MAVNALYSIS: Mavs Prioritize 6 Free Agents
In the best of times, the NBA draft approaches wrapped in a lottery of uncertainty. Free agency has yet to further define needs, though plans have begun to take shape based on the finite nature of the known (such as cash and/or cap space, mid-level exceptions, and bi-annual exceptions); as well as the less than known but relatively quantifiable assets (such as tradable commodities).
Amidst a tangle of scouting reports, often speaking in a near contradiction of prediction, teams selecting beyond what is seldom more than a small handful of "surefire" prospects are left to gamble on everything from projects featuring the ever tantalizing dreams of upside, to those who may be further along the process of development capable of filling an immediate need.
For the NBA, these are not the best of times.
The lockout looming over the process has rendered what is already a science that often feels as accurate as predicting the day-to-day weather a year in advance to something along the lines of forecasting the weather from hour to hour on June 23rd in the year 2547.
With the fog around the ongoing collective bargaining negotiations, teams have stalled from re-signing their own free agents, much less understanding what their reservoirs will hold to lure outsiders in. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than with the newly crowned champion Dallas Mavericks.
"In an ideal world, we keep it intact and make another run,'' Mavs GM Donnie Nelson says. "(But) none of us knows what the market will be like. We're in a holding pattern.''
Six players with varying levels of importance, though all with significant contribution to the just-concluded title run are left to the murky lockout-stirred waters of the future, including three that started at least one game in the Finals: Tyson Chandler, JJ Barea, DeShawn Stevenson, Brian Cardinal, Peja Stojakovic and Caron Butler.
The loss of any of these players can drastically change the face of the team, as well as alter the perceived needs to be addressed in the draft, which arrives Thursday, quickly on the heels of so much other Mavs news. Due to the implications, and with the guidance of some whispers from Mavs HQ, let's take a peek into who may or may not wear a Dallas uniform next season:
We'll begin with a man who has leapt to the forefront of many team's wish lists: Tyson Chandler. There's no doubt, as the celebration of a championship continues to roll on, that both sides would love this marriage to carry forward.
Chandler was the perfect fit for the Mavs, both on the court and in the locker room. He provided the defensive prowess, fed by a rare athleticism and quickness for players of his size, to protect the interior of a team that has long starved for such a presence. As Rick Carlisle noted after the season, his voice raised accountability, energy and simple communication among the players.
What Chandler provided, in essence, was an extremely efficient safety net the defense as a whole often leaned heavily on. If one were to define the ideal center for this Mavs roster, short of Dwight Howard, the starting point would now be Tyson Chandler.
Yet, this is a union that has its future cast in the shadows of a possible hard cap, along with what will undoubtedly be a long line of suitors willing to match almost any contract demand required to land a center who will turn 29 just before next season is currently scheduled to begin.
Right now, we can only speculate on everything but the clear desire of both sides to remain together. Unfortunately, this leaves a lot of room for doubt, for the minutia to slip in the wrong direction. Even the consistently willing pockets of Dallas owner Mark Cuban may be removed from the equation, depending on the laws of the new CBA.
As we have already stated, TY's $12.75 million salary from last season serves as the basis for what his agent will want to request going forward. …but still, it depends.
If Chandler cannot be retained – and he will have many suitors -- the entire picture changes for the Mavs. This is nothing against Brendan Haywood, who played well in the playoffs and was brought to Dallas and then re-signed to be a starter, or the future of Ian Mahinmi, who filled in nicely after Haywood was injured in the Finals. However, few would maintain the Mavs would be in their current situation, fresh off a parade, without Chandler.
Next Man Up: JJ Barea.
As the Lakers and Heat came to understand, Barea's size belies his capacity to impact a game. Though not a great defender, he is able to pester opposing point guards into mistakes, particularly into throwing their forearm out to create space, earning an offensive foul in the process. On offense, the raw knack for scoring he's always shown evolved into something new.
In the past, teams with athletic bigs were able to take away or extremely limit his penetration. This season, thanks to a better awareness of the passing lanes, a perfected floater and an improved proficiency with converting shots thrown high off the backboard, even squads known for defense found themselves unable to contain him for extended periods.
Additionally, rather than just beating his man off the dribble, JJB actually improved during the season (a sometimes difficult trick) as a pick-and-roll weapon. He may now be Dallas' most capable small in the p-and-r.
Barea was integral to Dallas' playoff success, and soon to turn 27, he is far from old. The question must be, did this success price him out of the Mavs' reach? Is it unreasonable to assume someone may offer him more than twice what he made last year ($1.8 mil?) Maybe $4 or $5 million a year, or more?
Is there room for Kidd ($8.5 million next season), Jason Terry ($11.4 million next season), Roddy Beaubois ($1.2 million next season), Dominique Jones ($1.2 million next season) and Barea at as much as $5 mil?
Beyond the possible constraints of any new cap, the Mavs willingness to match other offers may signify just how deep their faith runs in their unproven youngsters (Roddy and Jones), as well as their assessment of the point guards likely to slip to them at the 26th spot in Thursday's draft.
If they truly believe Roddy B will be ready to take a major step next season, it's reasonable to assume they would view him, at $1.2 million, a more viable option than Barea at three to four times that amount – and that doesn't even count JJB's stated desire to "be a starter one day.''
JJB wants to remain in Dallas and enjoys serving in his present role. But this is another example where "chemistry'' and "bonding'' and "friendship'' clash with business.
In the case of Barea, the CBA-related delays may be a blessing. Required here is further evaluation of what Beaubois is ready to do. (And maybe what Euro-stashed Nick Calathes is ready to do as well.
The Wildcard: Caron.
