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