UPDATE 6 June 2019: Dwight Powell will indeed opt in and sign an extension with the Mavericks, which changes their summer outlook significantly. His 10.3 million takes them out of the financial running for some top-tier free agents, but they can still make a move or two to get back over that threshold should they see fit.
Contrary to what is written below, Dallas should walk into the offseason with $30.2 million in usable cap space. While not quite enough to sign Kemba Walker, Tobias Harris, or Khris Middleton, they could make a small trade involving, say, Justin Jackson, and get back over that mark, provided one of those top guys says they want to come to the Mavericks.
They can still go the non-max route and sign a few role players to fill out the roster around Doncic and Porzingis, as I laid out in the original article below, though they will have less flexibility to do that.
UPDATE 5 June 2019: Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports had previously reported that Dwight Powell decided to opt out of his $10.3 million contract for next season, a decision that was met with a fair amount of skepticism, as Powell’s not a starter-quality center and would have trouble making up that lost money. The day after this offseason preview posted, Powell commented directly on the matter, saying that he never spoke with Yahoo! and hasn’t made his decision yet. Powell didn’t say whether he was opting in or out, just that he couldn’t personally confirm Haynes’ reporting on the matter. Haynes may have spoken with Powell’s agent, Mike George, about the option, which would be why Haynes could report on it and Powell could still claim he never spoke directly to Haynes.
At this point, we don’t know what Powell will do, but the original article (below) was written under the impression that Haynes’ reporting was correct and that he will opt out. Haynes is very, very rarely wrong in these matters or any others, as shown with the Gordon Hayward thing a few years ago, so for now I still have Powell as opted out on Dallas’s cap sheet and in this article.
Free agency has not treated the Dallas Mavericks particularly kindly in recent years. From the DeAndre Jordan fiasco in 2015 to actually signing DeAndre Jordan in 2018, they haven’t had a ton of luck convincing star-level free agents to join their organization and have subsequently overpaid for second-tier stars, from Wesley Matthews in 2015 to Harrison Barnes in 2016 to Jordan himself in 2018. None of these players finished those contracts with the Mavericks, with Matthews and Jordan being traded to New York as salary filler in the Kristaps Porzingis trade in February, and Barnes being shipped to Sacramento for very little return. In 2019, they’re going to try again, with a projected $38.8 million in cap space and a much more attractive pitch than they’ve ever had in the past. Porzingis and young star Luka Doncic are the building blocks for the team’s future, a future that they’re banking on a superstar free agent liking.
Dallas was lined up for two max slots this offseason before they essentially used one of them on the Porzingis trade. Between his cap hold and the salaries for Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee, about $45 million in available cap space disappeared in that trade, but they still have nearly $40 million to spend this summer and will have Porzingis locked into a new contract as soon as their other free agency business is done. The Mavericks have the financial flexibility to sign anybody on the market, though it remains more about who will take their money than whom they’re going to chase.
The Mavericks have a few holes to fill in their starting lineup, with both starting guard spots up for grabs and one other spot on the wing or at center, depending where they decide to play Doncic and Porzingis. If they want to keep Porzingis at the 4, they can invest some of their money in a center; if Porzingis is going to graduate to the 5, then they can invest at the forward spot next to Doncic.
The bench is pretty well sorted, assuming they can bring back restricted free agents Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber. Tendering qualifying offers to the two of them and Porzingis are no-brainer decisions for Dallas and unless one of Finney-Smith or Kleber picks up a ridiculous offer sheet from another team while Dallas is trying to figure out its other business, the two of them should fill the forward spots off the Mavericks’ bench for the next few years. Jalen Brunson will man the backup point guard role, as he’s not quite good enough to be a full-time starter on a team that hopes to contend but is more than capable of handling the backup role. Hardaway is the highest earner under contract as things stand today, but the team may want to place him in a bench role and take advantage of his scoring against second units, if they can find a better fit at the 2 for the starting lineup. Finding a backup center will be important, but there are scores of backup centers looking for work at the minimum every summer.
Dallas can go in just about any direction with their max money, though three names seem to be more popular than the rest: Kemba Walker, Tobias Harris, and Khris Middleton. Walker would give them a scoring and playmaking punch at the point guard spot and would take nothing away from Doncic as an off-ball shooter. He seems very likely to stay with the Hornets, especially now that he’s eligible for a five-year supermax contract for as much as $221 million, $70 million more than Dallas can offer this summer in total money. No matter what Walker does this summer, he’ll be signing up for money that will change his family’s lives for generations, but $70 million is $70 million. Harris vaulted up free agency rankings with a perfectly-timed contract year for the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers. He’s not an ideal fit next to Doncic on the forward line, as neither player is particularly strong defensively and his presence would push Porzingis to play the 5 a lot more than he may necessarily want, but Dallas can’t really afford to be picky when it comes to max free agents if one wants to sign with them. Middleton would fit seamlessly next to Doncic on the wing and would become the team’s stopper defensively in addition to his shooting and scoring gifts. Milwaukee is facing a lot of financial decisions this summer and while Middleton should be at the top of their priority list, the Mavericks could pry him away with a full max offer if Milwaukee decides to try to negotiate.
