There are basketball business decisions that you see coming; that's why we're able to term Deron Williams' coming opt-out a "no-brainer.''
There are other decisions that are bigger than basketball that you should see coming; that's why in this Fish column he preaches an understanding for why Chandler Parsons is once again pals with DeAndre Jordan.
And then there are the shockers that merit deep explanation.
The Dirk Nowitzki opt-out news is one of those.
As first noted by the Star-Telegram's Dwain Price (then universally derided by Mavs followers who have a history here, then confirmed Monday by Dirk's own words on The Ticket), Nowitzki explained that he plans to decline his option for another season (at $8,692,184) this summer, and become a free agent. While we had serious doubts that this would happen, based on Dirk's statements this season and his past approach to his contract, this is a significant development.
Dirk said: "We had one more year on the contract, but I think this is the right thing to do. We're going to sit with Mark (Cuban) and Donnie (Nelson) obviously over the next few weeks and figure out how to improve this franchise again. Ever since after the championship, we've been basically a first-round exit. We've been a seven, eight seed. We've only won a few playoff games, and obviously the goal was to compete at the highest level in my last couple of years, so there is some moving to do, some thinking, some putting our heads together the next few weeks heading into free agency, heading into the draft. So this is just one move that hopefully starts a chain reaction for us to get better again, to compete really at a high level. We'll see how it goes."
By becoming a free agent, Dirk will be able to re-sign with the Mavs for any amount, from a first-year salary as small as minimum wage ($1,551,659) to as large as his maximum (expected to be about $30,189,000). The last time Dirk signed a deal, coming off a near-max salary in excess of $22 mil, Dirk and the Mavs settled on a mid-sized salary with no complexity to it.
This time, two frustrating seasons later without enough progress in the roster-building quest, are bolder moves on the way? We have no doubt whatsoever that the Mavs will give Dirk whatever he wants ...
... and rightly so. But let's look at some ways this could unfold.
Based solely on his statement, Dirk and the Mavs could pursue cap tricks that went unused the last time they did a deal. At that time, the Mavs reportedly broached the idea but Dirk declined, and given his status, he rightly got the deal he asked for.
Now, has the thinking changed? What if they make the most aggressive, mutually advantageous financial move possible? Here's what it would look like.
Such a plan would start with a desire by Dirk to play for at least two more seasons, and it would have him being paid at the extremes on what in essence are one-year deals each time (although options for a second year can be included, that then go unused). It has to start with a year at the minimum, followed by a year at way way more, maybe even the max salary. The second year would ultimately be paid via a deal made in 2017, as the CBA doesn't allow huge jumps in a contract from year to year.
For example, the 2016 deal would give him $1.55 mil this year. Then the 2017 one would pay up to as much as $36-mil max salary the next year (based on cap projections for 2017-18). The key is that the first year has to be for the minimum (only), and then the next year there are Bird rights to offer any amount up to the max. Taken together, the dollars over those two seasons come to a suitable total for Dirk (assuming an average salary of half the max is more than enough to be satisfactory to him).
Why do we suggest this? It's about cap flexibility. Dirk's cap hit in this scenario would be the minimum salary each and every year, allowing significant added spendable cap room to acquire more talent. And if the team is an "over-the-cap" team some summer, without any need for cap room, there would be no need to pay only the minimum to increase cap room for roster building.
This summer such an approach would gain the Mavs an extra $8.15 mil in spendable cap room compared to Dirk's option year salary. The following summer, presumably the same or more. And that amount alone can add a very useful player - or be the difference between a good addition and an excellent one.
If Dirk wants to play longer than two years, the same two-year cycle can be repeated as many times as desired, with the same effect. Or if he only wanted to play two and then retire, we can envision this:
- he signs in 2016 for the minimum
- he signs a new deal in 2017 for the full $36M max
- the second deal comes with fanfare that the 2017-18 season is Dirk's 20th and last, and that the Mavs are paying him a suitable amount to honor him properly (let's face it, for what he's done for this franchise, he certainly would deserve that kind of last reward.)
- yada yada yada with a giant dog-and-pony show added
And in all of this, everyone wins, as Dirk gets paid handsomely, while the Mavs get virtually no cap cost for him during the next two summers of free agency, an outcome that would enable them to have ideal roster-building latitude.
ON THE OTHER HAND
There's always the possibility that Dirk's public statements about doing this for roster-building are not the whole story, and that this move by Dirk is geared somewhat to ensuring he gets his "fair share" of the massive cap increase. Just like every other player. Consider Fish's "educated guess'' here ...
And part of that approach might also be catering to his retirement plans. As we speak, he has one more year on the books if he wants it. By signing a new 1 + 1 deal (one year, with a player option for another), he has the added security of two years already assured, rather than one.
If this is where Dirk's deal goes instead, then this summer he may even get more, with spendable cap room reduced, and the Mavs forced to significantly lower their sights in free agency.
But if that happens, could it also signal something deeper?
Look at what has transpired since Dirk voluntarily took such a significant pay cut two summers ago. The result is not pretty, with the talent pool dwindling. And it's certainly not Dirk's fault, as his willingness to take only $8 mil gave the Mavs' front office a financial advantage. Unfortunately, in our view, poor negotiating led to that advantage being totally wasted, as assets were unwisely squandered on Rondo, along with foolish over-market-value deals for Devin Harris, JJ Barea, a hobbled Wes Matthews, and perhaps Parsons. While all are desirable players, the negotiations in each case left a lot to be desired.
Could this be Dirk's way of saying -- because he's not leaving and he's not retiring -- that he's tired of the bad decisions and the excuses and a lack of accountability in the way the Mavs have been doing business? His demands may tell a story.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM IN EVERY PLAN
Even if Dirk was taking another pay cut, and working to give the Mavs' front office more cap flexibility, cap tricks and spending room are not the real answer, both this summer and going forward.
These days, with a harder cap (and penalties that force the big spenders to come back to the pack, so to speak), dominance in roster building comes from the ability to max out cap dollars. The better the front office is at evaluating, negotiating, drafting, and developing players, then the more talent they can get for the same dollars. And more talent equals more wins equals more of a chance at titles.
Unfortunately, these areas have been a weakness here for many years. Even leading up to the title, the Mavs were not elite in those areas. But back then, they were able to mask their spending inefficiencies by simply outspending everyone else, and using cap tricks at times to bypass cap limits.
But now, those avenues have gone. To be the best team on the court, the Mavs must be the best in the world at roster-building skills. And let's be clear, there is no excuse - if they innately lack those skills, they have to hire them. Get someone (or several someones) to join them who has a surpassing ability to accurately evaluate player worth, to deftly finesse the best out of negotiations and deals, and to find and develop new players into key contributors.
Dirk becoming a free agent? Maybe it will offer more spending room ... though our intel says it's more likely to offer less. But if this team wants to become relevant again, the "business-of-basketball'' issues and answers really lie elsewhere than with Dirk and cap tricks.