It's an unusual time for Dallas Mavericks fans. Dallas is a woeful 11-27 after being soundly beaten in Minnesota on Monday. (Game story here.) Mavs management continues to intermix talk of playoff possibilities and scorn for ping-pong balls (a high draft pick) with the mention of lineups based on whimsy and lots of agendas to satisfy (which would include points and a feature role for Dirk Nowitzki, development time and big moments for Harrison Barnes, showcase minutes for veteran trade candidates like Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams, and perhaps Devin Harris and Wesley Matthews (the Mark Cuban denial scoop here) as well, and on-court time for young players to make mistakes and hopefully learn from them).
Is it indecision and confusion, misdirection, or both?
Whatever it may be, talk can't change the reality. This is a bad team. In fact, the last time this team was this bad after 38 games was the 1997-98 season in which they won 20, had the sixth-worst record in the league, and had the opportunity to select Dirk in the ensuing draft.
No matter what's being said, clearly a rebuild is ahead, and soon.
But how? It may not work like you think. The rules are being changed.
As most NBA fans know already, the 2017 CBA was ratified by both players and owners about a month ago. And some of the specific changes have already been reported.
Far fewer know that the actual CBA itself does not yet exist. Instead, all that was ratified were many pages of notes of what was to be revised, and how, and the attorneys for both sides have been working together ever since to put that agreement into written form. The CBA will go into effect on July 1, but the goal is to have it finished soon, giving each team plenty of time to plan between now and July.
We've seen the notes, and they are extensive. There are really no major changes to any one rule, just adjustments here and there. But when examined together, they make a major impact because they work toward the same aim. It's apparent the NBA wants to swing the pendulum away from the roster-building methods that emerged under the 2011 CBA and force its teams to operate much differently going forward.
For the Mavs, a team in flux and about to rebuild, this is big.
In this article and in several more in the weeks ahead leading to the trade deadline, we'll examine the new CBA itself in several ways, and also its specific impact on the Mavs. We'll look at the bigger picture for the CBA, take a closer look at some of the "loopholes" in the old rules being addressed with specific new rules, look at how the new document reflects a new approach between the league and players, and also examine the impact on the Mavs as to their cap room, their roster-building, their trade prospects, and more.
We begin with an overview look at the new CBA, which will frame everything else.
THE BIG SHIFT - FREE AGENCY
In order to understand the 2017 CBA and its biggest ramification, we have to first look backward briefly at the 2011 CBA and how it worked.
When the NBA's 2011 CBA went into effect, the league was concerned about the financial health of its franchises. One team had gone so far into debt that it was owned by the league itself, and others were not far behind. Buyers were hard to find, team values stagnant, and operating losses were common. That CBA implemented significant financial changes, in which successful owners were forced to share significant income with struggling ones, the players took a smaller cut of the overall revenue, and the rules forced shorter and cheaper ties between players and teams.
Very significant, but flying under the radar, was a change in which the NBA effectively made extensions between a player and his existing team to be less lucrative than the contract available as a free agent. While this addressed and ended the habit of teams keeping players for many years using Bird rights, which had led to higher payrolls and shakier finances, it also had the side effect of now essentially forcing ALL veteran players into free agency. As a result, teams started having lots of cap room each summer since the lack of extensions freed up payroll, and plenty of desirable players - even superstars - became available to the highest bidder when their turn came. Many players ultimately moved from team to team, even including the league's elites, and teams began to trade superstars to salvage something, out of fear of losing their star in free agency for nothing.
At the same time, the reduced outlays were accompanied by rising revenues from a massive TV deal. Not only did that make the teams healthy financially, it also contributed further to the more robust free agency event each summer, as the skyrocket cap offered teams more spending room to woo more players.
But the league doesn't like all the movement, especially when it comes to its stars leaving one team high and dry and going to another.
