NBA Season Preview: The Dallas Mavericks

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Last season: 55-27, which was enough to nab the West’s second seed before losing a tight series to the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. It was Dallas’ tenth consecutive 50-win season, but also their fourth first-round exit over that same span.

Head Coach: Rick Carlisle, an excellent coach driven by detail, famous for both getting the most out of his roster and neglecting certain corners of it. Few coaches are as skilled in adapting their game plan mid-season, but Carlisle famously neglected to make Mavs rookie Rodrigue Beaubois a consistent part of the rotation despite his fantastic play, just as he neglected to let Tayshaun Prince sit at the adult table back in 2003.

Key Departures: Erick Dampier, Erick Dampier’s instantly expiring contract, Eduardo Najera, another year of production from an aging core.

Key Additions: Tyson Chandler, Dominique Jones, familiarity for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, and a more deserving role (and the accompanying minutes) for Rodrigue Beaubois.

Best case scenario: Dallas is the clear-cut No. 2 in the West for most of the season, and a Laker implosion vaunts Dallas into consideration as the conference’s “team-to-beat.”

For that to happen: Carlisle will need to find the optimal manner in which to combine all kinds of useful, versatile talents, and each of those pieces will need to perform up to their capabilities.

Dallas is so deep and talented that no one really needs to max out in order for the team to be successful this season, but each of the pieces does need to fit just so and fill in as Dirk Nowtizki’s second fiddle by committee. Tom Ziller of NBA FanHouse illustrated that last point beautifully in a September installment of The Works; the thing that separates the Lakers from the Mavs is not overall depth, but second-tier talent. Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood, Tyson Chandler, and Rodrigue Beaubois are effective and productive players, but they’re no Pau Gasol. Some aren’t even a Lamar Odom or a Ron Artest. Dallas has enough talent on its roster to finish the marathon regular season with an excellent time, but when things turn into an all-out sprint come April? The rotations tighten, the top players have to produce in spite of opposing teams teching specifically against them (and only them), and proper preparation allows opponents to exploit previously unknown (or ignored) weaknesses.

Say what you will about it being a two-superstar system or a three-superstar system or some alternative model, but Dirk Nowitzki needs a top-flight sidekick for the Mavs to be contenders, and no player currently under Mark Cuban’s employ was able to succeed in that capacity last season.

Then again, the same could probably be said of the 2006 Mavs, a team that battled through the West to make it all the way to the NBA finals, or the 2007 Mavs, a squad that won 67 regular season games before running into a match-up nightmare in the first round of the playoffs. This year’s Lakers provide a tougher opponent than anything the Mavs saw in ’06 or ’07, but overall, this Dallas team has more talent in all the right places.

They may not have Devin Harris, but they have a combination of Jason Kidd and Rodrigue Beaubois. They may not have Josh Howard, but they have a superior duo in Caron Butler and Shawn Marion. They may not have Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop (just in case you happen to remember the days in which Diop was an actually effective defensive big), but they have Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler. This team has enough going for it to mount an impressive playoff run, and the biggest point of differentiation between this year’s team and the most successful Dallas models is the mere presence of the Lakers.

Take L.A. out of the picture — by injury, infighting, or simply a premature playoff exit — and Dallas has a shot. I’m not sure how the Mavs would get past the Celtics, Magic, or Heat even if they did manage to make an unexpected surge to the finals, but getting there would be something in itself.

More likely the Mavs will: Win 50+ games yet again, improve their standing (but not their position in the standings, where Dallas finished 2nd in the West) relative to a year ago, and still watch the Lakers waltz to the finals.

It’s nothing against the Mavs. This is a solid team, through and through. L.A. is just very, very good, and the rest of the West is formidable as well. So even if Dallas does have a successful season by most standards, they could still see their run ended by the superior outfit. You can blame the differences in approach, the personnel acquired, or the Pau Gasol trade, but barring a huge (and I do mean huge) boost from Rodrigue Beaubois and rookie Dominique Jones, Dallas will hang out in the waiting room with San Antonio, Portland, and the other would-be contenders in the West.

