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What are the Mavericks doing?

It’s an important offseason for the Dallas Mavericks. I have a lot of questions for them.

NBA: Preseason-Dallas Mavericks at New Orleans Pelicans Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

With the Dallas Mavericks locked in to the ninth spot in the 2017 NBA Draft, it’s time to start taking the long view, not only with the development of the player they select, but also in terms of how that player fits into the Mavericks’ big-picture team-building plans.

But just what are the Mavericks building? If the goal is a basketball team capable of deep, competitive playoff runs, does their current path make sense? Do recent (and upcoming) signings make sense within the confines of the salary cap? Do the pieces fit?

These are the big questions both the team and its fans will be struggling with this offseason. For some of them, we still don’t have answers; for others, the answers are tough to hear. But since we’re going to be debating them all offseason, we may as well start now.

Do the Mavericks’ signings make financial sense?

Here’s a summary of where the Mavericks stand with guaranteed salaries over the next three seasons. I’ve left all non-guaranteed salaries off this chart and am making some assumptions, mainly that the team picks up Dirk Nowitzki’s option or that they opt out only to resign him to something similar.

After years of projections that the cap would continue to rise, a flat cap is really problematic for the Mavericks. It makes previously signed deals like Wesley Matthews’, Dwight Powell’s, and even Harrison Barnes’ look less valuable than they appeared at the time. But the real (potential) kicker is the upcoming Nerlens Noel contract.

This contract is the 800-pound gorilla in the room for the Mavs. Noel’s agent indicated to the Sixers that he expected Noel to at least make in the $20 million a year range, and he very well may get it.

Noel is eligible this summer for a five-year max deal from the Mavericks, starting at 25 percent of the cap with eight percent annual raises ($137 million over five years). Other teams can offer him a four-year max deal, also worth 25 percent of the cap but with just five percent annual raises ($115 million over four years), but Dallas can match any offer since Noel is a Restricted Free Agent.

While I doubt any team plays chicken with Dallas and offers him the true max, there’s probably at least one team out there willing to offer a deal north of 20 percent of the cap. The Mavericks traded for Noel in order to sign him, so a competing offer in that range could potentially be problematic for Dallas. Paying the combination of Barnes, Matthews, Noel, and Powell nearly 70 percent of the salary cap next season makes me more than a little uncomfortable. That doesn’t even factor in Dirk!

And it’s not a problem that would go away any time soon. It still leaves the team paying nearly half of the salary cap to Barnes and Noel in the 2019-20 season.

Do the pieces fit?

In some ways, this is an even tougher question. Things get a little fuzzy when you start talking about “team building” because it’s all about player projection, which comes with a high degree of uncertainty. I think we’d all agree that Harrison Barnes was a smashing success last season with the Mavericks. But what’s his growth chart realistically look like? Does Barnes play the four or the five in the modern NBA? Nineteen points and five rebounds a game is nothing to scoff at, but it’s also not good enough for a star player. Is Barnes actually the player to build around?

Nerlens Noel is a special player on defense and possesses the type of otherworldly athleticism that Rick Carlisle gets the most out of in a spread pick-and-roll offense. But he comes with more questions than answers right now. Is he capable of playing enough to impact the Mavericks win total? What’s a realistic per-game contribution from Noel going forward? If the Mavericks commit to Barnes as the offensive centerpiece, can Noel build up parts of his offensive game to round out the Mavericks? Can he handle the burden of defensive rebounding on a team that ranked dead last in 2016-17?

Wesley Matthews is a key locker room presence, but is that valuable enough to Dallas despite him shooting under 40 percent from the field for the second straight season? He’s a great defender but does not have great ball-handling skills on offense. Streaky shooting and uneven ball handling are a recipe for a player who can take away more than he adds to a line up.

These may seem like harsh assessments, considering the addition of Dirk on offense negates a lot of potential problems. But the fact that we don’t know how long Dirk’s actually going to play means the front office is trying to build a team that can compete both with and without him. When we look at the non-Dirk core, the team doesn’t seem good enough to compete for a top seed but isn’t remotely bad enough to have a good lottery shot.

But what about the draft?

In some ways, this is the least complicated question facing the Mavs, at least from a strategic perspective. Josh makes a great case for drafting either a point guard or a forward, depending on who is there when the Mavericks pick. The team as currently constructed has a glaring hole at point guard, but unless there’s someone there Dallas is confident in, drafting for team need over talent is always a mistake. Select the best player, worry about the rest later.

If that seems to fly in the face of our attempts to answer the broader question of what Dallas is building toward, it’s in part because I suspect the Mavericks will have their choice made for them by nine. Either a player they have high on their board will fall or they will take someone who’s considered more of a reach. There are five highly-rated point guards. The likelihood that all five go in the first eight picks seems low, at least this far out from the draft.

So just what are the Mavericks building?

The 50,000 foot view of this team is just questions on questions on more questions. It’s rather maddening. But while it’s tempting to start wringing our hands over a lack of answers, it may be much ado about nothing. The fact is that during the Mark Cuban era, the Mavericks have been competitive every single year. They’ve been great a lot of the time and entertaining every year but one (looking at you, Mike James the point guard). That’s a pretty good track record for success.

Obviously, Dirk Nowitzki is the common factor during those years, but Donnie Nelson, when he’s given the space to operate, has demonstrated that he knows what he’s doing. Let’s give him a little bit longer. Hopefully, the picture will become clearer (and the answers more obvious) for Dallas in the coming weeks.