Posted July 13, 2013

After whiffing on big-name free agents, Dallas shifts gears to questionable ends

Dallas Mavericks, Monta Ellis, Rob Mahoney
Monta Ellis

The Mavericks made a curious decision by giving Monta Ellis a three-year deal. (Jim McIssac/Getty Images)

Although the acquisition of multiple stars serves as the pervasive doctrine of NBA teambuilding, the Mavericks’ current state of affairs signals the peril of pursuing said stars through free agency alone. There can be no argument with Dallas chasing the likes of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard in principle, particularly as that same pursuit occupied the operations of a good chunk of the league. There are players worth maneuvering for, and in the prospect of their availability it only makes sense that some teams without suitable long-term alternatives would go to great lengths to make their case as a viable landing spot. Such was the case with Dallas, as the Mavs opted not to re-sign Tyson Chandler in 2011, steered clear of any long-term deals, and sacrificed assets for the sake of keeping their cap sheet clean.

It might be easy to sum up Dallas’ free agent pursuits as a failure given the way things have turned out, but the life cycle of a basketball team makes it more difficult than most know to flip veteran rosters in a hurry, and for those teams with large salaries on the books — those remnants of contention — to make best use of free agency. Creating max-level cap room alongside Dirk Nowitzki’s $20+ million annual salary was difficult in itself; Dallas made its cupboards bare to create every sliver of cap room possible, and had been too good for too long to pick up many (or in this case, any) rookie-scale assets that would have boosted the team’s appeal. With that, simply creating the room and opportunity for those superstars’ arrival required the detonation of that which might have lured them in the first place. Such is the great catch-22 of cobbling together a star-laden roster in a salary-capped league.

Dallas didn’t connect on its goals — not with Howard nor Paul when they were initially put on the trade block, not with Deron Williams in free agency last year, and not with Howard or Paul again this summer. But frankly, there are greater blunders in teambuilding than the Mavs taking a risk to acquire a top-tier player and subsequently keeping their options open. One such inferior alternative is now transpiring in real time; with the clock seemingly run out on Dallas’ patience, the Mavs have reportedly agreed to sign Monta Ellis to a three-year deal priced somewhere between $25-30 million. That’s not a very good contract for a player whose defense is shaky and whose offense is counterproductive, not to mention a strange concession for a team that had been waiting to acquire a player far better than Ellis.

To be fair, Ellis is in a position to do plenty of good for the Mavs on offense should everything fall into place for Dallas just so. Jose Calderon is theoretically the kind of knockdown three-point shooter and pass-first creator who could complement Ellis’ scoring-driven game, and playing off of Dirk Nowitzki should give Ellis the space necessary to claim new highs in efficiency. But that trio also makes for a disastrous defensive foundation, as the slow-footed Nowitzki might well be the best defender of the three. Guards around the league are undoubtedly salivating at the thought of Calderon and Ellis sharing the backcourt for big minutes, and their pairing should make Mavs fans pine for the days when Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo were merely unreliable on the perimeter. The tradeoff is even worse in that Dallas will no longer be picking up free agent guard Devin Harris due to a toe dislocation and subsequent surgery. Harris isn’t a stopper by any means, but his ability to defend both backcourt positions effectively made him the best defender in Dallas’ planned backcourt. That will no longer be the case, as the Mavs will largely make do with a combination of Calderon, Ellis, Wayne Ellington, Vince Carter, and two rookies in their defense of opposing backcourts.

Ellis will assume Harris’ place by propelling the offense with his drives (a regard in which he’s far more effective than the would-be Maverick), and likely make Dallas a solid offensive team this season with his ability to score in bunches and create for others when so inclined. That said, this move doesn’t do anything more than move Dallas up among those teams on the Western Conference playoff bubble, all while adding the kind of salary that the Mavs have long wished to avoid. After just enduring the complications that come with having to work around Nowitzki’s $23 million salary in free agency, Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson have committed to paying the duo of Ellis and Calderon — who, again, form an intolerable defensive pair — $16-17 million at the least in 2014-2015 before accounting for a possibly re-signed or extended Nowitzki. There’s a noticeable difference between drawing in free agents with Nowitzki alone vs. a Nowitzki-Ellis-Calderon trio, but all in all Dallas is posturing to move forward with a deeply flawed foundation of an aging star, a 31-year-old offense-only point guard, and a hamstringing scorer with dwindling appeal.

There’s always value in acquiring assets, but these particular players don’t seem prime to retain their value. Calderon’s peak is behind him, and declining athleticism only stands to make him that much more worrisome of a defender from this point on. As for Ellis, I think it’s telling that the market for his services this summer turned up dry; barring a huge, substantive change in the way he plays basketball, most of the league’s smarter teams will shy away from him and all the collateral damage his game creates. In order to put up the numbers he does, Ellis tends to kill possessions and look off open teammates — costs that high-functioning offenses can little afford. It’s not too late for Ellis to see the errors of his basketball ways, but more likely he’ll continue on his current path while interesting fewer and fewer potential trade partners as his career rolls on. He’s an asset for a Mavs team looking to win a few more games in the immediate, and perhaps in Dallas’ efforts to woo free agents next summer. But more generally, both Ellis and Calderon will depreciate in value on signing, as their long-term prospects simply can’t be redeemed for much value aside from whatever they offer on the court.

