“Keep the powder dry.”
Those words are burned into the minds of every Mavericks fan. It’s become a mantra recited both with fiery belief and crass sarcasm. It’s the “Think Different” slogan of the basketball world. It can be used to justify every head-tilting decision or to dismiss even the most polished sales pitch.
Whatever side of the debate you’re on, one thing is buried in that powder that we all recognize: a purpose. Maintain cap space to sign hallmark free agents.
It’s why the Mavericks have passed on promising talent in the draft. It’s why they’ve opted for homegrown talent rather than pricier retail-priced players. It’s why they’ve traded players merely to dump salary.
Their modus operandi has been to clear cap space.
Well, all of that changes this summer.
Luka Doncic – NBA All-Star, fringe MVP candidate, franchise leader, and All-NBA talent – will sign his Designated Rookie Scale Player Extension, guaranteeing him five years of salary equal to 25-30% of the team’s cap plus 8% increases every year of the contract.
(It’s a max contract.)
The Mavericks will then have two players with max contracts. From that point on, it will be virtually impossible to fill out a roster while maintaining significant cap space each summer.
For the sake of my sanity, let’s just say it will be entirely impossible.
In short, this is the last summer the Mavericks will be able to ignore free agents or refuse assets.
Operation Dry Powder, at least the cap space articles, is over.
But don’t take that as a reason to let out a deep breath of relief. No, this summer is momentous not solely because it brings an end to chasing cap space, but because the Mavericks’ entire purpose over the past decade now has to change – the chance to sign star free agents will be gone.
The Mavericks have been trying to put a Championship team around Luka Doncic. They will continue to do that, but after this summer, they’ll have to do it without cash in their hand they can wave at every player destined for a spot in the Hall of Fame.
They’ll have to do it through trades, the draft, or creative use of the salary cap rules. But therein lies the rub – in order to make trades, you need to have assets. In order to have assets, you have to, well, get them. Sign them. Acquire them. Whatever you want to call it, the Mavericks will need to aggressively pursue free agents this summer.
But not the kind they like pursuing.
They probably won’t get the star they’ve been going after for the past 10 years. Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Deron Williams, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo – those guys are all dust in the wind. No, they’ll have to sign role-players and veterans – quality players. The guys they historically pass on because they aren’t worth their precious cap space. The guys they don’t even call on the phone because ‘we’ve got Giannis in the bag’. The guys they offer a 1-year deal to because ‘we want you, but we don’t, like, WANT you want you’.
They’ll have to target a Dennis Schroder, a Norman Powell, a DeMar DeRozan, a Derrick Rose, a Jarrett Allen. They can’t hoard their cap space and sign cheap guys like a Wayne Ellington, a Cameron Payne, or a Jeff Teague. Why? Because those cheap guys have no value in the trade market and they don’t win games.
The players the Mavericks sign this summer will be either their poker chips in February or their chess pieces in June.
But don’t get excited yet because it’s still not that easy. The Mavericks have four players entering free agency (five if Josh Richardson opts out) this summer plus a team option on Willie Cauley-Stein. They’ll have either Bird or Early Bird rights on these players. You might be thinking, ‘That’s great! Josh Richardson might be off the books and the Mavericks can sign free agents and then go over the cap to keep the guys they have rights on! Right?’
Bird rights act as a cap hold. As long as the Mavericks keep their rights on those players, their cap space is all but depleted. (Just take a look at the massive cap holds Tim Hardaway Jr. and JJ Redick come with.) In order to have all of their available cap space, they would need to renounce their rights on those players. The same goes for Josh Richardson’s Player Option. It acts as a cap hold until he makes his decision.
|Tim Hardaway Jr.||$28,462,500|
|Josh Richardson (Player Option)||$16,298,928|
|Willie Cauley-Stein (Team Option)||$5,330,00|
If the Mavericks renounce all their cap holds, they’ll have some money to work with, but it still might not be enough for a max contract. Even worse, they probably won’t have enough money to sign new players and re-sign the guys they renounced their rights on.
If the Mavericks don’t renounce their cap holds – which probably means they’re keeping those players – they’ll have no cap space to work with.
As cap expert David Brandon put it, “The rule of thumb is – either keep your free agents or you go get new ones. Tim Hardaway Jr. has a $28 million cap hold. Do you want to keep him? There’s $28 million of cap space you can’t use.”
Next year’s Mavericks could look drastically different or stubbornly the same.
But this is it. This is the choice. These are your players. These are your assets. After this summer, the game of chasing max-contract free agents is over. This is all you have to work with. Choose your game character wisely because you can’t go back and change it.
Oscar Robertson started a revolution in 1970 when he sued the NBA because of clauses that allowed teams to forcibly keep players for as long as the team wanted, even the player’s entire career. The lawsuit opened the doors for free agency.
LeBron James picked up the revolutionary flag in the summer of 2010, when he left his hometown team in Cleveland and formed a superteam in Miami.
Now? Players play to win and they don’t care where.
Luka Doncic wants to win. He grew up in an era where player movement is common, if not expected. He was 11 years old when LeBron James made his ‘Decision’. It wasn’t major history for Luka. As far as he’s concerned, this is the way it’s always been.
The Mavericks can either hope Luka Doncic is like Dirk Nowitzki, who decided he was going to stay in Dallas no matter what, or they can recognize the new world order and do everything they can to build a contending team around Luka now.
Does it suck? Yeah!
Do I wish players were loyal to teams and were more patient? Absolutely.
But I’m operating off of what the NBA is, not what I wish it was.
The Mavericks have one final summer to either sign free agents that will take them over the top or acquire assets that will give them chips to play with when the trade deadline comes.
But the days of hoarding cap space are over.
It’s time to win.
More on the Mavs
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- Does Kristaps Porzingis Only Play Well Against Bad Teams? Here’s The Answer and Why It Matters
- How to Watch the Dallas Mavericks on Fox Sports Southwest in 2021
- Everything You Need to Know About the Dallas Mavericks’ 2020-2021 Schedule – Part 2