Let’s focus on the long shots and forget about the miracles for now.
In other words, stop dreaming about the Mavs signing Chris Paul and Dwight Howard this summer. That isn’t happening unless one or both of them agree to take much, much, much less than max contracts, even if the Mavs managed to strip their roster of everyone except for Dirk Nowitzki and didn’t take any salary back. Or if the luxury-tax-paying Lakers agree to a sign-and-trade that frankly wouldn’t make sense for them.
But it is realistic -- not probable, but certainly possible -- for the Mavs to be able to add either the NBA’s premier point guard or the league’s best big man while keeping key complementary veterans Shawn Marion and Vince Carter.
It wouldn’t necessarily be simple, however. It would likely require cooperation from Carter or Marion -- both of whom are otherwise candidates to be moved in salary-dump deals despite the Dallas front office’s strong desire to keep them -- and maybe a little luck.
First, some pertinent figures:
The salary cap for next season, which will be announced June 30, is expected to be somewhere between $58.5 million and $60 million.
The Mavs currently have $41,811,829 committed to next season’s salary cap: the guaranteed contracts of Nowitzki ($22,721,381), Marion ($9,316,796), Carter ($3,180,000), Jared Cunningham ($1,208,400) and Jae Crowder ($788,872); a cap hold of $1,655,300 for the 13th overall pick (pending lottery results); and six $490,180 cap holds to fill the required 12 roster spots.
Howard’s first-year salary for a max contract: $20,513,178.
Paul’s first-year salary for a max contract: $18,668,430.
So how can the Mavs create enough cap space to sign one or the other without losing Marion or Carter?
SCENARIO 1: Move their young assets.
This could cover Paul. The Mavs would still need to do more to create room for a non-discounted Howard, who is eligible for a higher salary because max deals can be 105 percent of what the player made in the previous season.
If the salary cap is set at $60 million, the Mavs could create room for Paul simply by finding a team with cap space or a trade exception to take Cunningham off their hands. That would create an additional $718,220 in cap space, the difference between Cunningham’s salary and a cap hold.
A similar salary dump of Crowder would create $298,692 in cap space.
The Mavs also could create $1,165,120 in cap space by moving their first-round pick for no immediate return.
The sum of all three moves would be $2,182,032, so even if the cap is set at $58.5 million, it’s feasible for the Mavs to carve out enough room to sign Paul to a max contract without making any moves involving their veteran core.
Of course, the Mavs would much rather not give up all of their young assets, particularly a lottery pick and Crowder, a rotation player as a rookie.
SCENARIO 2: Stretch and re-sign Carter.
With contracts signed under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams can waive players under the “stretch provision,” spreading the cap hit paying the remaining guaranteed money on the deal over twice the number of years left on the contract plus one.
In this case, with Carter entering the final year of his contract, that would be a three-year period ($1,060,000 per year).
Add the cap hold, and stretching Carter would create $1,629,820 in cap space. Depending on where the cap falls, that could be enough to give Paul a max offer. Carter also could be stretched in addition to moves made to dump young assets to clear enough space to sign Paul or possibly Howard.
Renowned CBA expert Larry Coon confirmed that Carter would be eligible to return to Dallas if he cleared waivers. Theoretically, if Carter signed for the vet minimum, he’d essentially get a $1.4 million raise.
The decision to stretch Carter can be made at any time, so the Mavs could wait until they had a commitment from Paul or Howard.
The risk: Any team with enough cap space or a large enough trade exception could claim Carter, whose salary has been a bargain the past two seasons. He also could explore other options in free agency. (Think the Thunder would be interested in Carter as a much cheaper replacement for Kevin Martin?)
SCENARIO 3: Marion exercises his early termination option and re-signs for a reduced salary.
Call this the “Richard Jefferson scenario,” as he set the precedent by opting out and re-signing a four-year deal with the Spurs in 2010.
This could be the simplest way to create enough cap space to sign Howard to a max deal. It’s convenient that agent Dan Fegan represents Howard and Marion.
Marion’s ETO deadline is believed to be June 30, which would mean this decision must be made before the Mavs could meet with either of the superstar free agents. The Mavs also wouldn’t be able to agree to an extension with Marion at that point, although there could be expressions of a mutual interest in his return with an, ahem, unspoken understanding of what that might entail.
Say the cap is set at $58.5 million. Marion could sign a three-year deal worth $16.77 million, starting with a $5.35 million salary, to create enough cap space to give Howard a max deal.
That’d be a win-win situation. The Mavs would get their cap space, and Marion would nearly double his guaranteed money and get the comfort of knowing he’d likely finish his career in Dallas.
“There are a thousand different ways,” Mark Cuban said in April when asked about carving out enough cap space to sign one of the max-caliber players on the market.
But there aren’t that many that would allow the Mavs to keep their veteran core together, which directly affects how attractive a destination Dallas might be for a superstar this summer.