Friday, May 24, 2013

The Mavericks' Poorly Thought Out Pursuit of Dwight Howard

The Dallas Mavericks find themselves in a weird situation.  They're coming off their worst season in the Dirk era, and are picking in the lottery for the first time since the late 90s.  The past season was disappointing, as a roster of middling talent, mostly aging veterans on short contracts, together with an ailing Dirk, cobbled together a 41-41 record and just missed out on the playoffs.

Owner Mark Cuban vowed after the season to rebuild the Mavericks as a legitimate contender in the West.  Nowitzki, coming up on the end of his contract, has publicly stated his willingness to take a huge pay cut to help put together a legitimate contender for his last few years in the league.  The team, overall, is in a great position to throw money at some big name free agents this off-season: the team only has $36 million in contract guarantees next season ($40 if OJ Mayo exercises his option, but he is expected to opt-out), which means they will likely have $22 million to play with before they even hit the salary cap, and $34 million before they move into the tax-payers bracket.

The team has made it no secret that they are going to do everything in their power to lure big name free agents.  That makes their first targets this off-season Chris Paul and Dwight Howard.  The received wisdom is that Paul will stay with the Clippers.  I will not even discuss that option here.

Rumors have been flying, however, that Cuban and Mavericks President and General Manager Donnie Nelson are in hot pursuit of Howard.  They have even let it be known that they are looking to sell their 1st round draft pick (#13) in order to clear space to sign Dwight.  This is likely a ploy to dump the contract of Shawn Marion on some team (or at least Vince Carter) in exchange for a younger, cheaper contributor.  The pick isn't seen to represent an immediately impactful player, and is thus expendable.

The whole pursuit of Dwight by the Mavericks seems somewhat troublesome.  First off, lets point out that the main competitors for Dwight appear to be Houston and Golden State.  Both of those teams have much better young talent to offer the Lakers in a sign-and-trade scenario than Dallas does, which is important, because Dwight is likely going to want to maximize his salary, and that can only come through a sign-and-trade.  Houston could offer Omer Asik, another young player (perhaps Donatas Montiejunas), and a future first rounder.  Golden State could offer Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes and a future first rounder.  The Mavericks, at best, could offer Shawn Marion, Jae Crowder, and this year's 13th, a decidedly inferior offer when compared to Houston and Golden State.

The second problem comes with Dallas' approach.  As they are unable to compete in the sign-and-trade scenario, they seem to be attempting to clear their books anyway possible in order to indicate to Howard their willingness to build around a Dwight/Dirk core.  There are four issues with this.  First, I fail to see how this is a better pitch than those offered by Golden State and Houston, two young teams that made playoff runs this past season and yet really only feature one dominant player, leaving ample room for Dwight as a face for the team.  Second, trading away pieces like Marion (older, sure, but still a productive player) and a lottery pick actually make the team worse, obscuring the potential competitiveness of the team in the minds of outside observers like Dwight.  Third, the idea of selling Dwight on being part of a core featuring an older player coming off an injury seems like a hard sell, considering his current situation with the Lakers, where the team struggled with injuries to older stars all season.  And fourth, if somehow the team manages to convince Dwight to come, it will have bound its hands in terms of cap space for the 2013-14 season unless it can unload Marion.  With Marion, Carter, Dwight and Dirk alone the Mavs would have almost $50 million tied up, leaving only $8 million left before the cap to pursue a starting caliber point guard and enough bench depth to make the team a legitimate threat.  This seems unlikely.  It becomes somewhat easier if they can swing trading Marion, but his contract seems just a little too large to pawn off so easily.

Altogether, then, there are some serious problems with the Mavericks' pursuit of Dwight.  The problem is, if they don't pursue Dwight, arguably the premier free agent of 2013, then what do they do to get better for next season?  Without a doubt, the free agent pool this off-season doesn't look particularly appealing.  However, that does not leave them without options.  If I am in the Mavericks' front office, I look at a few scenarios:

1.) Look into the possibility of trading for DeMarcus Cousins.  As Amin Elhassan points points out here, there are a multitude of reasons to believe the Kings will be looking to move Cousins.  Cousins could use a change of scenery and a more veteran locker room, and he looks likely to get that in Dallas.  Cousins could potentially be had for the #13 pick, Marion and Jae Crowder.  The advantage for the Mavs is that, given Cousins' reputation, he does not look likely to command a max contract in his restricted free agency year next summer, especially given how many good free agents will be available.  This means extending Cousins before the season starts could be done for potentially as little as $12-$13 million, a bargain for a center of his size and skill.  Overall, Cousins represents a smarter long-term investment than Dwight, given his fewer years in the league, his already comparable production, and the likelihood that he could be had for cheaper.

