I know the big NBA stories of the summer have broken down vaguely thus, in order of importance: LeBron and Kevin Love join forces with Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, Paul George is out for the season, Chris Bosh stays in Miami, Derrick Rose is kept on Team USA’s final roster despite being clearly outplayed by Damian Lillard (I’m sorry but this last fact is irrefutable, and yes this writer is a Bulls fan). The San Antonio Spurs stayed intact, and now are vying for the skills of one Jesus Shuttlesworth at a rate he may not be able to refuse (it must be said, I think Allen would be the best fit in Cleveland, which has a finite supply of legit 2-guards).
One story, however, flew under the radar: Dirk Nowitzki, who had yet another All-Star season in 2013-14, re-signed with the Dallas Mavericks to a reported three-year, $25 million deal. The word in basketball circles is that the 35 year-old German was offered maximum deals by two other clubs (and longtime rivals in his mid-Aughts heyday), the Rockets and the Lakers, in the vicinity of $97 million over four years. Ostensibly, he took the psychotic pay cut out of some kind of maniacal loyalty to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, even though Cuban displayed absolutely zero loyalty in disbanding the Mavericks’ lone championship squad immediately after it won that championship in 2011, allowing key cogs Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barrea, DeShawn Stevenson, and Caron Butler to walk in free agency (and Peja Stojakovic to retire) and replacing them piecemeal with cheaper parts. In reality, there is no sensible way anyone leaves $72 million on the table to stick with a Dallas club that would on paper be a poorer team than a Houston squad fielding Dirk, James Harden, and Dwight Howard. I would assume some kind of ownership percentage of the franchise is in Nowitzki’s future, there absolutely must be a supplemental deal. Somebody who is still so vital to his team’s success really deserves more.
Regardless, Dirk is taking a terrific discount right now, and it only seems fair that Cuban and his GM Donnie Nelson should respond in kind. They have made in-roads towards being a contender, but they’re not quite there yet. They must realize that. Certainly, they have improved this off-season with their trade of starting point guard Jose Calderon and spare parts to reacquire a slightly-past-his-peak center Tyson Chandler (unfortunately, that trade also netted them gun-toting beluga whale point guard Raymond Felton), and their beating out Houston in a staring contest for FIBA Team USA also-ran small forward Chandler Parsons, a big upgrade over a fairly over-the-hill Shawn Marion. Losing Vince Carter in free agency to Memphis does hurt their depth a bit, as well. But a starting four of Monta Ellis at shooting guard, Parsons at the three, Nowitzki at power forward, and Chandler holding down the middle is pretty darn good.
But not, I fear, title-contender good. Because there are, after all, five positions in basketball, and therein lies the rub. Losing a great shooter and smart passer like Calderon is going to be a tough pill to swallow offensively for Dallas. Yes, Ellis handles the ball more than a typical two-guard, but without a high-level shooter at the point, the position becomes a severe minus in a league with a glut of high-caliber speedsters playing the one. It will be a struggle for the Mavericks to replace Calderon’s production with a rotation of three non-starting point guards in new additions Felton and Jameer Nelson and the re-signed Devin Harris (who might be able to do a little spot-up work at the two as well). And Dallas is now bereft of true, movable assets, except on the margins. Right now, Dallas’s bench outside of the point guard position looks like this: back-up center Greg Smith, a young, intriguing piece on Houston with some upside whose knee scope capsized his season last year; Jae Crowder at small forward and some power forward, Brandan Wright at power forward and center, Richard Jefferson at shooting guard and small forward, Al Farouq-Aminu at small forward and some power forward, and maybe a little Ivan Johnson at back-up power forward as well. This is still a team that needs a decent starting point guard. Can they cobble together a package for a one-year Eric Bledsoe rental from Phoenix? Yes, ostensibly, if Phoenix is willing to bite on Jae Crowder’s upside (his ceiling is basically rookie-year Kenneth Faried). Crowder and Farouq-Aminu are the only pieces that might possibly tantalize the Suns, although Bledsoe is a borderline All-Star right now.
It does appear that Bledsoe and his agent, Rich Paul, badly overplayed their hand in not signing the Suns’ four-year, $48 million offer sheet when they had the chance, instead hedging for the full max, along the lines of the contracts Parsons or Gordon Hayward signed this off-season. Phoenix, as Bledsoe insurance, went out and signed the Sacramento Kings’ starting point guard, Isaiah Thomas. It appears Bledsoe will stay with Phoenix on his $5 million qualifying offer, in lieu of the two sides coming to terms now, and Bledsoe and Paul will test the free agent market in 2015. Considering Bledsoe’s knee woes, this is a dubious decision, and may have created a toxic relationship with management in Phoenix. The Suns are not in the habit of gifting their best players to inter-Conference rivals, but this may be the exception that proves the rule. Would Crowder, Farouq-Aminu and Dallas’s 2015 first-rounder (probably a mid-20s pick) be intriguing enough to pry Bledsoe from Phoenix? Probably not, but Dallas’s title hopes may depend on it.
Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson must realize that their window to win is right now, this year. As we’ve seen with Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce and Steve Nash all-too-recently, once NBA players hit their mid-30s, their skills and health could erode at any time. Dirk Nowitzki is still great, but there’s no telling how long his luck will hold.
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