In a departure from franchise philosophy throughout the Mark Cuban era, the Dallas Mavericks reached a financial pain threshold and abandoned salary bingeing for stellar low-post big man Al Jefferson, instead promoting the foreign concepts of financial flexibility and wistful hope.
The win-now Mavs and financial flexibility? Goes together like Cuban and neck ties.
The organizationally hyped Erick Dampier trade chip failed to deliver the home run. Let's not pretend that a big swing for the 6-foot-10 Jefferson, a double-double machine over the past four seasons, failed to materialize because the Mavs were scared off by the $42 million left on Jefferson's three-year contract.
But it did become unpalatable when combined with the Minnesota Timberwolves' refusal to budge on Cuban's demands to eat bad contracts the Mavs acquired in past trades, a total of $15.8 million due to bench warmers Matt Carroll and DeShawn Stevenson. That's a $31.6 million stinger after the dollar-for-dollar luxury-tax penalty.
If Utah doesn't make a late offer free of a salary dump, the back-to-the-basket Jefferson and not the defensive-minded Tyson Chandler is in Dallas today. And the run-and-gun Mavs are a tougher cover as a more dynamically complex, inside-outside offense, which would be particularly beneficial when the action slows in the postseason.
Instead, the Mavs are selling improved defense to challenge the Los Angeles Lakers' excellent front line and an alley-oop partner for Jason Kidd with the 7-1 Chandler, the injury-rattled consolation prize for Dampier's $13 million, non-guaranteed contract.
"Now we've got our shot-blocking center [Brendan Haywood] and someone that can give us some versatility and defense against [Pau] Gasol," Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said of Chandler. "He can guard him in the low post, if he pulls him out he can guard him and you've got to guard the pick-and-roll with [Steve] Nash and [Chris] Paul.
"Those are the things that were probably more important on the priority list than us having another scoring option."
These Mavs enter next season with an eye on patiently pouncing on an available superstar to pair with Dirk Nowitzki during his four-year window. Tuesday's trade was designed to make the Mavs, who implemented a franchise salary cap, a serious player at the February trade deadline. It essentially allowed Dallas to extend the Dampier chip by exchanging it for Chandler's $12.6 million expiring contract, a move that became possible when Charlotte backed out of a deal with Toronto.
In the process, the Mavs remarkably managed to dump Carroll's remaining $11.7 million contract back on the Bobcats and also parted with fan favorite Eduardo Najera and his $3 million contract for next season. The transaction leaves the Mavs with about $30 million in expiring contracts, including Caron Butler's $10.8 million contract, to chase the precious few bona fide superstars out there, such as the highly desirable Paul.
"If you would have asked me, because I think the Damp chip is getting a lot of play, right, and if you would have asked me if we could get two of the top available big guys [Haywood and Chandler] that are in their prime, that can help us in the here and now and also be assets in the future, I would have taken it and not looked back," Nelson said.
"When you think about those top three guys [LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh], I think people's imaginations tend to run wild. But, in the real world of, 'Look, this is doable,' we feel real good about what we've gotten out of the marketplace this year."
In this phase of save-to-spend, did the Mavs improve their chances to contend this season? The Mavs believe so because of Chandler's defensive versatility. Dallas can boast one of the longest front lines in the Western Conference as long as Chandler remains healthy.
The larger concern isn't how the Mavs will defend in the playoffs, but how they will score. Nelson said scoring hasn't been a problem in the playoffs, but the six-game bow-out to the Spurs suggests otherwise. The Mavs averaged 90 points a game with their half-court sets deteriorating to agonizingly inefficient execution.
While the Spurs could feed Duncan in the post all day, the Mavs were hamstrung without a low-post threat. It's a problem that could be masked with a penetrating guard, but with Roddy Beaubois strapped to the bench and Kidd incapable of getting inside, the Mavs were at the mercy of the Spurs' crisp rotations and close-outs.
Chandler can be an alley-oop machine and Kidd will like that, but the center's offensive repertoire is limited. Haywood, a career 7.7-point scorer, is not a low-post force. As the roster now stands -- with no viable offensive upgrades with the exception of a larger role for Beaubois, a possible role for slashing rookie Dominique Jones and Butler probably playing more small forward than shooting guard -- Nowitzki will again be saddled with shaking double-teams and scoring around the rim.
Now picture a half-court offense with Kidd running the point, Jefferson down low, Nowitzki doing his thing, the lightning-quick Beaubois slashing and splashing wide-open 3-pointers and with Butler posing a midrange threat.
Jefferson, perhaps not a superstar but a potential perennial All-Star at age 25, would have been an intriguing option to deviate from running the offense consistently through Nowitzki as well as to alleviate Nowitzki's scoring and rebounding burden. He could also have been a potential cornerstone with 22-year-old Beaubois as the Mavs transition out of the Kidd years and eventually phase out of the Nowitzki era.
Would Jefferson's offensive upside, while accounting for his well-documented defensive flailing, have been enough to push the Mavs into a West final with the Lakers this season? We'll never know, but we do know Nowitzki has never had such a low-post punch.
That endeavor is over, and the quest for the blockbuster deal to land a superstar next to Nowitzki moves on. The club has assembled more assets than it had entering free agency. These more patient, more cost-conscious Mavs now must make it pay off.