The Dallas Mavericks Have 1 Last Chance To Help Dirk Nowitzki Win

After last night’s loss to the lowly Phoenix Suns and a Los Angeles Lakers win over the Portland Trail Blazers, the Dallas Mavericks have now been officially eliminated from the playoffs for the first time since 2000. That was so long ago, we’re not even sure Dirk could have grown a beard in an effort to spur the Mavs back to a .500 record. With over $20 million in salaries coming off their books this summer, Dallas owner Mark Cuban, general manager Donnie Nelson and coach Rick Carlisle have a big offseason ahead of them. With only one or two good years left from Nowitzki (and his contract is up next summer), what can the Mavericks do to give Dirk, and the franchise, another shot at a title?

First off, they need to figure out if Dirk might be willing to take a minor pay cut. He’s due $22 million on the last year of his deal, and while Cuban and Nelson were smart to only sign short-term deals last summer, they can use all the leverage more cap space will bring them. $22 million is a huge chunk toward that dreaded luxury tax line that has GMs (rightfully) fearing for their jobs. But even without Dirk taking a pay cut — and I doubt Cuban would even ask him — the Mavericks have a whole bunch of cap space available this summer, ostensibly to take a run at Dwight Howard when he becomes a free agent.

The Lakers are in jeopardy of missing the playoffs themselves with a tight race against Utah for the final spot out West, but Dwight can still get more money from them than any other team this summer. The question is whether he’s tired of the media scrutiny in Los Angeles and would prefer the relatively safer confines of Dallas, where he’d be the big man on campus even as Dirk handled the majority of the offensive workload. With the Lakers, he’ll still play alongside a teammate in Kobe Bryant who is the antithesis of Dwight’s relaxed, cherubic vibe and someone who demands absolute devotion to the team during the season. Dwight would prefer to just have fun and be goofy. But what if Dwight re-signs with L.A. like most analysts expect him to? Where do the Mavericks go from there, and who do they bring back after a second-consecutive season where they’ve floundered since their surprising title run in 2011?

Right now — not including player incentives — the only contracts that are locked up for next season are Dirk (making $22,721,381 to be exact*), Vince Carter ($3,180,000), Shawn Marion ($9,316,796), Jared Cunningham ($1,208,400), Jae Crowder ($788,872) and Bernard James (also at $788,872). Add that up and it’s $38,004,321 towards next year’s cap. But even among that small group of players, the team has an early termination option for the last year of Marion’s deal, so they could waive him this summer and get out of that $9 million. O.J. Mayo has a player option for $4,200,900 next season as well. Let’s predict that Mayo elects to pick up that option (he’d have until July 30 this year to decline it), and the Mavs choose to bring Marion back for the last year of his deal at a little over $9 million. All told, that’s $42,205,221 towards the cap. If we use this year’s cap ($58,044,000) as a baseline, then that still gives the Mavs enormous wiggle room ($15,838,779) to sign free agents this summer, and they can still go over the cap, before exceeding the tax level, with the use of their exemptions.

The exemptions are tricky, and we’ve already done enough arithmetic to put most of you to sleep, so check out Larry Coon’s excellent website on the new CBA if you want to get into the minutiae of the NBA’s soft cap, how the luxury tax line is decided, and the various exemptions that allow teams to go over the soft cap without paying a luxury tax. For the purposes of this piece, let’s use this year’s luxury tax line, which was $70,307,000. Again, this might change, but the specifics are messy and that’s not really the point. Basically, the Mavs can exceed the soft cap of $58.044 million, but they’d like to avoid the tax line of $70.307 million.

So who is available this summer, anyway, and what do the Mavericks need? First and foremost, they need a point guard that’s not going to sabotage their offense by hoisting low efficiency midrange jump shots every time he comes off a high screen (even when there’s an open lane to the bucket!!). We’re looking at you, Darren Collison. Currently, Collison and Roddy Beaubois have qualifying offers for a little over $3 million each, but they’re restricted free agents this summer, and we doubt anyone in Dallas wants either of them back. There are other, better, free agent point guards available this summer, led by the best in the game, Chris Paul, who will be an unrestricted free agent. Since Paul will likely stay in Los Angeles (unless owner Donald Sterling says something overtly racist to him), who else is available, but won’t command a max deal like Paul will?

Jeff Teague will probably test the market as a restricted free agent. He’s showing that he can be an effective point guard for a contender. Whether Atlanta would match an offer from Dallas remains to be seen, since Josh Smith is a free agent too and no one knows what Danny Ferry is going to do with an Atlanta team that’s also going to have some cap space. But there are also a couple former teammates who might be available at the right price. Jose Calderon, one of the most efficient players in the league, will be an unrestricted free agent, and Kyle Lowry, his former teammate in Toronto, will be a free agent, with a non-guaranteed $6.21 million coming next year. Calderon is in the last year of a deal that pays him $11 million this season, but he’s unlikely to attract that type of money this summer and he might be the Mavericks best bet without wasting a ton of their cap space. Some other intriguing prospects for Dallas on the point guard front, and those who will be unrestricted free agents this summer: Chauncey Billups, Beno Udrih and Jarrett Jack. Brandon Jennings is likely to ask for max money, so we can cross him off like Paul (even though I’m not sure he deserves that type of money). Also, Shaun Livingston has looked really good backing up Kyrie Irving in Cleveland and he’s an unrestricted free agent this summer; he might be a good pick to back-up whomever the Mavericks go with, and barring that maybe he plays so well they elect to go with him as their starter. There are a lot of options for Dallas at point guard, so it’ll be interesting to see what Cuban and Nelson do.

Since Mayo will probably be back, the off-guard slot is filled nicely, and Marion, Dirk and Vince can lock down the forward rotations. But who can Dallas bring in that will anchor their defense in the post but won’t eat up their cap space? (Which was the reason Cuban didn’t bring back Tyson Chandler in the summer of 2011) Brendan Haywood has been amnestied, thankfully, and Chris Kaman floundered this season with a bevy of injuries. Brandan Wright has looked really good over the last quarter of the season even though he lacks the requisite girth necessary to bang down low with the Gasols, Howards and Pekovics of the conference. Elton Brand is a great help defender, but he’s really old and his knee is still far from perfect. Of the unrestricted free agents available at the power forward and center slots this summer, the most intriguing from a salary and talent standpoint look to be: David West, DeJuan Blair, Samuel Dalembert, Chris Andersen, Emeka Okafor, and if they’re willing to spend the money and take the gamble: Al Jefferson or (gulp) Andrew Bynum.