OR

1a.) If Cousins either is not available or cannot be had for what the Mavs can offer, pursue a big in free agency and draft a center or a small forward with the 13th pick.  Pursuing a big in free agency is an obvious decision.  If Cousins cannot be acquired, the team will need a solid anchor at the 5 for at least the next season or two.  Perhaps the most interesting 5 that is likely to be available this off-season is Marreese Speights.  Despite never really playing starters minutes, Speights has contributed with solid rebounding and defense in spite of being somewhat undersized for a center.  Speights could likely be had for somewhere in the $5-$7 million range, and at 25, could be with the franchise for a while.  Another option would be Timofey Mozgov.  Mozgov poses more of a risk, as he is less proven than Speights, but he is more of a true center in terms of size, and might be a better pairing with Dirk.  No matter who the team picks up as a free agent, they should then prioritize either a small forward or a center with the 13th pick.  Since the Mavericks are interested in competing right away, we can somewhat throw out the idea of them picking Dario Saric (as predicted in a number of mocks).  He likely won't be ready to come over for another year or two.  As such, he seems an unlikely target.  Instead, the Mavericks could consider Rudy Gobert, the center out of France who, though still needing to develop, looks much more ready to contribute this season than Saric.  Or they could consider Gorgui Dieng out of Louisville who, though offensively raw, could be a defensive presence in his first season.  Or they could consider someone like Tony Snell, who would likely be considered something of a reach but represents Kawhi Leonard-like upside and looks like he could contribute right away.

2.) Pursue a competent point guard.  The point guard play for Dallas was arguably their biggest weakness last season.  The team has options on Rodrigue Beaubois and Darren Collison, but it is widely expected they won't pick them up.  The team is reportedly pursuing free agents Jarrett Jack and Jerryd Bayless to succeed them.  I like the idea of Jack, but to me the free-wheeling Bayless does not fit the offensive scheme of a Dirk-centered offense.  Instead, the Mavs' front office should consider pursuing Jose Calderon or potentially Pablo Prigioni (if he becomes available).  Calderon would be ideal, with his quick but measured style of play seeming to complement Dirk's well.  Given his age, he might be had relatively cheaply (in the $5-$6 million a year range for 3 years), whereas the competition for the services of Jarrett Jack could get quite expensive and long-term in nature.  Whether they go Jack or Calderon, either would be a major improvement over last year's play at the position.

3.) Look for a catch and shoot 2 guard.  OJ Mayo, with his volume scoring potential, was not a good fit with the Mavericks last season.  Rick Carlisle's offense seems more catered to a shooting guard who is highly efficient, especially from the three, considering how often Dirk when healthy draws double teams in the high post.  While there aren't going to be a ton of free agent 2 guards this season and the competition for signing them will be fierce, there are a few to be had.  The obvious candidate would be JJ Redick.  Redick, however, might command big money in free agency, and might not be worth the terms of the contract for Dallas.  There are other options.  Catch and shoot expert Kyle Korver should be available at a relatively affordable price (probably the $3-$5 million range) and would represent a much lesser defensive liability than Redick.  After his recent, woeful playoff performance, Kevin Martin might be had for a relatively good contract (probably in the $7-$9 million range).  Finally, Gerald Henderson is in his RFA period, and depending upon how the draft goes in Charlotte, might be cut loose.  He would represent the best possible option, given his combination of age and shooting touch, but also likely the most hotly pursued player.

