THE NEW CAP NUMBER
Last week, the Dallas Mavericks received huge news from the NBA, news that impacts their roster-building plans. The league sent a memo lowering its future “official estimates” for the league’s salary cap on player spending, down to $101 million for 2017-18 followed by a “flat” increase the following year.
This was not expected. With the massive revenues from the new TV deal, the NBA’s cap on team spending for players exploded last summer from $70 mil to over $94 mil, and was originally projected by the NBA to hit $108 mil in 2017-18 and soar from there, with a rough estimate of $120 mil in 2020.
However, teams spent far more aggressively last summer than the league expected. The result was a lowering of future caps to ensure the players’ split of revenues doesn’t exceed the agreed-upon 50 percent. Shortly after last summer’s spree was over, the league lowered the 2017-18 estimate to $103 mil, and now even lower.
With the Mavs already short on spending room for its future plans, this adds an extra challenge. There needs to be a blueprint here. What will they do now?
Of course, Dallas isn't alone here. GMs across the league are undoubtedly scrambling right now to figure out who is impacted, and this changes the dynamics for free agency as we start a new CBA. But the impact on the Mavs is our natural focus.
THE BROADLY-STATED GOALS
Prior to this news, the Mavs' broadly-stated goals for the near future, in relation to present roster members and beyond, had included the following:
*A willingness/desire to spend in 2017 on retaining players like Nerlens Noel and Yogi Ferrell;
*A hope to be able to be able to have enough cap room in the summer of 2018 for Seth Curry;
*In between, have something left over for another big-time player in free agency; and
*A few years in the future, have enough room as the cap grows to add one finishing piece.
When the caps for 2017 and 2018 were expected to be $103 mil and maybe $105-108 mil respectively, the Mavs' ability to accomplish all of the above list was already iffy -- so much so, in fact, that we had considered the drastic measure of Dallas trading Curry this summer rather than hoping to retain him in 2018 when he's free.
Now? With even less to spend, not only are these target moves tougher to make fit in the mix, but perhaps the “bigger picture” also has to come into view.
THE 'EASY' STEPS
Let’s define the financial problem facing the Mavs, who have just closed their season at 33-49 (following an inexplicable win at Memphis that puts them in the No. 9 hole in the lottery). In doing so, here’s what we would call steps over the next two summer that would be doing what is “easy” and “obvious” and “normal” and from which the Mavs would need to adjust one or more choices in order to change the financial result:
1. June 2017 - Decline the 2017-18 $25 mil team option on Dirk Nowitzki, making him a free agent
2. June 2017 – Exercise the 2017-18 minimum salary team option on Yogi Ferrell
3. For budgeting purposes, we will assume the Mavs pick at No. 9 in the 2017 NBA Draft and No.15 in 2018
4. In general, they keep their existing players until contracts expire, including young developing kids such as Nico Brussino and Dorian Finney-Smith, on whom they have multi-year contract control at minimum salaries
5. In 2017-18 re-sign Dirk Nowitzki using an annual exception (Room MLE), minimum, or leftover remainder of cap room for one year with a team option for another
6. Fill leftover roster slots with kids on multi-year (at least three-year) deals with minimum salaries that have limited guarantees, leaving the opportunity to churn the bottom of the roster for some worth keeping
7. We will also assume that for cap budgeting purposes, the Mavs will begin 2017 free agency by working a deal with Noel that will be signed at the end of free agency using Bird rights
With those easy-to-do steps as a template, where would that leave the team? If we set aside the deals for Noel and Curry, the result of everything else under the scenario above would look like this in the summer of 2018:
Players under contract (10) – Barnes, Matthews, Powell, Barea, Hammons, Brussino, Finney-Smith, 2017 first-round pick, 2018 first-round pick [and Noel]
Free agents (4) – Ferrell (RFA), Salah Mejri (RFA), Nowitzki (UFA) [and Curry]
The above scenario cuts everything right to the bone. Hammons, Brussino, and Finney-Smith would all be on minimum-salary contracts for the 2017-18 season, the cap holds for Ferrell and Mejri would be barely over minimum as well, and the Mavs would undoubtedly decline Dirk’s free-agent hold and have no cap cost on him as well.
Yet with all that cost-cutting, in this scenario the most the Mavs could spend in TOTAL on Noel and Curry would be no more than $29 million in first-year salary, and that could easily be down in the $25-26 mil range (if the Mavs find a keeper in 2017-18 by churning the bottom of the roster, and if they use any money on D-Leaguers using the two-way contract openings created by the 2017 CBA).
Only $25-29 million total to spend on both Noel and Curry? Yikes.
That doesn't allow even a penny for "another key free agent" this summer, or next. It allows no cap room to accept even, say, a trade of Ricky Rubio from Minnesota or Eric Bledsoe from Phoenix in exchange for nothing, if offered. (Here's the scoop on some of the Mavs' thoughts on that sort of acquisition.)
What we’re seeing is with this existing roster, plus the two first-round picks in the next two years, and really nothing more, the Mavs are already cap-limited.
WHERE IS THE SUPERSTAR?
Meanwhile, we hear owner Mark Cuban talking about acquiring "a new starting point guard" AND acquiring a "star who is good enough to make Harrison Barnes into Dallas' second-best player." This sounds wonderful. Same with the idea of Dirk as the sixth man. He averaged 14.2 points this year and next year he enters his 20th season with 30,260 career points, 1,159 shy of fifth-all-time-scorer Wilt Chamberlain. It'd be great to have Nowitzki as a supplementary guy. ... But with no cap room to spend or add talent, how can such wishes become reality?
Cuban is certainly correct in focusing on more talent. He too has to question whether the existing talent base, plus a couple picks, will be enough talent enough to ever truly compete. And despite the fact that the money all looks to be “spent” for years, where is the necessary superstar to contend?
One strategy might be to totally luck into a future superstar in the 2017 Draft at Pick No. 9. (Or wherever Dallas falls; the latest Lotto Watch is here.) Of course, luck and hope isn’t really a strategy. (And those chances for getting lucky wouldn’t be so tied to luck if the Mavs had done what was necessary to turn a failed season into a great pick. Ah, but that is a story for another day.)
And even if the Mavs do or don’t stumble into a star from their draft pick, the Mavs might not even have enough money to sign both Noel and Curry. So what else can they do? Their answer will have to flow from one or more of the following “moving parts”:
1. Don't sign Noel (or sign him for much less than everyone is thinking).
2. Don't sign Curry (or sign him for much less than everyone is thinking).
3. Get rid of Wesley Matthews and use his money elsewhere (or, hope he declines his player option in 2018 and chooses free agency instead).
4. Get rid of Dwight Powell and use his money elsewhere.
And any of that is going to require some new and creative thinking by the Triangle of Trust in Dallas. Curry might be a budding standout; the Mavs are already convinced Noel is. Cuban has told DallasBasketball.com on numerous occasions that Matthews is viewed as an important cog in the culture. Powell last summer was given a contract that indicates Dallas believed he was a foundation piece.
But all of that really doesn’t fit financially, and unless a superstar and some high-end talent are hidden in this roster somewhere, it doesn’t work talent-wise, either. We can debate the merits of a trade for Jimmy Butler or Paul George ... (and are doing so in this Premium Mavs thread.) But before we get serious there we need to have a working knowledge of the existing assets, the value in retaining the important existing pieces, and the paths to get there. Clearly, as illustrated above ... Something has to give.
The NBA salary cap isn't moving in the direction the Mavs might've wished. But it is what it is, so now, more than ever the Mavs need to get moving on these "moving parts."