You can expect Dallas to improve in plenty of areas, regardless. A full training camp and season experience for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood should help them feel more at home in Carlisle’s system, a point which shouldn’t be underestimated. Last year’s offense and defense — both of which ranged from ‘average’ to ‘good, not great’ — should improve with that familiarity and the additions of Chandler and Jones, but again, they likely won’t improve enough to significantly change the Mavs’ fate. Dallas will likely improve their rebounding rate from a season ago, if only because Dallas’ performance on the offensive glass last season was very disappointing (they ranked 26th in the league in offensive rebounding rate) even by this team’s standards, and Tyson Chandler happens to have a knack for hitting the glass on that end.

Also, Rodrigue Beaubois, and hopefully lots of him.

Ultimately, you’re looking at a squad that will be fairly similar to last year’s team in approach, but a tad superior in execution.

Prediction: 53-29. Good (better even, despite one fewer win from last season), but for those with eyes toward titles and titles alone, not good enough.

Report: Rockets becoming “increasingly serious threat” to sign Chris Paul

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The Houston Rockets are one of only a handful of teams in the NBA with a legitimate ability to add a couple of key pieces and try to make a run at the Golden State Warriors.

Chris Paul would be that kind of piece, and the Rockets are ramping up efforts to land him.

From Marc Stein of ESPN.

The Houston Rockets have emerged as an increasingly serious threat in the chase for soon-to-be free agent Chris Paul, according to league sources.

The Rockets still have work to do in terms of clearing sufficient salary-cap space to make a representative offer for Paul, but sources told ESPN that Houston star James Harden has been advocating hard in favor of the Paul pursuit and has made his interest in teaming with the Los Angeles Clippers’ point guard known directly to Paul.

Sources say Houston also remains at the heart of the trade hunt to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers, despite the fact George is only under contract through next season and is known to be angling to sign with his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in July 2018.

The challenge in all of this is the Rockets have just about $10 million in cap space this summer, which is about a third of what it will take to land Chris Paul. That means they need to trade Ryan Anderson and his $19.6 million owed next season and take no salary back, and while there are a few teams in a position to be able to take on that salary — Philadephia, Brooklyn, Sacramento and others — they are going to want a young player or first-round pick as a sweetener. The Rockets also are considering moving Lou Williams and his $7 million salary, or Patrick Beverley and his $5.5 million. However, even moving both of the later two is not getting near the salary Paul will demand.

Chris Paul met with the Clippers front office on Tuesday to talk about the future, but he’s expected to meet with a number of teams in free agency, with the Rockets and Spurs being key suitors. The question is, will any of these teams bring him closer to toppling the Golden State Warriors, and is it worth it to take less money for that chance? Especially after he got the CBA changed so that as of July 1 the “over 36” rule becomes the “over 38 rule” so the Clippers can give him one more five-year max contract.

How much will Dion Waiters earn as a free agent?

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Dion Waiters had the best season of his career last year at age 25 in Miami. The Heat pushed Waiters to get in the best shape of his life (just check out his Instagram), and combine that with the fact that Justise Winslow went down Waiters got the ball in his hands more with a chance to create for himself, and you had a little rush of scoring. He’s still not the most efficient player ever (to be kind), but he’s close to average.

Waiters opted out of his $3.2 million he is owed next season, and he is now a free agent. How much is he will he get now on the open market? Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald wrote this:

One scout said he would be surprised if the bidding for Waiters soars much above $10 million, if that, because of his small sample size of high-level play this past season. One prominent agent who does not represent Waiters predicted he would get $8 million to $10 million annually.

That number seems about right, if it’s a two-year deal (or a team option on the third year). The league average salary will be around $8.5 million, and that’s where Waiters should fall next year.

