Mavs + Jordan + Aldridge: Double Pipedream

Two native Texans, DeAndre Jordan and LaMarcus Aldridge, are among the Mavs' free-agent targets this summer. Both are top-level players in the NBA, expected to be in high demand, and appear to be open to – and perhaps even longing for – a move 'home.' The Mavs are certainly interested – but could they land both? There are many ways to answer that. Here’s our look at the possibilities and limits.



DeAndre Jordan and LaMarcus Aldridge. If both were interested, could the Dallas Mavericks find a way to sign both?

The answer is “Absolutely yes!” But at the same time, it’s also “Maybe so,” “Probably not,” and “No way whatsoever.”

Wait, what?

Yes it’s confusing. The question is one that’s difficult to offer a singular answer to, because “What can the Mavs do?” can mean different things to different people.

Yes, there are NBA-legal ways to add both players to the Mavs’ roster, if the Mavs want it badly enough, and the players agree to do whatever it takes. And if they obtain the willing cooperation of Portland and the Clippers, it gets even easier.

But even with max willingness of all, the answer is a bit hazy. That’s because, in a real way, the do-ability depends on what the goal is, and how far the Mavs are willing to go during Summer Shopping to get there.

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Let’s take a closer look and explain.

THE STARTING POINT

To set the stage, we begin with a list of the Mavs’ potential salary commitments as they enter free agency in July. We are working under four assumptions: (1) the 2015-16 NBA cap will land at the league’s current estimate of $67,100,000, (2) Monta Ellis and Al-Farouq Aminu will decline their player options, (3) the Mavs will not offer Bernard James a qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent, (4) no Mavs trades will occur in June.

The following would then be the resulting cap situation that the Mavs would start from, and the backdrop for determining whether both Jordan and Aldridge are possible.

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QUESTION #1 – IS THERE ENOUGH CAP ROOM TO SIMPLY SIGN BOTH PLAYERS OUTRIGHT?

The initial answer is “No way.”


With a $19-mil max salary for both Jordan and Aldridge, the math says both can’t get max salaries from the Mavs and fit into only about $30 mil of spending room for two players as shown above. But if the Mavs want to make things happen anyhow, there are still multiple routes to explore. They can try to increase the cap room, lower the initial contractual outlay, or perhaps do a little of both. Or maybe even sidestep the need for cap room.

QUESTION #2 – IS THERE ANOTHER WAY TO SQUEEZE BOTH PLAYERS INTO THE MAVS’ CAP ROOM?

We’ll start by taking a quick look at the idea that the Mavs might be able to get the players to split the $30M cap room. As we do, we’ll also note the comparative after-state-tax salaries for Jordan in LA vs Dallas, and Aldridge in Portland (where the tax hit is about 75 percent of that in LA) vs Dallas. (For a longer explanation of the tax issue, see here, item 2.)

Here’s how a max salary and a split-the-cap salary compare to a deal for these players with their old team.

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Based on those numbers, we will dismiss the split-the-cap idea. While it’s doable in theory, people tend to want the biggest paycheck possible for their labors, and NBA players are no exception, so we think that the Mavs will need to offer a deal worth at least $80M to be in the running. Split-the-cap-room is about 20% too small. So this is theoretically possible, but reality says “No.”

But we do have several ideas that are a “Yes” or a “Maybe.”

IDEA 1 – INCREASE THE CAP ROOM

Since the total needed for a max deal for both players is $38M and the cap is $67.1M, the Mavs would be able to sign both by increasing their available cap room somehow. In our salary chart, the last column shows the additional cap room gained by removing that player from the roster with nothing coming back in return. So to get from $30M to $38M, get rid of enough to total an extra $8 million. In essence, that means Harris and Felton would have to go, with nothing coming back in return.

If we are being optimistic, we say they swap Harris for a future pick in return, and Felton’s expiring deal gets moved by adding an extra outgoing enticement such as the 2nd-rounder, Powell, or cash. And we expect that the Mavs would simply tell Koponen to sign overseas this year, removing him from their cap that way, but he’s also potentially a tradable asset if needed.

If we are being pessimistic, we say it costs all three of the 2015 1st-rounder, 2nd-rounder, Koponen, and Powell to move Harris, and Felton has to be stretch-waived. But even in that worst-case scenario, there’s still room to give Jordan and Aldridge four-year deals totaling in excess of $80M each.

So that is one “Yes” possibility, a route allows both Jordan and Aldridge to become Mavs.

