For the past two summers, the Dallas Mavericks have had enough salary cap space to add a high-caliber free agent.
But two years ago, Deron Williams decided to re-sign with the Brooklyn Nets instead of coming home to play for the Mavericks. And last year Dwight Howard chose to sign a free-agent contract with the Houston Rockets instead of coming to Dallas..
This time the Mavericks hope the third time is indeed the charm in their quest to land a big free agent fish. But first they must address the needs of their own free agents.
Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, Devin Harris, Devin Blair and Bernard James are the six Mavericks who will become free agents July 1. Both sides have already said they hope things remain status quo. But at what cost to owner Mark Cuban?
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“I’m pretty sure I’m not going to sign Kobe’s deal,” said Nowitzki, referring to the two-year, $48 million contract the Los Angeles Lakers awarded Kobe Bryant last year. “We’ll find a good way where I feel respected for what I did and where we still have enough money left for us to get great players in here.
“[Cuban] has been great to me, has been loyal to me for a long, long time. I’m sure we’re going to find a great solution for everybody.”
Nowitzki, who turns 36 on June 19, earned $22.7 million this past season as the Mavericks continue to beat the bushes to try and make him their second-best player.
“To win a championship you have to have lots in that arsenal,” general manager Donnie Nelson said. “And certainly Mark is willing and gracious to spend as much as it takes — he’s proven that over the years.
“But the reality is we’ve got a [salary] cap and we’ve got to work within some confinement. And so, having players that can perform at a high level at decent numbers has its place.”
Because they didn’t spend fruitlessly when they were shut out of the big free agent race the past two summers, the Mavericks are well positioned under the salary cap to maintain their veteran nucleus, plus add a top-flight free agent. The NBA salary cap is slated to rise to around $63.2 million, leaving the Mavericks with approximately $30.5 million to spend.
If they choose to opt out of their contracts, players such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph would be free agents on July 1. Luol Deng, Pau Gasol, Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat and Lance Stephenson are among those who will become unrestricted free agents this summer.
The Mavericks went 49-33 this season, earned the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed and took No. 1 seed San Antonio to seven games in the first round of the playoffs. In Cuban’s championship or bust world — where there are 29 losers and one winner — that’s nothing to brag about.
“I told the guys that we have gotten better as a team,” Cuban said. “We will continue to get better. We will do everything to keep everybody together and we will go from there.”
Last summer the Mavericks went against the grain when they awarded Monta Ellis a three-year, $25 million free-agent contract. The gamble paid off as Ellis was an admirable fit for the Mavericks and wound up averaging 19 points and a team-high 5.7 assists a game in the regular season, and a team-high 20.4 points in the playoffs.
Coach Rick Carlisle said he believes Ellis can take a “quantum leap” next season, and he vows to help him get there.
“I just believe that there are places his game can go and get even better,” Carlisle said. “He and I are going to spend some time together this summer working on some things and just keep pushing it.”
It’s also imperative that the Mavericks re-sign Harris, who had his verbal three-year, $9 million free agent contract with the Mavericks pulled off the table last summer when they discovered issues with his left foot, which eventually was surgically repaired. Harris wound up signing for the veteran minimum of $1.3 million, but was effective enough this season to earn a bigger payday.
“It was a pretty complex negotiation the last time,” Harris said. “I agreed to three years initially, so I would kind of want it somewhere in that area.
“I’ve had a good relationship with the guys throughout this whole process. If everything goes like it’s supposed to, I expect to be back.”
Marion, who made $9.3 million this past season and expects to take a sizable reduction wherever he plays, said money won’t be the guiding light in his free agent decision.
“It’s not about money right now,” said Marion, who turns 36 today. “I’ve made a lot of money in my career. I’ve been truly blessed. I’ve just got to weigh my options.”
Carter also is weighing his options. Yet he knows if the Mavericks stop re-shuffling the deck — they brought in eight new players two years ago and nine new ones last summer — they could establish some continuity and perhaps move into the NBA’s elite class.
“I think if we keep this core together good things can happen because we know each other,” Carter said. “It’s not like trying to figure each other out.”
Nelson already has one thing figured out. And that’s to try and keep as many of his own free agents as possible.
“But that being said, yes, there are some free agents that at the right time we’ll take a look at those,” Nelson said. “We understand that Dirk does need help and that he needs a shot in the arm.
“Monta’s been just a terrific addition, as are the rest of the guys in that locker room, but [Nowitzki] can’t do it alone like he did in the old days. The middle ground is to get him the kind of help he needs and also do the right thing by him and the career that he’s had here in Dallas.”