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When the dust settled on yet another swing-and-miss offseason for the Dallas Mavericks, you knew the inevitable was coming. A Kobe Bryant-styled (kind of) contract for Dirk Nowitzki that would make up from the massive pay cuts he took in 2014-15 and 2015-16 to aid in Dallas’ salary cap flexibility.
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That flexibility didn’t really allow the Mavericks to bring in any boffo free agents, a running theme that has plagued the franchise despite prudent and creative financial planning in the years since its 2011 championship. Ironically Dirk will take in the biggest contract of his career at age 38, and in the same summer that the team did sign one of the most coveted free agents on the market – former Golden State Warrior Harrison Barnes.
The kicker here is that Mavs owner Mark Cuban, flush with that rising salary cap and Dirk’s low cap hold (which allowed for the new acquisitions to be already under the tent), actually gave more than Nowitzki’s reported agreement from early July (two years, $40 million), and more than the Dallas legend apparently asked for. From a talk with Brown and Scoop at CBS Sports Radio recently:
“Dirk wasn’t even in the country and people couldn’t even reach him when free agency started,” Cuban told us. “I basically told him, look, you tell me the price and it actually started lower. His agent said ‘how about this much’ and we said ‘we’ll have a little more money, we’ll give you more’ and as the numbers started getting bigger and bigger, it was like ‘what about this number?’ ‘We’ll give you more.’ Finally, it was like ‘this is what we got left, take it!’
“We wanted to make it a two-year deal with a team option so that people wouldn’t speculate that he was going to retire because Dirk is the type of guy, he’s just a good guy. He would hate going city to city to city and everyone asking him if he was going to retire because he has no intention of retiring after this year and, with the team option that we have, he gave us the flexibility that said ‘if we find somebody that we can send the money to that he likes, we all like, then let’s do it and if not, let’s give the money to Dirk again which I’m fine with too.”
In the end, Nowitzki signed a two-year, $50 million deal with $30 million guaranteed. If Dirk decides to walk away from the game in 2017 (Heaven forbid, after the recent retirements of Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, and conceivably Kevin Garnett), the Mavericks own a team option that would still pay Nowitzki a chunk of money while clearing their 2017 salary structure of not only his full salary but his substantial cap hold.
With Nowitzki a technical free agent this offseason, his former cap hold didn’t stand for a whole heck of a lot this summer, which allowed the team to not only add Barnes but deal for former Warriors big man Andrew Bogut. Nowitzki took a pay cut from 2013-14’s $22.7 million to $7.9 million in 2014-15 and $8.3 million last season. Those would seem like reasonable numbers for a 36 and 37-year old working on an above average squad, but Nowitzki was an All-Star in the first year of that deal, and contributed 18.3 points and 6.5 rebounds in just 31 minutes a game last season for a Mavs team that made the playoffs.
Though Dirk will fade as time marches on, it is numbers like these that don’t totally align this deal with the two-year, $48.5 million extension Kobe Bryant signed in 2013 to make himself the highest-paid player in the game.
When you mix the over the top usage and minutes-sopping impact of Bryant’s play, there was an easy argument to make that for most of 2015-16 he was the most destructive player in the league. Yes, there were 12th men in the NBA last year that Jerry Stackhouse could probably still beat in a game to 21 (Kobe wasn’t the worst player in the NBA), but they weren’t out there shooting 20-plus times at a terrible percentage, playing no defense.
Nowitzki won’t have a fallout like that, if his gradual decline in recent years is any indication. His efficiency numbers are still stellar, and he’s missed a total of 14 games over the last three seasons.
Furthermore, the Mavericks can afford it.
Not just because Mark Cuban is the sort of billionaire that doesn’t have to lie about his actual bank account numbers, but because the salary cap has jumped up to $94 million for 2016-17, and it will hike up again next summer (provided a labor impasse gets out of the way soon enough for an orthodox offseason – as if there is such a thing in the NBA).
Dallas currently has the league’s second-highest payroll, for now at least as we wait out the final dollar amount for LeBron James’s contract; a contract that will push Cleveland to the top of that list. Even if Nowitzki returns for the full $25 million next season, though, even with Barnes on the books for over $23 million, and even with Wesley Matthews making over $17.8 million (still an overpay even with this cap), the team will have plenty of cap flexibility in what will be a loaded offseason roster full of free agents.
Mavericks fans have heard that song before, the team has been turned down by top line free agents year after year since cracking away at the edges of its championship roster following the 2011 NBA title and the owner lockout that followed.
On paper, Dallas has consistently made the right move in attempting to shoot for further titles while Dirk did his damndest. Bad luck and bad timing have gotten in the way, though, and for years the team has had to settle for second-tier offseason acquisitions for coach Rick Carlisle to work his usual magic with, and the team hasn’t made it out of the first round in the West since grabbing that ring.
Despite the presence of Barnes, a top-five free agent in a weak class, this summer didn’t guarantee the Mavericks a second round spot or even a postseason berth. They’ll have to battle once again under Dirk and Carlisle, while hoping Bogut’s health holds up after a frightening leg injury that ended his career with the Warriors, and his borderline untenable current quarters at the Rio Olympics.
What is hopefully certain is the future of Dirk Nowitzki over the next two seasons. A little less scoring, a little less rebounding, fewer minutes, and a whole lot of money.
(Hat-tip: The Score)
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