DALLAS - It seems as though it has become an annual event. The Dallas Mavericks get linked to some big names ahead of free agency all for those pipe dreams to end with role players as the headliners.
The Mavericks have placed a premium on recruiting after moving on from former general manager Donnie Nelson. With former Nike executive Nico Harrison now running the show, the team is counting on their success to improve in this department.
One player, in particular, that will take such recruiting expertise is NBA superstar Kawhi Leonard, who is set to reach unrestricted free agency this offseason. The Mavericks recently were linked to Leonard as a potential suitor in the free agency.
And reports now dot the landscape connecting Dallas to Leonard.
From Marc Stein: "The most likely scenario, league sources say, remains Leonard opting out to re-sign with the Clippers — or, in Steve Ballmer’s worst nightmare, to shock the league by signing elsewhere. ... Dallas, just to name one expected suitor, will not be dissuaded from pursuing Leonard even if he’s forced to miss all of next season, league sources say.
According to The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor, the Mavericks and Miami Heat plan to make a 'hard push' to sign Leonard in free agency. That comes with little surprise since both teams have been waiting for the summer of 2021 to go after star players.
The Mavericks and Heat plan to make a hard push to acquire Leonard, league sources say. The Knicks will also pursue any superstar that becomes available, and a long list of other suitors would at least make an attempt if he hits the market. Who wouldn’t want a 30-year-old two-time Finals MVP still performing at an All-NBA level?
The intriguing element of O'Connor's report lies in the fact that some league executives view the Mavericks as the 'most serious threat' to sign Leonard. Of course, if he were to leave the Clippers.
Dallas is considered by some executives to be the most serious threat to land Kawhi because of Luka Doncic’s presence and the front office’s ability to create maximum cap space or work out a sign-and-trade. During Leonard’s years with Nike, he also developed a good relationship with Nico Harrison, the Mavs’ new general manager and a former longtime executive at the company.
The relationship that Leonard has with now Mavericks general manager Nico Harrison is considered a key reason as to why Leonard would choose Dallas. It's not make-or-break for Harrison as GM to come away with Leonard, but it could set the tone in a major way if he proved to be successful in doing so.
If the Mavericks were to actually convince Kawhi Leonard to come to Dallas, here's everything to know between his potential fit and how it would impact the lineup:
How Kawhi Leonard Would Fit Next To Luka Doncic
It's no secret the Mavericks sorely lack an additional offensive threat they can turn to in order to alleviate some pressure off of Luka Doncic. That proved to be too much to overcome in the 2021 NBA playoffs.
Tim Hardaway Jr. did an admirable job of stepping up in important moments, but regardless, he was doing most of his damage off-the-catch. He was ineffective operating out of ball screens and no Maverick outside of Doncic was an isolation threat.
The Clippers were able to drastically change the trajectory of the series by shifting to small ball and switching everything. Doncic had to go up against a large wing with length that can make it tough to get downhill off-the-bounce.
Instead of being able use a ball screen and attack a big man in drop coverage like Ivica Zubac, Doncic had to work hard for his scoring opportunities against the switches. Much of this was also due to Doncic having to attack Leonard directly.
The small ball switch-everything scheme would not have been possible if it weren't for Leonard's defensive impact. However, in this portion of the analysis, the focus is on the fact that Dallas did not even have an alternative option to turn to in these moments.
Kristaps Porzingis was thought of as being the No. 2 star alongside Doncic when the trade was made. He was unable to live up to that expectation against the Clippers as his weaknesses were magnified.
Leonard is one of the NBA's elite isolation scorers due to his stunning consistency across the board. There may not be a better player in the NBA at operating around the nail or along the baseline given his strength to get to the rim, massive hand size to finish, and, of course, off-the-dribble shooting.
There isn't much a defense can do when Leonard attacks from above the break. There is a respect level required by the defender for the pull-up from deep, but even if given space, Leonard can back the defender up in mid-range. When getting downhill, he can raise up shoot, take a turnaround, or use his first-step to get to the rim.
While Leonard is not Kevin Durant from beyond the arc, he is a reliable pull-up shooting threat that can hit a step-back when needed. There's no greater example of this than when he knocked down multiple clutch stepbacks against the Mavericks in Game 6.
As far as pick-and-roll ball handling is concerned, Leonard has improved his playmaking ability while also being a dynamic scoring threat. He has become very consistent in his execution as a pull-up shooter, particularly inside the arc.
Teams who deploy drop coverage against ball screens are at the mercy of Leonard's pull-up shooting within the gap. Turning what typically is a mathematical advantage for the defense into a disadvantage can change the fabric of the Mavericks' offense.
One of the most limiting elements of the Mavericks' half-court offense is the lack of a secondary pick-and-roll scoring threat. Tim Hardaway Jr. can convert at times on pull-up jumpers, but he is not the type of talent to frequently get to the rim and convert with great efficiency.
The opposite is the case with Leonard. Whether there's a rim protector in the paint waiting to pressure a finish or not, he uses a patient approach in terms of pace coupled with his strength and ability to finish on the way down to score at a high clip.
Think about the possibilities for the Mavericks...they could have Leonard set ball screens for Doncic (or vice versa) and take full advantage of matchups in ways that would put the defense consistently in disadvantaged situations.
