The Dallas Mavericks are keen on breakfast buddy Frank Ntilikina and are keenly aware that the New York Knicks might feel similarly. This wouldn’t be a problem — there are lots of teams that have lots of favorite players in Thursday’s NBA Draft — except that the Knicks have the No. 8 pick, one slot ahead of the Mavs at No. 9.
And therefore what Dallas might need to do extends way beyond “standing pat’’ and “sitting in there and picking,’’ the cliches that go along with “hoping for the best.’’ No, the Mavericks will consider jumping ahead of the Knicks, will consider the costs, will consider the value of other viable candidates like Jonathan Isaac (who might be long gone) and Dennis Smith Jr. (a perfectly viable talent but an imperfect fit for Dallas) … and if all goes wrong, needs to consider trading back, too.
"Obviously, we'd love to have a point guard,’’ Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki said. “I think that's not a secret.’’ And that the most likely (pass-first) point guard likely available might be Ntilikina, the 6-5 18-year-old from France is no secret, either.
Dallas has long had Markelle Fultz at the top of its board. The Mavs are also extremely fond of De’Aaron Fox. Other top-rated guys in this draft include Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum and Malik Monk.
That’s nine names. Looking at it that way, Dallas will be fine. But as gifted as they are, Smith is not a pass-first point guard and Monk may not be a point guard at all.
So beyond “standing pat’’ …
The Mavs can trade up and jump ahead of the Knicks, by doing a deal with Minnesota at No. 7 (or a team ahead of that.) Dallas has had in-house conversations about the trade availability of Ricky Rubio, and Dallas has talked about employing a new veteran point guard while also selecting Ntilikina, who a) needs a great deal of seasoning and b) can, if ready, play off the ball and be a 2-guard.
An educated guess: Dallas GM Donnie Nelson has already touched base with Minnesota to kick the tires on a variety of scenarios. … one of those being that 7 and 9 get swapped with the Timberwolves getting talent and cap relief in exchange?
But what if the Mavericks don’t find what’s left on the shelf at No. 9 to be desirable? Again, DallasBasketball.com has already reported that this would require that both Isaac and Ntilikina are gone (see our recent study of the Dallas gameplan on these two here), and would require Dallas to decide the flaws of Smith Jr. and Monk are too great to take them at 9.
Can you drop one spot to the Kings at 10? Is there another conversation to be had with the Pistons, who pick at No. 12 and have been open about a willingness to swap the pick for a playoff-helping veteran?
We know the Mavs are aware of such a scenario because of how many times team officials have shut us down when we’ve suggested that Wesley Matthews would fit well in such a trade. Detroit gets its vet, you get pick No. 12, and you shed an $18-mil-per-year salary for the next two seasons.
Why is it important for the Mavs to find not only cap room now, but Summer-of-2018 cap room, too? Because that’s when Seth Curry is due to be given a contract that, as Dallas’ cap structure presently exits, cannot fit him.
(Those same cap issues are why stories of Dallas’ interest in veteran point guards keep making the same mistake of leaving out the financial “how.’’ Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, George Hill, Eric Bledsoe, Rubio … the “how’’ is the challenge.)
This is why this NBA Draft is, for Dallas, not occurring in a vacuum. It’s not just about Dirk’s “obvious point guard’’ theme. It’s not just about “standing pat.’’ Heck, the NBA Draft isn’t even just about the NBA Draft; It’s about asset management, with Isaac, Ntilikina, Smith and Monk all linked in a way … in the handful of later-lottery guys we know the Mavs have researched (DBcom has been told big men Zack Collins and Lauri Markkanen have made visits to Dallas) linked, too … and in determining whether you can “win’’ the draft by, say, trading down to No. 12.
One concept we’re tossing around on DBcom Boards: Dallas trades down from 9 to 12 and Detroit takes J.J. Barea off of its cap (which matters in retaining Curry next summer). The filler, as written in this scenario, would be Ellenson and a couple of non-guaranteed guys. The motivation for the Mavs is clear. The motivation for Detroit would be to want that “playoff-helping veteran’’ but also to want to jump ahead of Charlotte and Sacramento to grab a player the Pistons like as much as the Mavericks like Isaac and Ntilikina.
There are dozens of puzzle pieces here. The timing of including DeAndre Liggins in a trade. The craftiness in being the team that relieves Portland of one of the first-round picks it wishes to unload. The willingness to treat Barea or Devin Harris or Dwight Powell as currency or as assets or as albatrosses, if need be. (If it’s not going to be Matthews, it’s got to be somebody. And given that Curry is the celebrity host of the Mavs official fans NBA Draft party on Thursday, he's probably not going anywhere.)
So it’s not just about knowing where Jonathan Isaac might be going and it’s not just about knowing where Frank Ntilikina might be going. It’s also about measuring the cost of preventing those destinations … and being right about the Dallas Mavericks’ destination being higher, or lower, that No. 9.