The Mavericks are far closer to championship contention than most realize. They could credibly argue that they were the second-best team in the Western Conference last season. They finished with a higher net rating than a Western Conference finalist, the Denver Nuggets, and played the Los Angeles Clippers evenly in the postseason until injuries doomed their upset bid.
Yes, they were a No. 7 seed, but that was based primarily on random variance late in games. The Mavericks went 17-24 in games that included NBA-defined clutch situations… and 26-8 in games that didn’t. Most of the math suggests the former is essentially random. If you don’t trust that math, ask yourself this: do you really doubt Luka Doncic late in games? After what he did in the bubble? I didn’t think so.
Dallas didn’t expect to be this good, this quickly. After missing out on Kemba Walker in free agency, they pivoted into the long-game. The pre-pandemic Mavericks were projected to have max cap space in 2021, when Giannis Antetokounmpo becomes a free agent. Now they’re a move away, but shouldn’t struggle to create the space. That move would have been the priority if Dallas was a typical young team, but as we’ve covered, they weren’t. They were a contender disguised as a No. 7 seed, and they seem to recognize the opportunity before them.
All indications suggest that the Mavericks think they can win the championship right now. Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News reported that the Mavericks are not only willing to give up anyone besides Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis to get a third star, but that they’d consider cutting into 2021 cap space to do it.
Like the Raptors and Heat, that puts Dallas in an equally promising and precarious situation. The Mavericks are simultaneously recruiting and reloading, hoping to build a team capable of winning a championship right now and getting even better next summer. Their pathway to doing so is far simpler than Miami’s or Toronto’s, though, and this preview will explain why that is. So let’s dive into the NBA’s most promising roster and figure out how the Mavericks can balance their surprisingly optimistic present with their enormously bright future.
One note before beginning: We will be using Spotrac for player salaries, and 2019-20 cap numbers for this exercise as a whole. That includes previously agreed-upon numbers like the rookie scale and the minimum salary. A frozen cap is the likeliest outcome of negotiations between the league and the NBPA, but these numbers could theoretically change in either direction.
Under the assumption that the 2019-20 numbers will be used, these are the pertinent numbers for these projections.
Luxury tax apron
Non-taxpayer mid-level exception (Year 1)
Taxpayer mid-level exception (Year 1)
Cap room mid-level exception (Year 1)
Cap situation and overall finances
Technically, the Mavericks have a path to meaningful cap space right now. Tim Hardaway Jr. could credibly decide not to exercise his player option and enter free agency coming off of a season in which he was the third-leading scorer on the most efficient offense in NBA history. That would give Dallas something like $16 million to play with.
Tim Hardaway Jr.*
No. 18 pick
Don’t count on Dallas actually getting that cap space, though. Hardaway is likelier to opt-in and take his chances in a better 2021 market. That suits Dallas just fine. Given their own 2021 ambitions, the Mavericks were never going to pursue players in that price range like Fred VanVleet or Jerami Grant. They’d either have to use it to take on an expiring contract through trade or split that money up among several smaller free agents.
Neither option is more appealing than having Hardaway on an expiring contract and using the $9.3 million mid-level exception. Who would they target? Goran Dragic and Derrick Jones Jr. both need to be mentioned considering how close they came to being traded to Dallas last offseason, when Miami was clearing the space needed for Jimmy Butler. Neither seems especially likely now, though. If Dragic is willing to take a one-year deal, he’d do so in Miami, where his Bird Rights could get him more money. Jones is so young that he will almost certainly demand—and get—a long-term deal.
But Jones is the right kind of player here. By points per possession, the Mavericks just had the greatest offense in NBA history. Doncic’s presence ensures elite team scoring. Defense is the problem here. Dallas finished 18th on that end of the floor. A multi-positional perimeter defender would make the most sense here, as Dallas seems committed to the idea of playing Kristaps Porzingis at center. How about a reunion with Wesley Matthews, coming off of a stellar defensive season in Milwaukee? Mo Harkless makes some sense as well, though this is likely to be an area Dallas also considers on the trade market. If they offload anyone in a bigger deal, expect them to use the mid-level exception to try to fill that new hole.
The other assessment Dallas needs to start making is its place in 2021 free agency. Right now, it has around $84 million committed to eight players: Doncic, Porzingis, Powell, Wright, Kleber, Finney-Smith, Curry and Brunson. The good news is how deep that group is. All eight are capable of at least playing rotation minutes for a contender. The bad news is that, given the pessimism surrounding the 2021 cap, the Mavericks aren’t currently positioned for max space.
