largely just gives the Mavericks flexibility to do the things they could potentially do otherwise: they can keep it together, change it up, or get trade happy. The key is largely that they have to decide, and quickly, as their available avenues will start to fall apart from under them.

Cuban is a man who believes that he's always on the most solid of ground. One way or another, the ground falling out from beneath him is not a feeling he's accustomed to. Let's hope he doesn't start getting used to it now.

Corrections, June 3, 2:18 p.m.: As to be expected with a 4,000-word story, there are a few things throughout that deserve correcting. Namely, Al-Farouq Aminu's Bird Rights (or Non-Bird Rights, as they're technically called, despite basically being Bird Rights) only allow the Mavericks to sign him for 120 percent of his current contract. As a result, Dallas cannot maneuver into a situation where they come up to the cap threshold and sign Aminu over the limit. They would have to acquire him under the cap limit.

The same can be said for J.J. Barea. Also, Danny Green is an unrestricted free agent, not restricted, and Gerald Henderson has a $6 million player option.

Producer/Designer/Graphics: Tim Cato | Editors: Tim Cato and Rebecca Lawson | Special thanks to: Graham MacAree | Title Photo: Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports

About the Author

MFFL and generally avid basketball addict.