Before the NBA offseason officially got underway a week ago, Dallas Mavs general manager Donnie Nelson prepped all of us for what was to come in the draft, potential trades and free agency. ... And perhaps on into next summer as well when the Giannis Antetokounmpo sweepstakes could commence.
"You know that we're always opportunistic and out there," Nelson told DallasBasketball.com on our Mavs Step Back Podcast when asked about any potential Mavs trade action leading up to the NBA Draft. "That being said, we do like our young core. We like what these guys have done and the direction the team is going. ... At No. 18, we're just going to get a really good player. At No. 31, this draft is deep, probably into the mid-30s, and even after that, there's some really interesting names. ... We think there's going to be two players that can really help us."
Not only did the Mavs end up with that 'really good player' at No. 18 in Arizona's Josh Green, but they also ended up with Stanford sharpshooter Tyrell Terry at No. 31, a player who Dallas thought would be off the board in the Top-20. And as far as being opportunistic goes? Well, the Mavs were just that, sending Seth Curry to the Philadelphia 76ers for two-way wing Josh Richardson, plus the No. 36 pick, which ended up being a promising young prospect in 6-foot-7 Tyler Bey from Colorado.
The Mavs improved enough on draft night that it alleviated some of the pressure the team might've had beforehand to do exceptionally well in free agency. When free agency finally opened over the weekend, Dallas didn't exactly knock the socks off of us with the moves that were made, but they were solid moves regardless, re-signing 'spark plug' point guard Trey Burke, who dazzled in the NBA 'Bubble' and versatile big man Willie Cauley-Stein, and signing wing project formerly of the Orlando Magic, Wes Iwundu (long-time Mavs 'good guy' J.J. Barea is also reportedly going to be back this season, although we tend to believe that role should've been as an assistant coach instead of a player at this point in his career). During this free agency period, Dallas was also able to shed Delon Wright's remaining two-year, $18 million contract off the books along with Justin Jackson in exchange for gritty veteran forward James Johnson on an expiring $16 million contract.
These might not have been the sexiest move the Mavs could've made, but the fact remains that Dallas became a better basketball team in the last five days than they were last season. A team with very little wing depth last season now all of a sudden has an abundance of it, as well as an improved defense.
That being said, though, why didn't the Mavs 'go for it' more than they did? Why not be willing to commit to contracts longer than two years with the second year being a team option? Although some aspects of free agency can be out of Dallas' control at times — as we saw yesterday with veteran big man Marc Gasol simply choosing to join LeBron James and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers instead of an up-and-coming Mavs team that hasn't quite arrived just yet — the short answer is that the Mavs didn't 'do more' because they want a potential signing of Giannis Antetokounmpo to go as smoothly as possible next summer. Whether we agree with that approach or not (we tend to believe that cap space can be created fairly easily as long as you don't have a crippling contract with Washington Wizards' John Wall on your roster), that's what's happening, so we might as well try to accept it for the time being, enjoy the ride, and see what becomes of it.
"We absolutely, 100% want to (chase 'win-now' moves), but we don't want to do it at the expense of doing something stupid," said Nelson. "We've got some really good, young, developing players. We aren't just going to throw those guys or draft picks aside and say goodbye to our future for a warhorse who's got one year left in the tank."
Now, call us conspiracy theorists if you want, but that statement from Nelson sure does seem like the beginning of a pitch to Antetokounmpo about eight months before he could hit the free agency market. The Bucks just traded for New Orleans Pelicans shooting guard Jrue Holiday.
In doing so, Milwaukee shipped out Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, three - yes, three! - future first-round picks, plus two pick swaps. Holiday is a really good player, and he's a player that would have fit exceptionally well next to Luka Doncic on this current Mavs team, but giving up that much in a trade for a guy who will turn 31 this season reeks of desperation from the Bucks front office.
As good as Holiday is, a two-year younger version of him wasn't enough to keep Anthony Davis from jumping ship and forcing his way to the Lakers, so we'd be naive to assume that this move will be the one that makes Antetokounmpo commit to a five-year supermax contract extension, one where Holiday would be 36 and possibly not around anymore by the time that contract is reaching its end (Holiday has a player option for next summer).
Holiday might be a ‘warhorse’ who actually has more than one year left in his tank, but the fact remains that Milwaukee had to overpay to get him.
Although Antetokounmpo has until December 21 to accept or decline his supermax extension, it has been nearly a full week now since he would've been able to sign the extension, and he hasn't done so yet, even with knowing that Holiday is on his way to Milwaukee. Perhaps the Bucks' mishandling of the Bogdan Bogdanovic sign-and-trade situation was enough to give him pause about committing long-term. Regardless of his reason, that Antetokounmpo hasn't signed yet (as we write this) has to be making Bucks' general manager Jon Horst sweat bullets right now.
The Mavs have monitored this situation for a while now, and as mentioned earlier, whether we like it or not, any moves made the rest of this offseason or before this season's trade deadline will be made with 2021 free agency in mind. The Mavs are already formulating what their pitch to Antetokounmpo will be, and that's the idea of creating a 'Big 3' in Dallas without having to gut the team's depth, a thing that is rare to accomplish.
If all things stay as they are from now until next summer, the Mavs now project to have enough cap space to sign Antetokounmpo outright without shedding any more salary. That would create the 'Big 3' of Doncic, Antetokounmpo and Kristaps Porzingis, while also having key role players still locked in place as well, including Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Jalen Brunson, Josh Green, Tyrell Terry and perhaps even Tim Hardaway Jr., who opted in to the final year of his contract last week, if he’d be open to signing the mid-level exception next summer. Being able to retain that kind of depth while also potentially putting together a monstrous trio is one of the perks to having an All-NBA First Team player and Top-4 MVP finalist on a rookie contract, plus having the vast majority of your key role players on team-friendly deals.
As it currently stands, the Miami Heat, a team also with hopes of luring Giannis, could have close to $50 million in cap space next summer if they don’t sign Bam Adebayo to an extension this offseason. Adebayo has watched as fellow stars in his draft class (Donovan Mitchell, De’Aaron Fox and Jayson Tatum) signed max extensions this offseason, and after helping the Heat make it to the NBA Finals this year, Adebayo should definitely apply some pressure to Pat Riley to give him his money now instead of taking a risk going into next season with no long-term security.
"We really, really are optimistic, and we like the path of building with (youth)," said Nelson. "But if there ever comes a time, whether it's today, next summer, or whenever, to get that over-the-top piece, we're certainly going to have to look hard at it."
Depending on what happens over these next four weeks, the Mavs' hopes and dreams of pursuing the 'Greek Freak' could come to a screeching halt with Antetokounmpo's pen meeting Milwaukee's paper.
Until then, though, the Mavs will do whatever they can to find that perfect balance between winning now and also putting the franchise in prime position to make the strongest pitch possible to Antetokounmpo in summer of 2021 when and if that time comes. A chance to have two top five players in the world play for your team doesn’t come around often. When your front office gets a sense that potentially pulling off a move of that magnitude might actually be possible, you chase that dream as long as you can, making sure not to 'do anything stupid' along the way.