Factor in their No. 18 pick this season and the Mavericks are closer to $87 million in commitments for the 2021-22 season. Factor in three incomplete roster charges and they’ll likely enter next summer with somewhere between $89-90 million on the books. If the 2021 cap turns out to be where the 2020 cap was projected ($115) million, they’d have only around $25 million in space. Under that cap, Antetokounmpo would be eligible for a max deal starting at $34.5 million. Even if it rises to the original $125 million projection, that still wouldn’t be quite max space because the max is tied to a percentage of the cap. Dallas would have an extra $10 million in cap space, but Antetokounmpo’s 30 percent max contract would rise by around $3.3 million.
Put simply, Dallas has to start looking into its cap-clearing options. The obvious trade candidate here is Powell. Dallas already has plenty invested in two other big men, Porzingis and Kleber, and Giannis would render him even more redundant. He is coming off of a torn Achilles tendon, devastating to most players, but especially so to one as reliant on athleticism as Powell. Offloading his deal would almost certainly get the Mavericks to the max.
If they can’t find a taker (a reasonable possibility given his status and their limited draft capital), the stretch provision is likely option No. 2. Powell is owed around $22.8 million for the two seasons after this one. Waiving him with the stretch provision would allow Dallas to spread that money over the course of five years, lowering his 2021 cap hit by around $6.5 million. That’s not enough, but it’s a nice start.
Ideally, though, Dallas would probably prefer to avoid using the stretch provision. A Delon Wright trade is the other option here, and dumping him would create $9 million in savings. Not enough for the max, but so close that Dallas could somewhat easily find the rest of the space if it needed to. Worst case, Giannis or another star free agent might be willing to leave a couple of bucks on the table for the sake of team-building. Don’t be too surprised if Dallas winds up dealing Powell and Wright before 2021 free agency either. Given their recruiting power with Luka, they could likely do better than either with that extra space.
But there isn’t much urgency to make those moves yet. There will be dumping grounds in 2021, when more teams have cap space. The focus for now remains improvement, and they have a chance to do so in the NBA Draft.
Draft capital2020 picks: Nos. 18 and 31Owed future first-round picks: 2021 to New York (unprotected), 2023 to New York (top-10 protected 2023-25, becomes a second-round pick if it does not convey in that span). Incoming future first-round picks:
Townsend’s report included another important nugget: the Mavericks want to move into the lottery. They have the ammunition to do so. They’re close enough as it is at No. 18. Golden State’s second-round pick is arguably more valuable than a late first-round pick, as it is not subject to the rookie scale. If absolutely necessary, they do have tradeable future first-round pick in the bank: their 2027 selection, which is the only choice available thanks to the Stepien Rule’s interpretation of the protections on that 2023 pick. Throw in a player or two and the Mavericks should have some options here. The question is how high they can go.
No. 8 is probably the ceiling, if the Knicks are still even willing to deal with them after the backlash from the Porzingis trade. The New York Post’s Marc Berman has reported that they are open to moving down. They’d probably love to get their hands on Curry as well, given the lack of shooting around RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson. That is unlikely, but a picks-based trade is plausible here, especially if Dallas is willing to remove the protections on the 2023 pick they already owe New York. Phoenix at No. 10 is rumored to be preserving cap space. A trade down might make sense, especially if they’re targeting one of the many 3-and-D players in this class. Sacramento has lost so much draft capital in recent years that moving down from No. 12 to recoup some of it makes some sense for new GM Monte McNair.
Who would Dallas target in the lottery? Their roster construction would point to another 3-and-D wing. Both Florida State wings, Devin Vassell and Patrick Williams, fit the bill, and they, along with Isaac Okoro, are the players in that group that Dallas would probably need to move up for. Players like Aaron Nesmith, Desmond Bane, Josh Green and Saddiq Bey all make sense, but the Mavericks could probably get one of them at No. 18.
The wildcard names to watch here would be the big men. Damian Lillard exposed Porzingis’ weaknesses on the perimeter so thoroughly in the bubble that a look at Onyeka Okongwu might be warranted. Obi Toppin would be not only a replacement for Powell, but an all-around offensive upgrade. But both come with weaknesses Dallas probably isn’t interested in covering up, and both would become redundant on a Giannis team. Expect them to settle for one of the 3-and-D wings wherever they land based purely on need. Their trade options are significantly more complicated.
Dallas might want to find a third star, but that doesn’t matter if they can’t actually trade for one. We just went over how they could pool all of their draft capital for a single lottery pick. A single lottery pick in a weak draft probably isn’t netting a star. The ones it might all come with strings attached. Kyle Lowry and Gordon Hayward are on expiring contracts, for instance, but Lowry is 34 and Hayward is made of glass. Are either worth sacrificing all that remains of the war chest for when Doncic and Porzingis have years of contention ahead of them? Probably not.
