NBA free agency has begun! You’ve endured the small gap between the NBA Draft to right now and you’ve got your basketball fix ready. Time to settle in, see who the Mavericks are currently meeting with and —
Wait, what? There are ... no meetings?
There are no meetings! We’ve been dropped into some weird twilight zone alternate reality where seemingly every other team in the NBA is desperately trying to secure free agent meetings and trade opportunities except the Mavericks. Are we dead? How are we not dead?
The Mavs have brilliantly (and luckily) found themselves on a quick rebuilding path, scooping up a core of Harrison Barnes, Nerlens Noel and Dennis Smith Jr. within less than a year. Of course, the Mavs had to go through their worst season in 17 years to get that core, but that’s the price of acquiring young talent in the NBA.
Since the Mavs did most of their work in the last 12 months, July should be pretty quiet. Dallas has a locked-in starting five of Smith, Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki and Nerlens Noel — there isn’t really reason for the Mavs to line up right now outside a free agents house to back in a dump truck full of money and promises of culture.
This should be a quiet summer of tiding up the roster and adding a few more pieces to what appears to be a promising core.
I say “should” because this is the Mavericks and Mark Cuban after all and you never know. Despite what GM Donnie Nelson said at the draft, it wouldn’t shock anyone if the Mavs were suddenly in the race for one of the stud point guards available at this moment.
So with that in mind, here’s a small guide to help you know what should be coming in the next month. There won’t be a lot of salary cap breakdowns and dollar figures because I’m a moron and we have much better people on staff to sort through the minutia. This will be more of a guide to the major storylines and key players the Mavs could (or could not) be targeting.
Priority number 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and all the way down to 10 is Nerlens Noel
Forget everything else about the off-season, because restricted free agent Nerlens Noel is about all that matters for the Mavericks this summer now that the draft is over.
Well, maybe don’t forget everything, but Noel is extremely important. Every public comment the Mavs front office has made about this summer has been that getting Noel back in the fold is the main priority. The Mavs trade for Noel in February was essentially their big 2017 off-season move in a way, except now they have the advantage of matching any offer he gets in restricted free agency instead of trying to wrangle him away from Philadelphia and sweat out that three-day period after signing the offer sheet.
Even though the Mavericks have shouted from the mountain tops that they will bring Noel back no matter what the price, expect a team to try and call the Mavericks bluff to force them to give Noel a max offer. There’s no doubt the Mavs would love to slide Noel back on the roster for under $20 million per year and even though there aren’t that many teams with mounds of cap space due to the cap being smaller than initially projected, all it takes is one team to mess everything up.
And make no mistake, the Mavs will end up giving Noel the max if they have to. Despite not surrendering a first-round pick to get him, Noel represents the best building block the Mavericks have — a former top-10 pick under the age of 25 that has all the skills of a prime Tyson Chandler plus the potential for so much more. Even though Dirk won’t be around for most of Noel’s prime, Dallas has thrived with rim-running fives from Chandler to Brandan Wright and even milking what’s left of the Dwight Powell experiment.
The NBA is going small, yes, but rim protecting fives that can blitz defenses in the pick and roll are crucial to every modern NBA roster. Noel has the ability and foot-speed to guard the rim while also handling his own in switches out on the perimeter. He runs like a damn gazelle and has a sneaky offensive skill set including decent vision passing out of the pick and roll and a solid face-up and drive game.
There is more to Noel than the numbers indicate — he’s only averaged 30 minutes or more per game in just one of his three seasons. There’s a lot left for Noel to unlock and just because the league is going smaller doesn’t mean his value is decreasing. If anything, it’s increasing. Practically every contender needs a five like Noel. Consider this: the Mavericks were not a good team this year, despite a surge when the calendar flipped to 2017 for a month or so. Noel posted a 1.3 net rating learning the ropes on a new team that barely stood above the dregs of the Western Conference. That mark was third best on the team among the rotation players. Even while he was fitting in, Noel was working.
There are concerns, of course — Noel has a shaky injury history and his slight frame lets him get bullied in the paint and on the boards from time to time. There are certainly risks to tying your wagon to Noel, especially when you consider Noel and Barnes will take up the majority of your cap. It’s a good duo, but is it the duo? It’s a fair question. Even with the risks, however, the Mavs have to bring Noel back. The alternatives are being a worse team, tanking for just a chance to draft a player like Noel. He might not be worth the max, but in the current NBA, you have to pay big money to keep young talent. The Mavericks will bring Noel back.
