In his 10 seasons with the Orlando Magic, Jameer Nelson was never considered more than a secondary or tertiary option—a pleasant afterthought to the likes of Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu and, more recently, next-generation stars Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris.
In signing with the Dallas Mavericks, however, Nelson may prove to be the final piece of a Western Conference contender in the making.
ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported that the deal is expected to be completed on Thursday:
ESPN sources say Mavs on track to complete the signing of Jameer Nelson when the veteran PG makes his scheduled visit to Dallas on Thursday— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 23, 2014
One month ago, the Mavericks were a team in full-on flux. They’d just dealt starting point guard Jose Calderon and a trio of assets to the New York Knicks, bringing back Raymond Felton and an aged Tyson Chandler in return. Meanwhile, three of their most important players—Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Vince Carter—were all about to enter unrestricted free agency.
Unless owner Mark Cuban had a tangible plan in place, Dallas seemed destined for another year of diminishing postseason returns. Worse still, it could fall out of the playoff picture altogether.
That’s when the dominoes starting falling.
On July 10, the Mavs inked Houston Rockets forward Chandler Parsons to a three-year, $46 million offer sheet. Three days later, Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears indicated that after telling Parsons he’d match “everything,” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey balked at the idea.
The next order of business: convincing Nowitzki—the longstanding franchise cornerstone—to stick around, preferably at a discount.
What a deal Dallas got.
On July 15, Fox Sports’ Mike Fisher reported Nowizki and the Mavs had agreed on a three-year, $25 million deal. In both letter and spirit, the contract harkened to a similar signing struck by the San Antonio Spurs with their Hall of Fame forward, Tim Duncan, a few years back.
Now, Mavs fans are hoping Nowitzki’s friendly flexibility can help the team reap similar championship dividends.
While Dallas was forced to renounce Marion and Carter—key cogs whose veteran presences will surely be missed—the resulting core upgrades could prove enough to resurrect the team’s contender status.
Nelson, waived by the Magic on June 30\, is key to this equation. At 31 years old, the diminutive guard is coming off arguably his worst statistical season since 2004-05, Nelson’s rookie season.
At the same time, when you’ve been tasked with marshaling the NBA’s second-worst offense, your numbers are bound to suffer. Last year’s Magic were, to put it mildly, dreadful at that end of the floor—a mismatched mess of youthful inexperience and positional ambiguity.
By contrast, Dallas finished (subscription required) in the top 10 in the following offensive categories: offensive rating (3rd), effective field-goal percentage (4th), assist ratio (6th), team-turnover percentage (6th) and three-point percentage (2nd).
For Nelson, that’s not a mere statistical upgrade. It’s a life-changing experience.
After losing Calderon, Cuban knew he needed to deepen a point guard rotation that had been winnowed all the way down to the recently re-signed Devin Harris. Here's what he told KTCK-AM 1310 (via The Dallas Morning News) on July 22:
We needed a point guard, having lost Jose. We expected Devin to come back, but we needed more than one. Raymond had a tough year last year; he had a lot of personal issues. ...
We've got a history of being able to take what I call 'fallen angels' and give 'em some love, give 'em some care and have them turn around their careers.
Nelson might not be coming off quite the statistical downturn that Felton is. As a player fallen out of high-profile favor during Orlando’s dramatic post-Howard collapse, however, Nelson fits Cuban’s description to a tee.
Now it’s time to see what he can do with a real NBA offense.
Indeed, having Chandler back in the mix gives Nelson a pick-and-roll threat he hasn’t had since the Howard days—to say nothing of Tyson’s effect on the defensive end.
In Nowitzki, Parsons and Monta Ellis, Nelson now boats more offensive weapons than even the 2008-09 Magic, who rode a Howard-centric offense predicated on three-pointers aplenty all the way to the NBA Finals.
In a recent roundtable for Mavs Moneyball, Rami Michail elucidated just how potent the Dallas attack stands to be:
I've been trying to avoid this comparison, because the Mavs players aren't the the shooters or passers the Spurs' players are, but I can see the Mavs offense somewhat resembling San Antonio's. Having multiple players who can put the ball on the floor while also shooting from deep should result in plenty of easy driving opportunities and open looks. The defense can't sleep like it did on Marion and [Samuel] Dalembert now. I expect a more diverse and attacking Mavs offense that will constantly keep the defense moving and scrambling.
As far as statistical and stylistic standards go, it doesn’t get much loftier than the San Antonio Spurs.
Still, for whatever Nelson lacks in Tony Parker’s skill and savvy—and it’s quite a bit, to be sure—the two are, in many ways, cut from a similar point guard cloth.
Both are premier ball-handlers capable of carving out space where others would merely tuck tail and retreat, both are splendid in the pick-and-roll, and both are capable of canning an outside jumper.
With the caliber of cohorts at his side, you’d better believe Nelson will have his fair share of wide-open ones.
After failing to land any of the summer’s sexiest names—LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh included—Dallas could’ve easily taken a more conservative approach, reinforcing the fringes and setting their sights on the inevitable post-Dirk rebuild.
Instead, Cuban and his cohorts orchestrated one of the most intriguing on-the-fly rebuilds in recent memory, capped off with a point guard who—despite having but one All-Star appearance to his name—remains more than capable of effectively and efficiently running an NBA offense.
That it could wind up being the flat-out best offense in the league? You’d better believe Nelson would’ve been first in line for that job—even if he wound up being the final piece of the puzzle.