It’s safer for Dallas to take this course, and understandable given the franchise’s allegiance to Nowitzki. With these signings, Dallas has given Dirk an honest chance at another playoff run — a right that such a phenomenal player unquestionably deserves. But the total of Ellis and Calderon’s deals represent a swift, empty departure from the plan that was intended to land the Mavs their next superstar. The rebuild has been diverted, but is no less inevitable nor in any way made easier. In that, it’s worth wondering what exactly the last two seasons — spent in waiting for a star that never came — really accomplished; with two seasons of Nowitzki’s career now essentially forfeit and the team’s risks invalidated by short gains, Dallas isn’t merely the victim of a bad turn of luck but an active participant in its own idling. Landing a superstar was always to be a longshot, but in taking that gamble only to later submit to these ends, the Mavs have at least in part betrayed the flexibility they gave up so much to create.

11 comments
wetmouse
wetmouse

How absolutely humiliating for Cuban. He inherits Dirk from the previous ownership, jettisons "old" Steve Nash only to see him win two MVPs, and when he gets handed Tyson Chandler due to a fluke, he' sends him away too. And now he's starting the backcourt that opposing guards look forward to playing the most. He's a terrible owner who got lucky twice: Yahoo was dumb enough to by the worthless Broadcast.com from him, and Ross Perot Jr (the previous Mavs owner) was smart enough to have a GM who traded for Dirk. Otherwise he has been completely mediocre and a bit of a joke. He just locked in 5 more years of mediocrity.

Well done!

NeilWeaver
NeilWeaver

why does everyone hate on ellis so much?  if you look at what he did when he played on the one good team he was on a few years ago in golden state, his numbers were in the d-wade ranges.  besides did anyone really think that an ellis/jennings backcourt would work?

nathanville
nathanville

This article totally discounts the free salary Dallas will have next year when Dirk's current contract exires and he signs for a discounted rate.  Cuban has stated on numerous occasions that he has a 2 year plan and this is merely year one.  If he can provide Dirk, Ellis and Calderon a key piece next season these signing will look all the better.

lionoah
lionoah

The Mavs can't tank and give their season-ticket holders NOTHING and talk about rebuilding. That won't work at all. The Pistons traded Billups and everything went downhill from there. Looks like the Mavs are spinning their wheels...who's to say they are smarter than Dumars?

KylaniMgmt
KylaniMgmt

Wow...!!! Can we at least give Monta a freakin chance!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

#kylanimgmtnewdallasfanmontaloyal

davidnibert
davidnibert

This is the really painful thing about the decision to blow up the championship team. I get that the Mavs didn't want to overpay for aging guys like Jason Terry and Tyson Chandler back then in hopes of landing Dwight/Deron Williams/Chris Paul instead. And this is retrospect so whatever, but it sure looks bad now. Because now Dirk and Marion are two years older, and we are STILL overpaying for aging/peaked guys (Calderon, Ellis). But these aging/peaked guys don't 1) contribute on both ends of the court; 2) have a history of playing together; 3) fill the teams needs (we have one center and he's like 22 years old...).

And regarding the sentiment about what a shame it is to not surround Dirk with other superstar talent, I think Mavs fans need to be honest about what Dirk is really capable of doing in 2013-14. You can blame it on the injury or on the lack of other offensive options, but Dirk looks like a B+ player at best these days. I know Dirk is loyal to Dallas and Cuban/Nelson have been loyal to Dirk. But is that really a plan for getting this team producing at something better than bubble playoff team? Or is that just a feeling of mutual gratitude?

It just looks really bleak right now. But in fairness, it doesn't really seem like the Mavs could have done much better this offseason. The guys they wanted didn't want them back. So what are they supposed to do (other than not giving Monta Ellis 30 million dollars)?

wetmouse
wetmouse

@NeilWeaver He's a cancer. Do you really want a me-first, one-dimensional cancer on your team?

Skins'Fan
Skins'Fan

@NeilWeaver He's too much a chuck to play the one and too small to play the 2-guard so he needs to play as an off-guard meaning his team is constantly undersized in the back court. A player like D-Wade would just post him up every second possession. All of his skill on the other end is shot by being such a sieve on defense. He's a plus/minus nightmare, fit as an off-guard that's only good with the ball in his hands. With a the offensive psyche of Josh Smith. Not a lot to like there as a coach...

cjsamms
cjsamms

Ellis got a fresh start in Milwaukee. He could have improved his shooting percentage. Failing that, he could have improved his shot selection. Or maybe improve his willingness to share the ball. Or maybe improve his defense. Or do the Bucks a favor and opt out. Thankfully, he opted out. And the Bucks were smart enough not to match.

Skins'Fan
Skins'Fan

@davidnibert Dirk was B+ last year as he recovered from injuries, he has a game that will age gracefully. He needs a big like Chandler once again to succeed. Imagine a Larry Sanders or a Omer Asik with him. They could trot out a decent lineup with their backcourt and that type of pairing. Still nothing more than a 7, 8 seed playoff fodder team.