IDEA 2 – ALTER THE CONTRACTS

A different approach to getting the players more than $80M would be to pursue a series of contracts that span 4 years, rather than a single deal signed in 2015. By taking advantage of the rising cap coming from the NBA’s new TV deal, in that manner the Mavs can pay far more over the next four years than the net of $77-79M available from the old teams over the same time span in a single deal.

Starting with a split-the-cap concept, the route to the biggest contract possible would be a one-year deal this summer (with a player option for a second year), followed by the same contract structure in the summer of 2016, and then a deal in the summer of 2017 using Early Bird rights. It would look something like this:

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On one level, this would be a huge win-win for both the Mavs and the player(s). It would solve the shortage in cap room for the Mavs in being able to get both Jordan and Aldridge, as both players would fit in the $30M-ish of available cap room. And it also rewards the player with a huge upside, exceeding the $80M offer needed by 20-25 percent!

But there are some negatives that come with this idea. For the Mavs, it would certainly be preferable to sign each player on a four-year deal where he is being paid at 2015 levels for four years, rather than pay at the higher rates to come. And let’s understand that this ability to offer more money in this fashion is not exclusive to the Mavs, if the player wanted to try to pursue this elsewhere.

But the biggest downside to this for both team and player is that the extra reward adds risk.

While both sides can set out on that multiple-contract path in 2015, neither can get a commitment in writing from the other for the two future deals. The Mavs could decide they don’t want the player later, or the player could decide he’d rather leave before the four years are done. In addition, the CBA is virtually certain to be revised in 2017, leaving the door open for some sort of different contractual world at that point and perhaps making that last contract less desirable or maybe even impossible.

Would the extra upside for both player and team be worth the added risk? That’s one that only they can weigh. But this does solve the money and cap room issue, so we see this idea as a "Maybe so.”

IDEA 3 – WORK AROUND THE CAP ENTIRELY

Instead of clearing out cap room and chasing free agents with cap space, there’s another way to build the roster this summer. That would be to operate as an over-the-cap team instead, as we’ve outlined previously.

Such an approach is trickier. It requires not only the ability to get a commitment from the desired player such as Jordan or Aldridge, but it also requires the participation and cooperation of his old team, as the player would come to Dallas via sign-and-trade rather than as a free agent. When the old team is competing for the player, getting them to play along is iffy - but still often doable.

Because the Mavs have the leverage to sign both Jordan and Aldridge outright, as outlined above, it adds to the potential for this avenue to be possible. The alternative for the old team, if they chose not to cooperate, would be to end up with their player leaving and getting nothing at all in return. So to the extent that a better-than-nothing trade can be fashioned for both teams, this could happen.

The advantages are easy to see. Instead of working with about $70M in cap room (a $67M cap plus a $3M-ish room MLE), the limit would become the $85.7M apron. Within the confines of that $85.7M cap, the team could have more assets, be able to retain more existing players and picks rather than get rid of some to clear room, and there could be a bigger MLE (about $5.5M) plus a BAE (about $2M) to use to add more talent.

For each $19M deal, the Mavs would need to salary-match by sending away at least $14M in outgoing salary (to somewhere). The issue would be to find the right set of outgoing to somehow entice both LA and Portland.

We believe there’s an easy, obvious, no-brainer answer regarding LA. If the Clippers lose Jordan, they would lack cap space to replace him in free agency. So the answer there would be to swap Chandler for Jordan in a 1-for-1 swap, with TY getting a deal starting at $14M. (If LA negotiated a bit smaller deal with TY, the Mavs could and would add a minimum salary player or two to the swap.) As a major consolation prize, that’s a huge win for LA, and doesn’t seem hard to envision at all, if Jordan opts to come to Dallas.

In fact, this one is such a fit and also a necessity for LA that we believe if the Mavs were signing Jordan using cap room, LA would be the one desperately pursuing a sign-and-trade instead, and the Mavs could coax a future pick and perhaps other assets for cooperating.

But when it comes to Portland, the path is not as clear.

The primary asset to use in a salary match for a trade with the Blazers would be either Ellis (if he leaves) or Rondo, but we don’t think either would necessarily be of interest to the Blazers, nor net a salary big enough to match $14M. (It must be noted that Ellis, coming off an $8.36M salary with the Mavs, would only count for his prior salary, if the new salary exceeds $10.32M.)

If Rondo gets a deal from someone that exceeds $10M-ish, then ideally the Mavs could cobble together a multi-team deal in which Rondo and Felton are sent here or there, with Aldridge landing in Dallas and some desirable assets going to Portland. The possibility that the Mavs might simply sign Aldridge, with Portland getting nothing instead of something, would be the key, so the Mavs would have to make sure that Portland’s return on the deal is seen as a plus to them. And who knows, maybe Rondo or Ellis have real appeal to them, in which case a deal would be much easier.

