It was only a matter of time before we started to hear more about the Mavericks free agent plans, and The New York Times’ Marc Stein dropped a somewhat hefty nugget in his newsletter on Tuesday.
In response to a mailbag question about the Mavericks interest in Nikola Vucevic, Stein said he didn’t think there was much there and instead noted the Mavericks plan to chase both Khris Middleton and Kemba Walker “with gusto.”
Here’s the full blurb from Stein:
The Mavericks are still formulating their free-agent plans, based on what I know, but I didn’t see Vucevic as a primary target for them when you asked a while back — and that position holds.
Shooters, athleticism and veterans are said to be Dallas’ priorities to supply the budding star tandem of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis with some been-there wisdom.
There has been no indication to date that the Mavericks will get a sniff from the Kevin Durant/Kawhi Leonard/Kyrie Irving tier of free agents. I likewise continue to believe that Golden State’s Klay Thompson is 100 percent staying put with the Warriors and will not consider external suitors.
But league sources say that the Mavericks intend to fling themselves into the chase for Khris Middleton and/or Kemba Walker with gusto in hopes that they have a shot at one of them.
Wings with two-way ability figure to be another emphasis if Dallas is unsuccessful in pursuit of the big names.
Middleton has turned himself into one of the better two-way wings in the league with the Bucks, expanding his offensive game while remaining a stout defender. Walker turned himself into a premier guard with the Hornets, exploding as a shot-maker and creator over the last handful of seasons.
Would these guys come to Dallas?
Walker’s free agency is a little complicated — if he makes an All-NBA team this season, he’ll be eligible for the supermax from the Hornets. The supermax was put in place to help teams have more ammo to keep their stars as superteams started to form around the league, but it’s almost been a hindrance. John Wall and Russell Westbrook are turning into cautionary tales as teams are now fearful of tying up so much money into one player. So if Walker makes an All-NBA team, there’s a chance the Hornets could balk.
Middleton is more unrealistic. He’s a two-way wing in a league that is desperate for them, playing on a team with the best record in the NBA next to a likely MVP winner in a small market. The Bucks are not a free agent destination, so they can’t just reload when they want to. It makes sense for Milwaukee to lock down this team, which is still pretty young, to claim the throne left in the Eastern Conference by LeBron James’ departure. It just doesn’t make any sense to start getting cheap with a team that just broke through.
While neither are in the tier of Durant and Irving, they’re still likely pie-in-the-sky targets for a Mavericks team that has been absolutely horrible the past eight years in big-time free agency.
Can the Mavs ever land a big free agency target?
Of course, there are also some reasons to believe things are different this time. The Mavericks aren’t selling free agents on an aging star and team culture — they’re selling them on a 20-year-old star in waiting who loves to pass and a 23-year-old all-star big. The cupboard is not as bare as prior Mavs free agent pitches.
At the very least, these players fit what the Mavericks want to do. Middleton is the dream wing fit next to Luka — a big-time defender, great shooter and enough ball-handling chops to share the burden when Luka gets doubled or is on the bench. Walker fits as a shooter and secondary creator and lets Jalen Brunson continue to develop without having to pressure him with a starting job. Of the two, Walker is definitely the riskiest — he’d be 32-years-old by the end of his contract and small guards don’t age well. While he works hard on defense, he’s not a plus on that end. With Walker, Brunson and likely J.J. Barea, the Mavericks would have three point guards that you wouldn’t call stoppers, which means the Mavs would have to find some perimeter defense elsewhere to put next to Luka.
Walker is also a culture-setter, and while that can’t be quantified directly, don’t discount how much the Mavericks could use that with the vacuum created by Dirk Nowitzki’s retirement. Having someone like Walker in the room with Doncic and Porzingis could be good for the duo to develop as leaders of a franchise.
Seeing is believing
Still, I’m not convinced this is where Dallas needs to spend their summer focus. If history holds true, Walker and Middleton will just use the Mavericks as leverage to secure the contract they want with the team they actually want to play for, as has been the case for the last eight years. There is nothing in the Mavericks history to suggest that pursuing these guys will result in anything but eventual shoulder shrugs and once again scraping the bottom of the free agent barrel.
If I had my way, the Mavericks wouldn’t bother with either of these guys — the Mavericks are much better working the B and C-level free agents and those type of players could be valuable (and cheaper) next to Luka and Porzingis, biding time till maybe the Mavericks can push through to the playoffs and are a much more attractive destination.
Basically, I’ll believe it when I see it. But at least the team’s thinking is in the right place in terms of needs. Don’t get me wrong, I’d do backflips over a Middleton signing, I’m just not ready to start believing Dallas is a destination until the Mavericks win some more games.