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Mavericks found a keeper and conundrum in Dennis Smith Jr. and Nerlens Noel

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Mavericks had one building block fall into their lap.

Now, they’re playing chicken with another.

No. 9 pick Dennis Smith Jr. could be the steal of the draft. He hasn’t even begun his rookie year, so plenty is unknown, but Smith’s summer-league excellence only confirms what I saw before the draft. He looks like a potential star, and Dallas gets credit for landing him in the back half of the lottery.

Nerlens Noel‘s restricted free agency didn’t go quite so smoothly. The center, acquired before the last trade deadline, reportedly rejected an offer paying $17.5 million annually and took the $4,187,599 qualifying offer.

That could have major upside for the Mavericks, who could hold him at a $7,956,438 cap hit next summer then exceed the cap to re-sign him after finishing their other business. They could have major cap space, especially if Wesley Matthews declines his $18,622,514 player option.

But this could also be the beginning of the end of Noel in Dallas. Of the 20 players who’d ever signed qualifying offers, only one – Spencer Hawes – re-signed with the same team the following summer. Mark Cuban can try to dress it up, but this situation usually ends with the team and player parting ways.

And it’s not as if the Mavericks can just preemptively trade Noel. As a player on a one-year contract who’d have Bird Rights when it expires, he can block any deal. It’s hard to see a place he;d better showcase himself than Dallas, which needs a starting center and has a scheme that maximizes his contributions.

For that reason, maybe Noel would be the exception who re-signs after taking the qualifying offer. Though being unrestricted should help, the market will still be tight, and I doubt centers suddenly become en vogue in this small-ball era.

Smith, Noel and Harrison Barnes could comprise a nice young core to follow Dirk Nowitzki.

Speaking of Nowitzki, he re-signed for two years, $10 million with a team option – another team-friendly deal granted by him. The Mavericks are trying to remain competitive around him, though that’s an uphill battle as he ages and other Western Conference teams build up.

At least the Mavericks aren’t overspending in some last-ditch effort to win for Nowitzki. That allowed them to extract a second-rounder and cash from the Heat for taking on Josh McRoberts. Dallas still has cap space to pursue similar deals before the trade deadline.

The Mavericks signed their annual gaggle of fliers – Jeff Withey, Maxi Kleber, Maalik Wayns, P.J. Dozier, Gian Clavell, Brandon Ashley, Johnathan Motley – to compete for back-end roster spots. Maybe one emerges as a contributor.

I’d bet Smith becomes much more than that. Even though he has yet to play, he has impressed enough to warrant optimism he’ll out-perform his draft slot. He could be a franchise-changer, and the possibility carries weight.

Offseason grade: B

NBA players’ union votes to support formation of G-League union

Kyrie Irving
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Better pay. Better working conditions. Not to be treated as disposable parts by their employers.

The players in the G-League want the same thing out of a union that auto workers, teachers, and (most obviously) NBA players do. As had been expected (talks had been going on for a while), on Monday the National Basketball Players Association (the NBA players’ union) voted to support the formation of a G-League union, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The G-League players are expected to support this. Sources have told NBC Sports that team and league officials will not oppose the players unionizing, they believe there will be benefits, too.

The primary issue will be pay. Most players in the G-League earn a $35,000 salary, unless they’re an elite high school prospect, or on a two-way contract (which means they are tied to an NBA team and can be called up for 45 days a season). Some players make more through an Exhibit 10 contract with a team — meaning they go to training camp with a team, then get a bonus ($50,000 or so) if they sign with that team’s G-League team.

Other issues would include freedom of player movement, work benefits, and giving the players a voice in other matters like discipline issues.

The NBA continues to push toward each of its teams having a minor-league affiliate. Right now, only the Trail Blazers and Nuggets do not. As the G-League grows, it’s understandable the players want a larger voice in how things are run.

In other news out of the players’ union meeting, Kyrie Irving was voted in as vice president, replacing Paul Gasol. Via Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Chris Paul remains the union president.

Check out Dr. Dre’s Kobe Bryant tribute

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CHICAGO — In a weekend filled with spectacular tributes to Kobe Bryant, this one stood out.

Legendary rapper, songwriter, record producer, and businessman Dr. Dre — a guy who grew up in Los Angeles — released a tribute that stood out (and was highlighted on TNT). Dre did this with Gibson Hazard and Jackson Bannon.

Kobe’s public memorial service takes place Feb. 24 at Staples Center.

Giannis Antetokounmpo on team’s All-Star plan: Attack James Harden

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden
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CHICAGO – James Harden has griped about Giannis Antetokounmpo winning Most Valuable Player last year.

After his team lost to Harden’s in the All-Star game Sunday, Antetokounmpo got in a dig at Harden.

“Offensively, we were just trying to find whoever James Harden was guarding,” Antetokounmpo said of his team’s strategy late. “That’s who we thought we’d have the opportunity to score on.”

Harden is not a good defender. But this is playing right into his hands. He’s at his best in isolation, especially in the post. He faces far more difficulty when run through actions off the ball or trying to keep up in transition.

Down the stretch, Harden defended more effectively than usual. Not great, but above his usual standard. Good enough for LeBron James‘ team to win.

At least, as Giannis previously noted, the MVP trophy is at his house.

Report: John Beilein expected to decide on future as Cavaliers coach by Tuesday

Cavaliers coach John Beilein
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John Beilein is considering resigning as Cavaliers coach.

They play Friday.

Adrian Wojnarowski and Brian Windhorst of ESPN on Sunday night:

The Cleveland Cavaliers and John Beilein have discussed the possibility of the coach stepping down before the end of the All-Star break, and Beilein was expected to reach a decision in the next 24-48 hours, league sources told ESPN.

This is part of the larger problem with Beilein, but this wouldn’t be a difficult transition. Assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff already does so much. And players see Bickerstaff – who previously head-coached the Grizzlies – doing so much.

In his long career as a college head coach, Beilein never had a player on a clear NBA track from the moment he arrived on campus. Beilein has so little first-hand experience with NBA players’ temperaments, which can include disrespecting a head coach and turning to an assistant.

With this report public, it’s hard to see how Beilein maintains any credibility with Cavs players if he returns. When players know the coach is finished by the end of the season, they sometimes take license to rebel. Add the dynamic of knowing Beilein considered resigning earlier, and the last couple months of the season could be even messier than the first few.

At best, everyone would accept this miserable arrangement will end soon enough. Players would tune out Beilein and not make waves. And that’s at best! Not an ideal way to develop young players like Darius Garland, Collin Sexton and Kevin Porter Jr.