What the Mavericks should do when the lockout ends

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Welcome back to an ongoing series here at PBT, in which we examine the post-lockout course of action of every team in the league. Kurt kicked things off yesterday with a look at the Lakers’ preseason plans, and today we’ll dive into the docket sitting in front of the WORLD* CHAMPION Dallas Mavericks. Tomorrow you can enjoy a look into the basement, with an Analysis of the Timberwolves’ projected plans for the summer.

*The world is not flat, the sun doesn’t orbit around the United States, and the NBA is not the world. 

Last season in Dallas: Pretty ho-hum, really. The Mavs just played high-level basketball throughout the regular season, endured a season-ending injury to their second best player, succeeded while their preseason x-factor sat on the bench, added new contributors mid-stride, rallied through yet another costly injury, beat a murderer’s row of playoff opponents in amazing fashion, and capped it all off by hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time in franchise history. No big.

Since we last saw the Mavericks: Not much has changed. A million talk show appearances later, this team is more or less where we left it; ready to compete in the coming season (after a few moves in free agency to either preserve the current core or bolster it), but likely still a step removed from the title favorites. Dallas went on a miraculous run to take the 2011 title, but they can likely do no more than put themselves in a position to roll the dice come next year’s playoffs. That was good enough to roll all the way through the Finals in 2011, but it’s no guarantee that they’ll be favorites come next postseason.

A few other notes: Dirk Nowitzki and J.J. Barea are representing their countries (err, country and territory, respectively) in EuroBasket, Tyson Chandler told Henry Abbott of TrueHoop that his preliminary negotiations with the Mavericks didn’t exactly go swimmingly, and Rodrigue Beaubois and Caron Butler have continued working toward healthy seasons in 2011-2012.

When the lockout ends, the Mavericks need to… Choose one of the following paths: (1) re-sign Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, and possibly J.J. Barea in order to maintain their current competitive core, (2) re-sign either Chandler or Butler while covering for the other’s loss with positional depth, or (3) let both Chandler and Butler walk while bracing for a bit of a drop-off. Dallas’ off-season — in whatever form the lockout allows — leans heavily on free agency and the decisions made by all parties within it.

Losing Butler would be a shame, but losing Chandler would legitimately move the franchise down a peg in terms of their immediate competitive worth. Brendan Haywood is a good, starting-caliber center (regardless of what his 2010-2011 production would have you believe), but Chandler is a talent who can elevate a team’s collective defense while augmenting their offensive flow. Players like that don’t come around often, and as the Mavs will find out shortly, they don’t come cheap.

Butler, too, is rather important, and he’ll likely be the best player the Mavs can “add” to their current roster thanks to the limitations of the salary cap. He didn’t play a minute of playoff basketball last season, and thus if Dallas can re-sign him, Butler would bring the added boost of a roster addition with the built-in familiarity of a franchise mainstay. An interesting combination, to be sure. Plus, not only is Butler a flat-out superior scorer to the rotating cast of players the Mavs utilized on the wing, but he also brings a slew of specific skills that allow him to be particularly successful in Dallas: he’s emerged as quite a threat from the corners, can create his own shot more effectively than any Maverick not named Dirk, and is a very effective perimeter defender. Even championship teams need to find ways to improve, and adding Butler back into the rotation is the simplest way for the Mavs to do so.

Regardless of how free agency unfolds for the Mavs, Rick Carlisle must find minutes for the roster’s young talent this season. Carlisle gave Rodrigue Beaubois a legitimate shot after his initial return from injury last season, but Beaubois never found a good rhythm and was eventually shelved with a complication to that same injury. Corey Brewer found limited minutes after being picked up by Dallas mid-season, but he wasn’t familiar enough with the Mavericks’ system to become a regular member of the rotation. Dominique Jones is an interesting prospect, but he, too, didn’t have much of an opportunity in the Mavs’ crowded backcourt. There are still plenty of veterans on the roster that will be worthy of minutes, but Carlisle needs to begin preparing for the next stage of this franchise’s life cycle by carving out playing time for the neophytes. We use words like “veteran,” and “experienced,” to describe Dallas, but it’s all pretty much code for “old.” Dallas’ key contributors are aging, and while there are no budding stars on the roster who demand minutes, Beaubois, Brewer, and Jones are all capable of being long-term contributors for an NBA team. They’ll bring value to the franchise with either their production or their trade value if given the opportunity, but that process begins with seeing the floor.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.