By Buddy Scott:
The Dallas Mavericks finished the 2018-2019 season with a record of 33-49. Despite finishing 15 games back of the #8 seed in the Western Conference, the Mavs experienced a surprising number of bright spots. They started the season with a record of 15-11, including an 8-4 record in the month of November. Their rookie sensation Luka Doncic won the Rookie of the Year award, winning 98 of the 100 possible first-place votes. Dallas also acquired 7’3” All-Star Kristaps Porzingis from the Knicks, who missed the entirety of this past season recovering from a torn ACL. Despite their attempted tank job at the end of the season (7-18 after the All-Star break), the Mavs were unable to keep their top-five protected pick in the 2019 draft because of the Luka Doncic / Trae Young swap in 2018. But as coach Rick Carlisle said after the Doncic trade last year, “Future draft picks to me are of very little interest at this point. We’ve got to take this group and move these guys forward.”
Dallas entered 2019 free agency with over $30 million in cap space, including the $17.1 million restricted free agent cap hold of Kristaps Porzingis. They could have feasibly traded away 2017 1st round pick Justin Jackson to get the requisite cap space to sign a player with 7-9 years of experience (like Kemba Walker, Tobias Harris, or Khris Middleton) to a max contract starting at $32.7M this season. Operating as an under-the-cap, however, would render them unable to use their mid-level, bi-annual, and trade exceptions that totaled over $35M. The trade exception they acquired when they traded Harrison Barnes to the Kings last February totaled over $21M and was the largest trade exception in the league heading into the 2019 offseason, so giving that up to operate as an under-the-cap team would have presumably been a difficult pill for the Mavericks to swallow.
At the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas this past July, Mark Cuban, owner of the Mavericks, admitted that the Mavs’ Plan A was to sign Kemba Walker to a max contract, their Plan B was to use cap space to sign Danny Green and presumably another player in the $14-18M range, and their Plan C was the plan they actually executed, which was to operate as an over-the-cap team and use their various exceptions.
Once Kemba Walker signed with the Celtics and it became known that Danny Green was deciding between the Raptors and Lakers based on Kawhi Leonard’s decision, the Mavericks regrouped and decided to operate in free agency as an over-the-cap team. This allowed them to sign their own restricted free agents, Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith, to contracts irrespective of the salary cap (Kleber and Finney-Smith have salaries this year of $8M and $4M respectively). They re-signed Kristaps Porzingis to a 5-year max contract starting at $27.29M this season. They used most of their mid-level exception on Seth Curry and 2nd-round pick Isaiah Roby to sign them both to four-year contracts and used most of their bi-annual exception to sign Boban Marjanovic to a two-year contract. Finally, they used a little less than half of their ginormous trade exception to absorb the contract of Delon Wright in a sign-and-trade, trading two future 2nd round picks to the Grizzlies. Though it did not affect their 2019-2020 financial situation, they also signed Dwight Powell to a 3 year / $33M extension that runs through the 2022-2023 season, locking up the Canadian big man through his age 31 season.
In the years following their championship season in 2011, the Mavericks unsuccessfully attempted to use cap space to lure top free agent talent to Dallas to foster a new era of Mavericks basketball as Dirk Nowitzki aged out of his prime. Despite Nowitzki’s acceptance of massive pay cuts in the later years of his career, the Mavericks were never able to pair him with a productive star player following his Finals MVP performance in his age 33 season. Whether it was Deron Williams in 2012, Dwight Howard in 2013, Carmelo Anthony in 2014, De’Andre Jordan in 2015, or Mike Conley and Hassan Whiteside in 2016, the Mavericks have had meetings with top free agents but have been unable to sign any of them in recent memory. One could argue that the Mavs were lucky to not be financially strapped by these hefty contracts for players past their primes (Williams and Anthony were waived before the end of their contracts), but the team’s lack of star power in recent years has contributed to not being able to get out of the first round of the playoffs and a winning percentage of just 47% since their championship season.
As seen in the graph above, the Mavs have been under the luxury tax threshold every season since their Finals victory except for the year immediately following their championship season. This is certainly not because of a lack of funding; Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks organization both rank in the top ten in richest owners and most valuable organizations, respectively, in the NBA. It is reasonable to assume that if any marquee free agent ever signed with the Dallas Mavericks (let’s not count Chandler Parsons and Harrison Barnes in this exercise), the Mavericks would gladly have paid the tax for a championship contender, as they did nearly every year in the 2000s.