Whether Miami has that money to spend comes down to whether they land a big free agent such as Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin (both max guys). If so, the Heat will not have the money, and what they do have would be more focused on keeping James Johnson. However, if the Heat strike out then Waiters could be back in Miami.

One way or another Waiters is going to get a raise. That doesn’t mean teams are not still leery.

Report: Knicks have “legitimate” interest in re-signing Derrick Rose

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Were they watching the games last year?

Derrick Rose put up decent numbers last year — 18 points per game, PER of 17, true shooting percentage of 53 — but was a mess defensively and does not fit in the triangle offense. He’s a decent point guard now, a replacement level player who can help in the right system.

Since the Knicks point guard rotation right now consists of rookie Frank Ntilikina plus whoever the team signs this summer, turns out Rose is not out of the picture, reports Ian Begley of ESPN.

The New York Knicks have “legitimate” interest in re-signing Derrick Rose, league sources familiar with the matter said….

The Knicks’ interest in the point guard is dependent on several factors, including his health and his asking price. When asked last week about New York potentially re-signing Rose, team president Phil Jackson said “we’re listening.”

Money will be the key — it’s not going to be anywhere near the $21.3 million Rose made last season. No team is going to offer that.

Can the Knicks get him for less than $10 million? Will another team come in and offer $12 million or more for him? The market for point guards this summer is going to be interesting because after the big name on the free-agent market — Chris Paul (we’re not counting Stephen Curry, he’s not leaving) — there are some quality players out there that can help teams such as Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday, George Hill, Patty Mills, Jeff Teague and Shaun Livingston. There aren’t that many teams with money to really spend on free agent point guards, so while a couple (Holiday, maybe Lowry) re-sign with their old teams there are a number of guys who may find the market softer than they expected. Rose is among them.

And that’s where the Knicks come in. Rose is far from a perfect fit, but if the soft market drives his price down closer to the midlevel ($8.4 million) or just above, that may be worth it for the Knicks for a year while they try to develop the rookie.

Report: Russell Westbrook may sign “designated player” extension with Thunder on July 1

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Russell Westbrook is your NBA MVP, coming off a historic season where he averaged a triple-double.

Westbrook also could see a massive pay raise this summer. Yes, you remember correctly that Westbrook signed one last summer after Kevin Durant left, but the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that kicks in July 1 grandfathered him (and James Harden, who also signed an extension last summer) in to get the “designated veteran” max contract. That would start at about $34.7 million (if the cap is at $99 million as expected) and go up from there.

Thunder management’s first call at midnight July 1 will be to Westbrook to offer the deal, and he may well take it reports Royce Young of ESPN.

Those close to Westbrook fully expect him to take the Thunder’s offer, quite possibly at 12:01 a.m., and stabilize the franchise and present a clear road map. Westbrook signed an extension last summer and invoked the word “loyalty” for a reason. He wanted to make a statement — a public declaration — and take on the burden of leading the franchise forward.

He likes the existing roster and has a close relationship and confidence in Presti and Weaver. He has built a strong bond with head coach Billy Donovan. He knew what he signed for and, with the Thunder coming off a successful first post-Durant season and with pieces in place to improve the team, there are a lot of reasons to commit again.

If Westbrook signs this, the Thunder can get on with the business of improving this roster — which will be next to impossible. The Thunder are capped out and have to re-sign restricted free agent Andre Roberson. Sam Presti is a smart man, but his hands are mostly tied due to some of the big contracts on the roster (ones that would have been no issue if Kevin Durant had stayed). The Thunder will make moves around the edges, but it’s going to take time to do anything substantial.

If Westbrook doesn’t sign this, more than just red flags will go up in OKC — this will be sirens and flashing red lights. The Thunder will be forced to think about trading Westbrook, or finding a way to keep him happy and in house. They will basically be right back to where they were last summer.

If Westbrook signs it — and he likely will, that’s a lot of money to leave on the table — it at least gives the Thunder a clear direction. Which is about all they can hope for this summer.