4.) Get deep by being 2013's version of the Miami Heat.  In order to compete in the NBA you need to have depth.  You need bench players who can contribute, who can provide a solid lift every night.  The Heat have created that depth in the past by pursuing veterans on relatively modest contracts with the promise that, at the very least, they would be competitors for the championship.  The Mavericks should sell themselves in a similar way to free agents this offseason.  Guys like Jose Calderon, Antawn Jamison, Chauncey Billups, Corey Maggette, Matt Barnes, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal and Samuel Dalembert could all be swayed by the chance to compete on a team that is looking to be a legitimate title contender.  These guys, while all past their primes, are solid contributors, and the infusion of just a few of them on the Dallas bench could potentially add a lot of potential to the team's chances to win.  Remember, the Mavericks have a pretty dry cupboard in terms of the roster next season, with only 5 players guaranteed, with three of those almost definite bench players.  Picking up some strong bench assets, then, becomes a priority for this team.


How does this leave the team?  Well, let's assume they succeed in the Cousins trade.  The roster, if all the steps are followed, looks something like this:

Center: DeMarcus Cousins ($12 million), Jermaine O'Neal ($1.5 million)
Power Forward: Dirk Nowitzki ($22.7 million), Antawn Jamison (probably around $2 million)
Small Forward: Matt Barnes (probably around $3.5 million), Jae Crowder ($1 million)
Shooting Guard: Kevin Martin (probably around $7 million), Jared Cunningham ($1.5), 2nd round draft pick ($1 million)
Point Guard: Jose Calderon (probably around $7 million), Chauncey Billups (probably around $2.5 million), Petteri Kaponen (rights held from earlier draft, probably around $1.5 million)

Team salary:  $63.2 million

That team projects to be competitive.  If given the right breaks, that team could even compete for a Western Conference Championship.  Would they beat the Heat?  That is debatable, though its pretty much a guarantee they'd be the underdog.  But it would feature some lights out outside shooters (Martin, Calderon, Billups), really strong interior presence players in Dirk and Cousins, and good perimeter defenders in Barnes and Crowder.

Say the Cousins trade falls through?  Then the team breaks down something like this:

Center: Timofey Mozgov (probably around $6 million), Gorgui Dieng ($1.5)
Power Forward: Dirk Nowitzki ($22.7 million), Antawn Jamison (probably around $2 million)
Small Forward: Shawn Marion ($9.3 million), Jaw Crowder ($1 million)
Shooting Guard: Kevin Martin (probably around $7 million), Jared Cunningham ($1.5 million), 2nd round draft pick ($1 million)
Point Guard: Jarrett Jack (probably around $9 million), (maybe Devin Harris, who can play both guard positions, at around $4 million)

Team salary: $65 million

This team still likely projects as a playoff contender, though more marginally.  It would likely scrap for a 7th or 8th seed, but the combination of Martin and Jack in the backcourt with Dirk playing some point forward (as he is wont to do) would be a fairly dangerous combination.  And the added bonus would be that the team would see at least $9 million coming off the books at the end of the season, and assuming Nowitzki takes a Duncan-esque hometown discount deal and signs for around $11 million, and factoring in the money coming off the books from Harris, Cunningham, and Jamison, the team would likely be able to offer a max contract to a free agent target in the stacked 2014 free agent class.

Both of these options, then, seem to be realistic alternatives to the pursuit of Dwight.  They make the team competitive (really competitive, I think, in the Cousins scenario) without tying the team down to Dwight's max contract, which is seemingly outside of their grasp anyway.  They also maintain enough flexibility that the team could feasibly pursue enough veteran pieces with which to surround Dirk that a championship doesn't seem entirely far fetched.

1 comment:

  1. As a Mavs fan, I'm very uneasy about our pursuit of Dwight Howard. He's past his prime and getting worse fast, and he's cripplingly immature. I don't think he's worth as much money as he's going to ask for. Bill Simmons just wrote a great column about why teams should be wary of signing Howard: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9308573/searching-dwight-howard

    It's true that the Mavs don't have much to offer in a sign-and-trade, but I think Howard will probably go wherever he wants, and I don't think anyone knows that (including him!).

    I didn't know Cousins was an option for the Mavs, and I'm thrilled to hear that. I've always liked him, despite his issues. I think he could be a top 15 player in the NBA if he's in the right situation. The Kings are a mess in so many ways, and he needs a new start. Getting players that are young and talented but have behavior issues is a pretty good gamble for teams with stable management and good coaching and veteran leadership. Dirk and Carlile could whip him into shape, and if he reaches his potential, that would be very exciting for the Mavs. My fingers are crossed!

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