Following a 24-58 season, the Mavs fortunes finally changed during the 2018 draft when they traded their #5 pick as well as a top-five protected 2019 pick to the Atlanta Hawks for the #3 pick. The Mavericks selected Slovenian “Wonder Boy” Luka Doncic with that pick, giving up the picks that turned into Trae Young and Cam Reddish to the Atlanta Hawks. Both teams seem to be happy with the trade so far, and the careers of Young and Doncic will be linked for years to come. Luka had a wonderful rookie season for a 19-year-old, filling up the stat sheet with 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. Doncic’s usage rate increased each month of the season, and his usage rate following the January 31st trade with New York involving three of Dallas’ starters skyrocketed to third highest in the league behind James Harden and D’Angelo Russell. His shooting efficiency left room for improvement, though, dropping to 42% from the field, 28% from three-point range, and only 68% from the free throw line after the big trade at the end of January. Still, Luka had a very promising first year in the league, and was recently named one of the top three players that NBA front offices would start a franchise with, along with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis, as well as the third-best international player in just his age-20 season, behind Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic.
As previously mentioned, the Mavericks and New York Knicks agreed to a blockbuster trade on January 31, 2019. The Mavericks traded Dennis Smith Jr, Wesley Matthews, De’Andre Jordan, their unprotected 2021 first-round pick and their top-10 protected 2023 first-round pick to the Knicks in exchange for the injured Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr, Courtney Lee, and Trey Burke. More specifically, the Mavericks acquired an (injured) 7’3” “unicorn” who was named an All-Star at the age of 22 in exchange for two of their first-round picks, their #9 pick in the 2017 draft Dennis Smith Jr, and over $45 million in potential cap space for the 2019 offseason. This trade signified the end of the Mavericks hoarding cap space with the hope of signing marquee free agents; instead, they traded for a star. Ironically enough, the Knicks agreed to this trade to create the room to sign two max free agents this past summer, and we all know how that turned out. Despite not playing at all this past season, the Mavericks agreed to a 5 year / $158M contract with Kristaps Porzingis with a player option for the 2023-2024 season. On top of that, the contract is fully guaranteed and there are no injury provisions in the contract like there are in Joel Embiid’s current contract. With how much they traded away for him and how much they paid him, it is clear the Mavericks strongly believe in the (newly swole) Dirk-like big man.
The Dallas Mavericks truly think they have the newer, better version of Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash. The Mavs probably still regret not matching Phoenix’s offer in 2004 free agency for Steve Nash, as he turned into a two-time league MVP after leaving Dallas. As Porzingis and Doncic enter their age 24 and age 20 seasons, respectively, with each under contract for years to come, Dallas knows that the supporting cast the organization surrounds their two European stars with is just as important as the development of Porzingis and Doncic. By giving multi-year deals to a lot of their role players this past offseason (Powell, Wright, Kleber, Curry, and Finney-Smith all signed three or four year contracts), they effectively evaporated their potential 2021 cap space for a loaded free agent class that could include superstar players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, LeBron James, Victor Oladipo, and Blake Griffin. In the past, the Mavericks would have hoarded this cap space with the hope that a star would choose Dallas in free agency. But now, with two players they view as franchise cornerstones in Doncic and Porzingis, the organization is focused on surrounding their young stars with the best supporting cast possible.
For the 2019-2020 season, the Mavericks have the largest usable trade exception in the league, totaling $11.83M. With this exception, they are able to absorb a player’s contract in trade without sending outgoing salary in return. It is probably not a coincidence that the Mavericks current salary total plus their large trade exception totals an amount just $400K less than the luxury tax threshold. With a plethora of capable guards and big men on their roster, the Mavs figure to use the trade exception on a versatile wing player that could potentially match up with the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, or Paul George in a playoff series. Players that fit this build with a salary around the amount of their trade exception are Tony Snell, Jae Crowder, Robert Covington, Norman Powell, and C.J. Miles. Though the Mavericks do not have many draft picks to trade, they could be a valuable trade partner for a team trying to get under the luxury tax.
Nevertheless, the Mavericks now have a bright future with two franchise cornerstones to lead them in the post-Dirk era. After years of failed free agency pitches and mediocre teams following their championship in 2011, the Mavericks are poised to be competitive in the deep Western Conference for years to come.
If you have any questions for Buddy, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out his site at buddyscottnba.home.blog
NBA.com stats page
Basketball Insiders Cap Sheets