Expect smaller, low-risk, high-reward moves
I won’t go into detail about exactly how much cap space the Mavs will be working with, because I am too dumb to figure it out. The rough guesstimate from people much smarter than me is the Mavs will be working with anywhere from $15 to $20 million in cap space, before resigning Dirk.
Your guess is as good as mine for how much Dirk will return for, but I can’t imagine him doing something crazy and signing for the minimum, since the Mavericks won’t be grabbing a superstar with that extra room. Something in the five to 10 range sounds about right, meaning the Mavs should have anywhere from $10 to $15 million in cap room, leaning closer to that 10 range.
Much to at least this writer’s relief, for once the Mavs aren’t hugely associated with any of the marquee free agents. There are whispers of some bigger names, but everything from the Dallas end makes it appear the Mavs are very cool with a Smith-Wes-Barnes-Dirk-Noel starting five and just piecing together some B and C-tier free agents to round out the bench. That is absolutely refreshing to hear.
There’s no sense in the Mavericks wasting everyone’s time and letting some big max-level free agent use the Mavs as leverage to get the deal they want from the actual team they want to play for. Dallas has absolutely killed it on the secondary market when they actually decide they want to sign some players. Names like Brandan Wright, Al-Farouq Aminu, Vince Carter, Elton Brand, Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, Salah Mejri and of course Seth Curry were all below the radar moves that worked wonderfully for the Mavs.
Luckily for Dallas, the market is ripe with those middle-tier players, although how much room the Mavs have to work with could squeeze them out from some of the better ones. Let’s go over the intriguing players that won’t highlight the free agent period but could be killers for the Mavs:
Ben McLemore, SG
A former top-10 pick that looked terribly lost in his time with the Kings, McLemore could be a cheap project for the Mavs to work on. He’s long and talented and could swing between the two and the three, providing some much needed shooting off the bench. He hit 38 percent from three last year and while the rest of his game was pretty much trash, Rick Carlisle has revived careers with less raw talent than McLemore. He’d be a fun pickup that would fit the timeline of the Smith-Barnes-Noel core.
Justin Holiday, SG
Holiday, Jrue’s older brother, is a nice looking wing. He had some pretty decent moments during Golden State’s first title winning season. He’s bounced around a bit, but finally got some burn in New York last season, averaging 20 minutes per game. His shooting numbers don’t look great, but he projects as a nice 3-and-D player, standing at 6’6 with a long frame. Think of Holiday as a less glamorous McLemore, although, honestly, Holiday might be better.
Ian Clark, SG
Another player that got to look really nice in the Golden State death machine, Clark is a bit smaller than McLemore and Holiday and probably wouldn’t be able to slide into a forward spot off the bench. However, he can certainly get buckets. His shooting numbers are great (48.7 percent from the field, 37.4 from three last year) and he even did it in the playoffs too, averaging a little over 13 minutes per game. It’s not a lot, but that’s enough to show Steve Kerr clearly liked and trusted Clark. With Golden State trying to bring back Andre Iguodala and having some serious money to spend to keep their Big 4, Clark should be a cap casualty.
He’d fit really well with the Mavs, although there’s probably some overlap in roles with Seth Curry on the bench as well. Clark could be a nice Curry insurance policy if the Mavs decide to let Curry walk next summer and Clark would thrive in the space Dirk and Noel would create. I really like Clark and I want him in Dallas. Unfortunately I wouldn’t be surprised if a bad team with cap space gobbled him up for more than what Dallas would want to do.
C.J. Miles, SF
There are a ton of nice players that can slide between the two forward spots, but I think the Mavs are going to get priced out of that market unless they move Dwight Powell. Guys like Danilo Gallinari, James Johnson and Joe Ingles would be incredible fits in Dallas, but they’re gonna get paid.
Right under that tier is Miles, a sort of ho-hum forward that just happened to shoot close to 40 percent from three over the last five years. Miles is a little older for the Mavs timeline at 30, but he’d be a giant upgrade over Dorian Finney-Smith for next year, providing the Mavs with a versatile wing they desperately need to give Barnes a break guarding power forwards all the time. With all the forwards in this free agent class, Miles could come cheap-ish if he gets forgotten about during all the movement. Also he’s from Dallas! We all know how much NBA players from Dallas love to play in Dallas (stares at Chris Bosh).