Nailing down any of these players or another player on a 30 percent max would leave about $7.0 million in cap space for Dallas to fill out the holes that remain, which will obviously depend on whom they get. There aren’t a lot of players who will be willing to sign for the $7.0 million Dallas will have to spend in this situation, but starter-level role players will fall through the cracks and give the Mavericks a good chance to bring in a solid contributor for the last bit of their cap space. A few names that make sense for Dallas, depending where they go with their max money: Garrett Temple, Jeremy Lamb, James Ennis, Avery Bradley, Seth Curry, or Austin Rivers could all be smart signings for relatively cheap who could make a difference at the wing or combo guard spots.
Dallas would also retain their Room Exception to sign another player (or multiple players) for up to $4.8 million, though there are some luxury tax concerns that may change their decision making. It’s very rare that a team with max cap space has to worry in any way about the luxury tax threshold, but with significant raises coming for Porzingis, Finney-Smith, and Kleber in addition to the spending they hope to have this summer, it’s a real possibility that they flirt with the tax. They’ll walk into the summer with $86.1 million in space below the tax (assuming the let Ryan Broekhoff’s non-guaranteed contract go), but all of that wiggle room will be quickly eaten up by their projected spending: $38.8 million in cap space, $27.25 million for Porzingis on a projected 25 percent max contract, and, say, $15 million for Finney-Smith and Kleber combined will leave them with $11.7 million in cash below the luxury tax line with just nine players under contract. Add in the Room exception and five minimum deals to fill out their 15-man roster and they’re actually over the tax by about $1.7 million. They can make a trade at a later date, go into the season with a 14-man roster, not use any or all of the Room Exception, or negotiate more favorable deals with any of the players they sign, including Porzingis, Finney-Smith, and Kleber, but that situation illustrates just how close to the tax they could get in reasonably quick fashion.
The idea of negotiating with Porzingis may be an attractive one to the Mavericks. They spent quite a bit of usable cap space and draft capital to bring him in at the deadline, but they also retain his restricted free agent rights and he’s coming off a major knee injury. It doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion that he receives a full max offer in restricted free agency, especially if Dallas decides to play hardball with him. This can backfire on them, as he can find a 3+1 deal with another team and leave earlier than they want him to, as the Utah Jazz found out with Gordon Hayward, but if they’re not sold on him being the answer at the power forward or center spot, it might be worth the risk. Then again, if they weren’t sold on Porzingis, they shouldn’t have shipped out two first-round picks and taken on more than $50 million in future salary to acquire him in the first place. Any projection for the Mavs should take Porzingis into account at his full max, but there’s a chance that Dallas gets a bit of a break on the back end of the deal, either through smaller raises or incentive-based guarantees, like Joel Embiid has in his max extension.
In the event that the Mavericks don’t land a big name this offseason, where they go with that $39.5 million in space will be very interesting. They can do what they did last year and sign some one-year contracts in the hopes of hitting big again in 2020, but by then the Porzingis, Finney-Smith, and Kleber contracts will be in full swing and the advantage Dallas will have with their lower cap holds will be gone. They’ve seen what signing a lower-tier guy to a massive contract can do to their team on and off the court, so one would hope they don’t go down that route again. Instead, they could build out their roster with a handful of very high-end role players and rely on the growth of Doncic and the addition of Porzingis to be what propels them back into contention over the next few years. Players like Derrick Favors, Thaddeus Young, J.J. Redick, Bojan Bogdanovic, Danny Green, Dewayne Dedmon, and Brook Lopez would all be strong free agency targets in the $10-15 million range and would be smart additions to a Mavericks team that already has a pair of high-usage players in Doncic and Porzingis. Nabbing three of these guys rather than one max player might create a deeper and more well-rounded team for Dallas. This path is certainly better than putting a lot of money into a second- or third-tier free agent who will quickly become the next Harrison Barnes – a fine player who ended up making more money than he’s worth.
There are a lot of different ways Dallas can go this summer. They’ll be hunting for the biggest names they can, but if they don’t get a commitment, there’s still a lot they can do to improve their team with nearly $40 million to spend on outside free agents. They have a strong core in Doncic and Porzingis and a handful of very solid role players in Brunson, Finney-Smith, and Kleber. Hardaway and Lee can be useful in the right circumstances, though their contract figures make them strong negatives from a value perspective. Putting a contender around Doncic during the early years of his career is somewhat difficult for Dallas, as they’ve spent a lot of their draft capital already and therefore will have to rely on free agency to build their roster. Trading for another star when they have fewer draft picks (they’re out picks in 2019, 2021, and 2023, though 2023 is protected) is going to be difficult, making it all the more important for them to nail this summer and find the third banana to go with Doncic and Porzingis or fill out the roster with a number of quality role players to go with their star duo. Acquiring a star through free agency is always a dicey proposition, as Dallas knows all too well and was a big reason why they took the swing on Porzingis when they did, so having a few backup plans in place in case they don’t land a big name is going to be important going into a very pivotal summer.