- The Mavericks are facing life without Dirk Nowitzki. But are they built for the future?
While the NBA playoffs are still going, the 2017 off–season is rapidly approaching for many teams with massive decisions to make. CBA expert Danny Leroux breaks down the major challenges and opportunities for the Dallas Mavericks in The Crossover's NBA Summer Preview series.
Last summer, Dallas had one of the more successful off-seasons in the league. Outside of overpaying big man Dwight Powell, they were able to bring in Harrison Barnes on a max contract, Andrew Bogut via trade and Seth Curry on an excellent two-year deal. On top of that, they were one of the few teams able to make multi-year minimum signings on players who contributed last season in Dorian Finney-Smith and eventually Yogi Ferrell.
While the Mavericks missed the playoffs last season, those moves have helped set the table for a more competitive 2017–18 campaign. Another key addition came later in the season, as they traded what became two second round picks for Nerlens Noel at the trade deadline. While it was not always smooth sailing with Noel and head coach Rick Carlisle, he adds dynamism to Dallas’s defense and should be a successful roll man who can benefit from Dirk Nowitzki spacing the floor.
While last season’s transactions were significant, the Mavericks front office still has plenty of work to do in order to maximize Nowitzki’s remaining time in the NBA and line up a relevant, competitive team to take the mantle once he retires. Fortunately, they have some opportunities to make that happen.
Here are three key storylines to watch for the Mavericks this off-season:
Nerlens Noel: Dallas set up their biggest summer expenditure at the trade deadline when they acquired the shot-blocking center from the 76ers. Noel will be a restricted free agent and his injury history plus the seeming inevitability of a Mavericks match could chill the market for him. However, Portland’s max offer sheet to Enes Kanter in 2015 shows the other side of this scenario and it only takes one team to make the talented big man substantially more expensive. One other factor to consider is that Noel will assuredly make more than his $11 million cap hold and that raise will likely take up most of the $20 million between the salary cap and the luxury tax, putting the team on the edge of the tax if Noel makes close to his maximum.
No. 9 Pick: The Mavericks should have some fascinating talent on the board at No. 9, likely at a variety of positions. French point guard Frank Ntilikina could be a worthwhile project for coach Rick Carlisle while Lauri Markkanen can become their next seven-foot shooter and Zach Collins could play with either starting big man. Plus, it is entirely possible someone higher on draft boards falls to them and changes the decision-making process. It is fair to expect that this choice, Barnes and Noel (if retained) will be the key pieces for the post-Nowitzki teams so general manager Donnie Nelson should feel significant pressure to get it right.
Dirk Nowitzki: Last summer, the Mavericks ended up giving their star more money and that extra salary led the two sides to change the 2017–18 component of that contract from a partial guarantee to a team option. Dallas will reap the rewards of that shift now, because it allows the team to decline the option, renounce Nowitzki and then bring him back at a more reasonable rate. Depending on what he is willing to accept, that could open up cap space for another rotation player or possibly even a starter. It will also be interesting to see what kind of contract the two sides agree upon because they will have a challenging off-season in 2018 as well.
Potential Free Agents: Dirk Nowitzki ($25m Team Option), Nerlens Noel (Restricted), Devin Harris (Partial Guarantee), Yogi Ferrell (Team Option), Dorian Finney-Smith (Non-Guaranteed), Salah Mejri (Non-Guaranteed), DeAndre Liggins (Team Option) and Nicolas Brussino (Non-Guaranteed)
Likely Summer of 2017 Cap Space: $19.8 million
Realistic Maximum Summer of 2017 Cap Space (using $101M estimate): $23.6 million
2017 Draft Assets: Own first round pick (9th overall) but no second round selection (traded to Philadelphia for Noel).
Potential Targets: Assuming the key free agents return, Dallas’s cap space will depend on Nowitzki’s salary and how close Mark Cuban is willing to get to the luxury tax line both now and moving forward. Assuming they have about $10 million to work with, the ideal solution would be adding another wing or power forward, depending on whom they draft. Dion Waiters would be an intriguing fit in Carlisle’s offense but may be above their price point, leaving a narrow selection of players ready to contribute now and in the future. Another compelling option would be Spurs swingman Jonathon Simmons, who could be the eventual replacement for Wesley Matthews though he is only three years younger.
Pressure Scale: 5. The Mavericks have match rights on their biggest free agent and Nowitzki has been amenable to lowering his salary to fit in better teammates before. Even so, they will need to use their remaining flexibility wisely to set up both the 2017–18 campaign and their future without Nowitzki. The front office will have to balance those priorities though the best fits will work in both timeframes. Still, those challenges are substantially more manageable than those bedeviling most of their competitors.
State of the Franchise: Improving, incrementally. Dallas started last season 2–13 but played respectable basketball after December 1. We do not know how much longer Nowitzki will play but it makes sense for the Mavericks to compete for that stretch as long as it does not come at a significant future cost. Signings like Barnes and Curry mesh well with that vision, and those opportunities should be easier to come by in a more tepid free agent market. Deciding on Noel and drafting the right player are higher on the marquee for a reason, but adding appropriate depth pieces will be crucial as well. Dallas finished eight games under .500 and will need a successful summer to bring the playoffs into their reach.