Having one star in the lineup reduces the options to create favorable matchups without spamming ball screen plays. With two, the Mavericks could use off-ball screen actions to force soft switches and also create favorable lanes to attack.
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Similar to Doncic, Leonard is also a reliable post-up scoring threat. Both players have a combination of physicality and finesse that enable them to bully smaller players while also being able to get the job done against bigger wings, too.
Another prime example of the benefit of being able to start a star player off-the-ball throughout possessions lies in the use of handoffs. Leonard is able to pick his spots in these sequences for both mid-range jumpers and finishes around the basket. Doncic could be involved more in these areas with another star.
Leonard has immensely improved his consistency as a spot-up shooter and was actually among the NBA's most efficient last season. He would bring yet another knockdown shooter around Doncic but one that can also attack off-the-catch.
The Clippers did not have a facilitator near the level of Doncic either yet Leonard still produced such impressive results in spot-up situations. Imagine how many easy opportunities each player would get by playing within the flow of the offense together?
There would be so much scoring versatility for a lineup that features Leonard alongside Doncic. Perhaps the greatest benefit of all would be in how Leonard is one of the top on-ball defenders that can handle top assignments and be disruptive as help defender.
How Would The Lineup Change?
Signing a player to a max contract is rarely something a team can do outright without renouncing some cap holds or making some salary dump trades. The Mavericks would have some work to do if they sought to sign Kawhi Leonard and keep Tim Hardaway Jr.
Hardaway Jr. carries a $28 million cap hold and the Mavericks would need to get a new deal done with him to lower that figure, or renounce it altogether.
There surely will not be a team looking to pay Hardaway Jr. nearly $28.4 million annually on his next contract. It would surely take less for the Mavericks to bring him back, which makes it merely a matter of order of options in the big picture.
Let's say Hardaway Jr. were to sign a deal that pays him $22 million during the 2021-22 season for the sake of simplicity. The Mavericks would then have $113 million in total salary cap obligations without factoring in Leonard's contract or smaller cap holds. This factors in Josh Richardson's $11.6 million player option.
The most the Mavericks can offer Leonard is a four-year, $169.2 million deal, which puts him well north of $40 million per season. Dallas would need to offer every penny of that in order to get the job done but would be over the salary cap by a massive margin.
This would become a matter of dumping players like Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber, and Josh Richardson (if he opts-in) to trim down on salary in order to get below a threshold to acquire Leonard.
The Clippers likely would not find the pieces the Mavericks have to offer in a sign-and-trade all that intriguing. Counting on them wanting to take on multiple overpaid role players is not the best strategy.
In this situation, the Mavericks would likely need to decide between keeping Kristaps Porzingis or Tim Hardaway Jr. Of course, that assumes that Hardaway Jr. would not be signing elsewhere before Dallas has a chance to get something done.
Of course, if salary dumping Porzingis is what's needed to get done in order to make room to sign Kawhi Leonard and comfortably field a supporting cast...that gets done every time.
The Mavericks would need to involve Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber heavily in order to make up for moving on from Porzingis.
Is Kawhi Leonard Even A 'Realistic' Option?
There is no higher-profile NBA player who is set to reach free agency this offseason than Kawhi Leonard. There will be no shortage of suitors who aim to make an aggressive push for his services but not all will have enough appeal to get it done.
It's still expected that Kawhi Leonard will return to the LA Clippers, but regardless, there's an intriguing case to be made as to why Leonard should strongly consider signing with the Mavericks.
The priorities that Leonard holds entering free agency will determine where each team stands. If his main goal is to win a championship, teaming up with the best possible player he can should rank atop the list. In that instance, it would be Luka Doncic, who has earned All-NBA First-Team honors in consecutive seasons.
Dallas is an attractive NBA city but isn't in the same tier as Los Angeles or Miami for most players. However, one area where the Mavericks will hold an advantage over the Clippers lies in the no state income tax department.
While California does have substantially higher taxes than Texas, it's important to keep in mind, the Clippers could offer Leonard more than any other team. He can receive a four-year, $176.2 million contract if he were to opt-out of his player option and sign a new deal.
Leonard has the option of signing a two-year max contract with the Clippers with the final season being a player-option. This would then enable him to sign a five-year, $235 million contract after declining that option next offseason.
The Mavericks would need to highly intriguing due to basketball reasons in order to entice Kawhi Leonard to sign, not due to the benefit of having no state income tax.
Perhaps Leonard takes a look at how the Mavericks nearly eliminated his Clippers team without a co-star and views playing in Dallas with Doncic as a prime opportunity to contend for a third title?
When Leonard moved on from the Toronto Raptors after winning the NBA Finals, the primary motivation was to head home to California. However, another factor that should be mentioned is how the title run itself was a bit of a fluke.
It took an incredible game-winning shot from Leonard in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals to lift the Raptors over the Philadelphia 76ers. There were multiple season-ending injuries from the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, too.
Needless to say, that's not diminishing the Raptors' championship run. It was highly impressive and every title run has some factors that had to go the winning team's way. Where the question arises is in whether Leonard felt as though the team could legitimately repeat.
Could Leonard feel this way about the Clippers reaching the Western Conference Finals? Also, is winning championship most important to him? Better yet, does he feel as though the Clippers give him the best chance to get it done?
Those are questions that only Leonard can answer ... but NBA insiders certainly think there are indeed questions about the identity of his future employer.