Enter the 2017 CBA and its new rules. In it, without saying "No" to the idea of lots of movement in free agency, there are small adjustments to one rule after another that, when combined, should return free agency to its former mostly-barren state that preceded 2011, and keep the stars spread more evenly throughout the league. Included are:
* Changes that will take future money out of potential cap room. These include a 45% increase in annual cap exceptions, a 45% increase in rookie scale contracts (including adjustments to existing deals), maximum raises increased to 5% and 8%, a higher tax apron by $2M (encouraging more spending in one year that is likely to carry over into future ones), and an increase (45%?) in all minimum salaries (including retroactive application to deals already signed)
* Other changes that will take not only money but also key players out of free agency. These include a revision to the veteran extension rule in which extensions will again be more lucrative than possible free-agency contracts from other teams, a continuation of and increase in the rookie extension superstar rules (aka the Derrick Rose rule), and a new superstar extension rule for the third contract in which a team can pay its own a huge amount more than anyone else so long as the player is one they have had since his rookie contract years (which gives huge financial incentive to the star player to stay on the same team for his first 12 years).
That last rule will have an effect of taking superstars out of free agency until they are in their 30s, but it will also have side consequences.
With no superstars to be had in free agency, teams will now have greater motivation to both avoid shopping in free agency and to also lock up their own lesser player to an extension. And with superstars and the next tier not available anyhow, there will then be less incentive for teams to have any cap room. Combined that with all the monies getting siphoned off cap room via bigger exceptions, bigger raises, bigger rookie contracts, bigger minimums, and so on, and free agency won't be the same at all.
HOW ABOUT TRADES?
As far as rebuilding using trades, as the Mavs used to do in the past, some of those opportunities will still be there. But a few doors - including some important ones - are likely vanishing.
The biggest change here will be a ripple effect, flowing from the new rules making it easier for a team to retain their superstar. For example, take a player like Karl-Anthony Towns, who is a budding superstar for Minnesota. Under the previous rules, the Wolves would sort of be on a clock with him, able to control him through his four-year rookie contract and another year of matching rights. But under past rules, if they didn't get some traction as a team in that window, they had to fear they might lose him, and might have to consider trading him.
Now with the new rules, they get the four-year rookie deal, after which he will be doubly incentivized to stay around for the next four-to-five-year deal, after which he will again be incentivized to sign yet another four-year deal. In total, they likely keep him into his 30s and have time to get something good in place.
So if they have that sort of control, the trades from fear will now vanish.
It should also be noted that if a star player is traded after his rookie contract, the opportunity to give him the mega-extension and have greater control would NOT go with him in trade. So both the player and the other teams get less value if he's traded - giving yet another incentive for the player to stay put, and for a trade not to happen.
The NBA is also closing a few other trade doors, specifically the ones featuring cap tricks like the DUST Chip that the Mavs used to land Tyson Chandler for nothing, and that led to a title. All the variations of that theme, in which players were traded and then waived after the trade, with little-to-no cap consequence to the team, will no longer be possible.
However, there will be more trade opportunity in some ways. The non-taxpaying team will now be able to take back 175% instead of 150% as before, making that aspect of trades easier. For the team with expert talent evaluators, who can better ascertain better players from worse, and for an owner willing to take salary off another team, this will increase their ability to make something happen.
ROSTER-BUILDING AHEAD - HOW IS IT LIKELY TO WORK?
Since the new rules don't take effect until July 1, this summer's free agency will probably work much like before. No veteran extensions will precede it, and many teams will still have lots of payroll open, despite the bumps in this existing salary or that due to the new rules.
But the free agency market should look very different in 2018.
Players like Russell Westbrook, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and perhaps others are likely to sign the huge mega-extensions this summer, a year in advance, and lesser players get extensions too before we get to 2018. As a result, beginning in 2018 the pickings will be slim, and much if not most of the money will have dried up.
So in the long run, with the star inventory for both free agency and trades going away, the team that can get one or more of those "12-year" players via the draft will have a huge advantage. That means having the ability to evaluate and draft expertly will be paramount. In addition, because free agency isn't likely to offer the quick fixes anymore, it will take numerous small player-evaluation wins here and there to build a good team. Some will come by evaluating and drafting the right player, of course, but others by evaluating and trading for the player the other team is under-valuing, and others by evaluating and signing (probably using the MLE or BAE) players who slip through the cracks.
Next week: with where they are now, how should the Mavs approach their rebuild? We apply the rules to the situation, show cap numbers, and name names and ideas, for both the trade deadline and the summer.