The over-the-cap route is iffier. But because there’s really only one sizable challenge (finding a trade that satisfies the cap rules while also interesting a Portland team about to lose Aldridge anyhow, if they don’t agree to swap), it has to be a “Maybe so.”

QUESTION #3 – SO THE MAVS CAN GET BOTH JORDAN AND ALDRIDGE THIS SUMMER, RIGHT?

As we’ve demonstrated, yes there are avenues to adding both players this summer, in one way or another.

But at the same time, even if both are willing, the answer to getting both may still be “Probably not.” The reason is that whether the ideas we’ve provided are truly answers depends on the priorities.

Is the goal to get both of them at any cost? Then yes, those are answer(s).

But otherwise, maybe not so much. Of primary concern is that, after acquiring Jordan and Aldridge in any of those ideas, there would be gaping holes in other areas of the roster, especially at guard.

For example, in the pure cap-space scenario, let’s say that the Mavs successfully signed both Jordan and Aldridge to join Dirk and Parsons, and were able to draft a SG at pick 21. We’ll have them use the Room MLE to sign either Barea or Beverly at PG. (Beverly might represent another pipedream, but for the sake of the example, we'll use him.) The roster would then end up looking something like this:

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Is that acceptable? There are a lot of holes left to fill, and no real money or assets (exceptions, draft picks) left to use (other than minimum salary exceptions). It’s hard to see a title contender with those guards. (And the Mavs’s abysmal track record, when drafting guards with picks in the 20s, probably needs to be considered as well.)

On the other hand, some positions have been solved on a long-term basis. And having top tier players to build around can make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. So perhaps the goal has been to add two top tier players over the next couple of years, and now the Mavs got them both already.

We also have to admit that minimum salary players aren’t necessarily bad players. And while having a roster like the above leaves holes to fill everywhere, a hidden upside is that the Mavs might be able to get some of the better choices at that price, because any player who is settling for the minimum would much prefer a team where minutes are clearly available. Players want to play, and minutes matter. So if we pencil in some players we can envision playing for the minimum, the final roster looks okay.

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We know it’s unrealistic to expect that the Mavs could simply assume all those players to fill those slots, so they won’t get all of them. But it also needs to be noted that each summer some unexpected names become available at the minimum. Last year there was no thought in May or June that Aminu, Jefferson, Barea, Villanueva, and Marion would be available for a minimum. The same should be true for others this year. (Let's throw Mo Williams in here, for fun.)

Nevertheless, the guard lineup in that roster is shaky. And, at least on paper, much weaker than this year’s in Dallas.

Then how much better would the possibilities be with an over-the-cap approach to acquiring both Jordan and Aldridge? Although to a somewhat lesser degree, the same issues would still be there. Yes, there’s a bigger salary base, more exceptions, and potentially more returning assets. But the hard cap at the apron creates a major hindrance in using those assets.

If we assume that TY, Rondo, and Felton are used in trades for Jordan and Aldridge, and plug in a few theoretical minimum-salary additions as we did before, the over-the-cap route would lead to a roster that might look something like this:

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Note that with the exception of whomever they get as the starting SG, and the inclusion of Harris, this is essentially the same roster as the one using cap room. And the problem is the same: huge question marks at both guard positions.

With that $85.7 mil hard cap, too much money is invested in the frontcourt, and little left for guards and backups. In the roster above with about half the roster playing for the minimum, there’s still only a combined $10 mil to spend on both Ellis (or a player received in return for Ellis using S&T) plus the MLE. This means that the Mavs would have to sacrifice either the return of Aminu or the potential to get an equal-or-better replacement for Ellis.

Questions are many. If Ellis is gone, where will the attacking and the shot-creating offensive force come from? If Ellis stays, where will the shooting and perimeter defense come from? And will the Mavs regret losing Aminu, if they go this route?

THE BOTTOM LINE

The reality is, there are ways to add both Jordan and Aldridge, if both want to sign with the Mavs this summer. (And for all the analysis above, getting that commitment is always the hardest part.)

But there is not really a way to add them both, and still have a way for a dynamic upgrade at either guard position (much less both). So the addition of the duo would come at a price. Is it worth it? We’d love to have both Jordan and Aldridge onboard for the next few years ... but we also love the debate about the possible roster-wide downside of this Double Pipedream.


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