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The Mavericks' 'free agency tank' misunderstands the market

The "free agency tank" is the best way to describe Dallas' repeated one-year deals, but it ignores the other teams who also are pursuing max level players.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier, I suggested that what seems to be a completely senseless approach to remaining relevant actually makes sense if you think of the Mavs as having invented a completely new strategy for talent acquisition. I called this "free agency tanking" because it shares a central philosophy with tanking: sacrificing season after season until you get the player to build around. It's really, basically, the same thing as actual tanking, except the Sixers, Wolves, Lakers, and others are doing it through the draft while the Mavs are doing it through free agency. They don't keep any of the talent they've collected, they don't sign anybody to long deals, they just wait, year after year, for that big fish to come along. For some it's Karl-Anthony Towns, for other it's Hassan Whiteside. Or ... DeAndre Jordan. Or Dwight Howard. Or Deron Williams. Or ...

There's a way in which this approach is brilliant. After all, the Mavs are lucky enough to have one of the best players of all-time and one of the top two or three coaches in the game today. Conventional tanking would probably result in the loss of both, and while some heretics are ready to say goodbye to Dirk are they as ready to say goodbye to Rick? If there can be more than one valid way to streamline your operation towards landing the next foundational star, and if you can be the only one trying it, rather than one of ten teams, and if you can, technically, do it while giving your star coach and your star player at least something to compete with, shouldn't you?

But then there are all the ways in which this approach is not brilliant. The first and most obvious is that it is probably suicidal. As I'm always saying, the thing about max contracts is, your top free agents are going to get multiple pieces of paper that look nearly the same and there has to be some additional reason to choose you over others. If that's not the extra year and extra cash the guy's home team can give him, what else is it going to be? For most guys it's a heightened chance to win a ring. Players aren't always the best judge of that -€”- ask Deron Williams --€” but the ramifications don't depend on perception. Instead, they are very simple: getting worse for the sake of cap space virtually insures you won't get a chance to use it how you want to.

The second problem, though, is math, and that's why this is likely to be the worst offseason yet. The Mavericks' front office made the inaccurate guess in 2011 that a newly restrictive CBA would make teams anxious to shed big salaries and limit competition for the guys who would command the most. That turned out not to be true, and the Mavs, who have been left holding the bag for half a decade now, looked extremely silly carefully hoarding their space when team after team manifested it almost instantaneously by clearing big contracts virtually on command. Just because you've invented the idea of "Free Agency Tanking" doesn't mean that you've invented the idea of wanting high-price free agents.

Let's say, however, that they were not entirely wrong and then we can ask this question: if a newly restrictive cap creates the conditions that allowed the Mavs a chance at big name free agents, putting them on some short lists, what does a cap that is almost $30 million more than it was last year mean for their strategy?

Unfortunately for them, it likely means that even their typically impressive rebounds are going to fall pretty short. After all, in world where Bismack Biyombo is now making more --€” by about $6.5 million --€” than Monta Ellis ever made and more than all but two years of Deron Williams' career, the pressure teams might feel to clear guys who were signed under the old cap is likely a lot less than it was in previous years.

You might think that the Washington Wizards, for example, after maxing out Bradley Beal, paying Ian Mahimni $15-plus million per year and Andrew Nicholson $6 million, might want to get out from paying Marcin Gortat's $12 million a season, and they might. After all, they're at $95 million right now. But not only do they really not need to --€” even at that number they're just barely over the cap, and some $18 million from having to pay tax, not to mention that some of that money is not guaranteed, and they'll be back under the cap when it rises against next summer --€” if they do need to, the number of teams who are in a position to take him off their hands has increased exponentially since this time last year. After all, just about everybody got $30 million dollars of extra space with more coming.

The slow realization of the position they're in, coupled with the need to placate Dirk and Carlisle at least a little, probably explains why they seem to about to break ranks and offer Harrison Barnes what they say they're going to -- roughly the same commitment that would have kept Parsons in Dallas. But with or without him, this could get pretty ugly.