Chris Paul would be a perfect fit as a secondary ball-handler and defensive improvement, but the cap gymnastics of acquiring him while maintaining anything close to max space in 2021 would be enormously difficult. Dallas would have to convince Oklahoma City to take on plenty of 2021 salary—likely Wright and Powell—while being prepared to stretch the final year of Paul’s deal if necessary. That’s too great a sacrifice for one year of improved championship odds. It just isn’t worth it in a league in which Dallas would still be underdogs against the Lakers.
Maybe a younger star like Jrue Holiday or Bradley Beal would be, but the Mavericks just don’t have the chips to get someone like that right now. Golden State, Brooklyn, Indiana and others are ahead of them in line, and that’s even assuming either is available. That’s no certainty either.
As badly as the Mavericks might want another star, it’s worth pointing out that, for now, they probably don’t need one. They just had the greatest offensive season in NBA history. The marginal value of another elite scorer is pretty limited. Typically, that value would come through staggering. Normal teams need more production when their best player goes to the bench. Dallas doesn’t. The Mavs outscored opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions when Doncic went to the bench. They should absolutely plan to add a third star eventually. Three stars are better than two. But why pay assets for an underwhelming star now when you can just sign a better one outright in a year? That argument might crumble if the Mavericks needed a third big name to contend next season, but there’s little evidence suggesting that’s the case. Dallas doesn’t need to jump the gun.
It needs defenders that won’t get in the way of their historic offense. Such players are significantly more attainable without getting in the way of anything else the Mavericks might do.
Here’s the easiest trade on the board: Hardaway for Danny Green. Dallas pursued Green in free agency last offseason but came up short. The Lakers need a third scorer. Green’s shooting numbers declined last season, but he has historically been quite good behind the arc, and remained a defensive difference-maker last season. Both are on expiring deals. Another 2019 target of theirs to watch is Patrick Beverley. The Clippers appear to be on the hunt for a point guard upgrade. If they find one and Beverley becomes expendable, Dallas could jump on that. His deal is not expiring, but it isn’t particularly long either as it expires in 2022. That’s manageable as either a cap dump or stretch candidate if needed. The Knicks might want to keep him around as a culture-setter, but Taj Gibson is still a valuable defender and one better-suited to perimeter duties than Porzingis. His contract isn’t even guaranteed for this season, though, so he could be waived into free agency. If not? He’s expiring. A bigger-ticket item on this front would probably be Aaron Gordon. He’d fill the voids on defense and in terms of front-court athleticism, but brings that extra dash of ball-handling and passing that Rick Carlisle loves in his role players. He expires in 2022, but is obviously enormously tradeable if Dallas needs to create space. His salary declines by almost $2 million for the 2021-22 season. If Dallas makes a splash trade this offseason, this is the sort of player to target: a non-star that fits their needs, their timeline and their cap sheet. The Mavericks could move him if Giannis gives the thumbs up. If not? They could hold onto him, use their significant non-max cap space elsewhere and still feel great about their future.
Based on what actually went wrong in Dallas last season, these are the sorts of additions that would make sense. If the right home run swing presents itself, it’s worth pursuing. Jrue Holiday is probably the floor here. But if you assume organic clutch improvement, getting the defense up to decent is all this team needs to win right away.
What would an ideal offseason look like?
The Mavericks are as aggressive as any team in the NBA, and the notion of waiting for free agency may justifiably scare them after years of misses. But those Dallas teams didn’t have Luka. This one does. Patience is a virtue he affords them. Their window is going to be open for a long time as long as they don’t prematurely shut it themselves. That is what an overzealous blockbuster could do. The Mavericks may not be guaranteed a star in 2021 free agency, but any scenario involving Doncic, Porzingis and max cap space is going to lead to a very good team. That is the version of this team Dallas should be trying to supplement.
Trading into the lottery does that. It gives them a better shot at a long-term starter on a rookie deal, which is all they need. A sure thing like Vassell would thrive in Dallas, where he wouldn’t be asked to do too much. Trading Powell or Wright now should be a goal as well, if the opportunity presents itself. It doesn’t need to be forced, but it’s a road the Mavericks are going to have to walk down eventually.
Otherwise? Only minor changes are needed for a serious run at the 2021 title. The Mid-Level Exception should provide at least one defensive upgrade. A trade could easily find another—with Green as the obvious target, even if it’s part of a bigger three-team deal that nets the Lakers a third star of their own. The Mavericks don’t need a top-five defense. They need an above-average one. That is the benefit of having the best offense in NBA history. The Mavericks are already closer to contention than most believe. If they manage the offseason properly, they’ll get there next season without sacrificing anything beyond.