Some may seek to discount the only Mavs free agent to see no playoff minutes, but he may also be the most accessible player to provide a clear path to marked improvement: Caron Butler.
From those around the Mavs, to those who simply take a moment to listen within the organization, it's evident that Butler was a true member of this team, and a part of what helped them end the season hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy. His persistent focus on tireless rehab, to the voice he added in maintaining player accountability, to the toughness that surrounds a guy willing to grab his kneecap and shove in back in place to walk from the court in front of his family and friends after suffering his season-ending knee injury; Caron was a significant piece of this team's spirit, determination, resiliency and insurmountable will … and he seemed to be finding his stride as the second-best offensive option when he went down.
"Caron is part of the fabric,'' they all say.
Having missed the final 53 games of the regular season and the entire playoffs, there stands a chance that Butler can be signed for something less than his worth, though the shadow of his injury will linger until proven otherwise. Without knowing the boundaries of any new collective bargaining agreement, this may make Butler a more likely signing than either of the above players.
If the money ends up being similar and you only have room for one, who do you sign: Caron Butler or JJ Barea? Leaving money out of it, as of this moment, know that the Mavs view JJB as the "known commodity'' and as someone who fills a position of need ... and that neither tag applies to Caron.
Caron made $10.8 mil last year and the Mavs were comfortable with him at that number. They also passed on the chance to trade away his expiring contract. Our impression is that there is an "understanding'' here, that both sides would like to "reward'' each other for their faith and loyalty … and that while JJB's contract may double, Caron could end up returning as a financial bargain.
Butler will likely tell management he wants the commitment of multiple years. Carlisle will tell management something, too: He wants Tuff Juice back.
Mavs fans likely fully understand the underlying reasons why, but just in case, peruse this interview Butler just did with his hometown paper in Racine ...
Butler didn't stop crying there, either. More than 20 minutes later, while his giddy teammates were wildly celebrating in the Mavs' locker room, a teary-eyed Butler slumped over by a locker, away from the madness. He pulled out his cell phone and called the one person whom he so desperately wanted to share this special moment.
"I told her, ‘Momma, we got it ... Momma, we got it,' " Butler said his call to his mother, Mattie Paden. "She's been with me the whole way. "People don't understand what it took to get here. People have the assumption that athletes are talented and this just happens. It doesn't. "She saw the countless hours of sacrificing, the around the clock work, the battling through adversity. "She remembers all the times at the Dr. John Bryant Center and at Stephen Bull. She remembers all the times I was imitating Michael Jordan in the Finals.
"She used to let me stay out playing basketball until the street lights came on and then I had to be on the (house) porch. "She knows what this championship means to me. It's been a long journey."
That sort of passion, properly channeled, is why Carlisle wishes for Caron's Dallas journey to continue.
The Buddy System: The Custodian.
Thrust into the spotlight when Carlisle removed Peja from the NBA Finals rotation, Brian Cardinal delivered hard fouls, a deceptive proficiency from 3-point distance (he did shoot 48.3 percent in the regular season behind the arc, and hit three of four attempts in the playoffs) and near reckless hustle worthy of his "Custodian" nickname.
By all reports, he also developed a strong relationship with Dirk Nowitzki and is unlikely to seek more than the minimum, meaning you'd have to think a spot would be saved for him if he wants it and is again willing to accept a contract at that minimum-wage (last year $1.3 mil) level.
Nowitzki's 41st birthday party featured 41 special guests. Among them: Cardinal. If Dirk needs a caddie, and the caddie can play a little bit, and he'll work for minimum wage, and there is no danger of him becoming fat-and-happy … you keep the caddie. So you keep The Custodian.
The Questionable: DeShawn.
DeShawn Stevenson was another player that helped change the perception of these Mavs with his toughness and rugged defense, not to mention finding his early-season shooting form at the perfect time. However, the nearly $4.2 million he made this year may be a bit steep.
For everything Stevenson gave, his biggest obstacle to overcome may be the fact that Corey Brewer is signed through the next two seasons at a little over $3 million a year, not a contract that begs to keep the young small forward capable of giving minutes at shooting guard on the bench.
And then there is Dominique Jones, who will be going into his second year, makes $1.1 mi and possesses some of D-Steve's physical gifts.
Stevenson's arrest for public intoxication isn't really in play here. More important factors are (from DeShawn's side), he's re-invented himself as a healthy rotation player for a contender and (from the Mavs' side) there are more affordable ways to churn the bottom of the roster, which is where D-Steve would figure to be on next year's Mavs, anyway.
The Retiree? Peja.
Despite his ineffectiveness in The Finals, Peja Stojakovic played an important role in getting the Mavs there in the first place. His shot was not only deadly at times, but demanded defenses respect him, thus creating space for his teammates to operate.
His body continues to wear the scars of a career nearing an end (he just turned 34), and if he's willing to accept a contract along the lines of the veteran minimum, perhaps there will be space for his return. However, you could also understand if he were allowed to explore other options and indeed, when we asked Peja about coming back next season vs. retiring, he was non-committal.
As we always say, when you are thinking about retiring, you are essentially semi-retired. And semi-retired is no way to play professional sports.
When looking over each of these six players, the optimistic mind may find a plethora of reasons to support their return, along with the continuation of harmony successfully harnessed in the 2011 playoffs. Yet, there also mingles the doubts and uncertainties impossible to deny, or completely silence. Until the new CBA has its say, there is nothing but speculation to turn to, though it's easy to count the names on the roster. Including these six, there would be 15, meaning someone has to go for a rookie to be added … possibly a second if Nick Calathes finds his way to Dallas. If Dallas could sign everyone it has prioritized, Stevenson and Peja would therefore seem all the more likely to depart.