Shabazz Muhammad, SF
Muhammad would fit the Mavs timeline better than Miles, but he isn’t as versatile and his defense blows. He’s also restricted and it’ll be hard for the Mavs to tie up their money in him and Noel for that amount of time. He’d be a fun microwave scorer off the bench though. Lord knows last years Mavericks needed some scoring.
Omir Casspi, SF
I had almost completely forgotten about Casspi till I heard The Ticket’s excellent free agency preview. Casspi is a legit 6’9, can play both forward spots and has quietly been one the best shooters in the league over the last three seasons. Injuries derailed him last year, but he can shoot the lights out, board OK and pass really well. He’d be a dream fit to come off the bench, lighten Dirk’s load and allow Barnes to swing between both forward spots and give him a break. Casspi has been playing on cheap deals for awhile now so he might be looking to cash in a bit more. The Mavs would be a much, much better team with him and I have a feeling this is where the Mavs go if they are indeed telling the truth about going low-key with their off-season.
Patrick Patterson, PF
Patterson is a nice stretch-four that could basically fill the role the Mavs have wanted Powell to fill. His defense has been solid in Toronto, although he got played off the court in the Raptors series loss to the Cavaliers. Patterson isn’t old (28) and he’d be a welcome addition, but he’s the type of addition that teams closer to contending than the Mavs make.
Jonas Jerebko, PF
This dude is somehow 30 and has been in the league since 2009. What the hell. He’s outside of the Mavs timeline, but he’s still pretty athletic and fits the mold of a swing forward to pair with Barnes and Noel in the frontcourt to keep Dirk’s minutes down. Wouldn’t be a bad fit if the years weren’t super long.
Cristiano Felicio, C
Just throwing this one in here for Machine. (He’s pretty damn good though).
Alex Len, C
Len just never showed enough consistency with the Suns to justify his top-5 pick in 2013, but he’s shown a helluva lot of flashes in that time. Len is probably outside the Mavs price range and being restricted will most likely keep the Mavs away. He’d be a fun semi-reclamation project, much like Wright was a couple years ago. Len would be a lot of fun off the bench and shore up the Mavs rebounding struggles.
There are definitely more names in this tier of players out there, but that’s a good list for now. Expect the Mavs to target the likes of these players and not ones the likes of Kyle Lowry and Jrue Holiday.
Alright fine, here are the potential big name targets
Even with all the evidence and logic pointing to the Mavs waiting out their timeline of their core for when maybe the Warriors have dropped down a peg from their demigod status, rumors of star free agents coming to Dallas will always swirl around the franchise whether they like it or not.
There have been whispers about Lowry, despite the drafting of Smith. Lowry would be a great fit with some concerns being on the wrong side of 30. With Smith in tow, it just feels like the Mavs won’t even take a meeting, despite some rumors, and that is absolutely the right call.
In other point guard news, there have been some rumors about Jrue Holiday since before the draft, including the combo of the Holiday brothers wanting to come to Dallas to play together. Holiday made a lot of sense pre-draft as the sort of attainable but talented target the Mavs could go after if they didn’t find a point guard in the draft. Now that they have Smith, it seems weird the Holiday rumors have still persisted a tad, even though it now appears he’s staying in New Orleans.
In a surprising twist, the Mavs appear interested in Serge Ibaka. This is a bit strange, considering a signing of Ibaka would mean either Ibaka is going from starting for a top-3 East team to coming off the bench for a lottery team in the West (not likely) or Dirk is ready to be a sixth man. A Barnes-Ibaka-Noel frontline would be pretty fun, especially with bench gunning Dirk, but Ibaka has lost a step in the last couple years, while some insiders claim he’s older than he’s listed at (for a 27-year-old, his athleticism has gone down pretty fast). Ibaka feels more like a courtesy call, I can’t imagine why the Mavs would empty all their cap space for him and tie their roster up to a team that would likely just toil around the seventh or eighth seed. The fit on the court is there, the logistics off it aren’t.
Embrace the quiet off-season
After years of the Mavs desperately chasing and failing to wrangle in a star free agent, this summer is a great feeling. For once, the Mavs can watch the other NBA teams stumble over each other trying to build a super team, quietly sitting back and sipping on their Smith-Noel tea.
It isn’t as exciting and I’ll admit I’ll miss the chase a tiny bit. But in the end, this is for the better. Dallas finally has a core they can actually build around that should be good post-Dirk and allow Dirk to have a fun little team in the final years.
Kick back and enjoy the summer.