With Dallas falling to the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals on Thursday, do the Mavericks need to find another star to pair with franchise player Luka Doncic? Or can the team legitimately contend with a single All-Star after a final-four showing this season?
The danger in seeking another superstar is souring the existing depth and chemistry—similar to the difficult years the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets struggled through this past season.
The Mavericks are already looking at a big jump in payroll, with Doncic's extension kicking in at roughly $36.6 million next season. Flexibility going forward will decrease, especially with the Jalen Brunson question.
The Atlanta Hawks, who will always be tied to the Mavericks by the 2018 draft-day swap of Doncic for Trae Young, faced a similar situation last year after an impressive conference finals run. The team chose to pay big money to John Collins and kept the heart of its roster together but fell off considerably this past season.
If the Mavericks feel too self-satisfied by their recent success, they might backslide like the Hawks.
That's not to say the Mavericks shouldn't pay Brunson. But pruning their depth for a single star may be a disaster, especially with a ball-dominant guy such as Doncic. Chasing a name such as Bradley Beal could be counterproductive if it pares away Dallas' depth.
The Mavericks should learn from their recent attempt at the two-star model. Dumping Kristaps Porzingis in trade to the Washington Wizards for role players in Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans made Dallas a better team. That should be the goal instead of straight-up star-chasing.
The Mavericks took a big step forward this season. What they do next is extremely delicate.
Paying Jalen Brunson
In July, Brunson will be an unrestricted free agent after averaging over 22 points per game for the Mavericks in the playoffs. What more would a second star bring in terms of scoring? How would Dallas replace him if he left?
Brunson isn't the problem and should be a part of the solution. The tricky part is getting him re-signed when he could be looking for Fred VanVleet money ($85 million over four years, signed ahead of the 2020-21 season). The good news for the Mavs is that very few teams will have the cap space to pay out a salary starting in the $20 million range this offseason.
Those that could (the Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs) are relatively well-stocked at point guard. The Indiana Pacers are too but could pursue Brunson if they're willing to thin out their backcourt via trade (notably Malcolm Brogdon and TJ McConnell).
The Detroit Pistons may be the biggest threat to Dallas for Brunson, with the means and the need. The rest of the league won't have more than the non-taxpayer mid-level exception that projects to start at $10.3 million.
The Hawks paid Collins $125 million over five years last summer. If he was "a mistake," he's still an asset Atlanta can look to trade in retooling its roster this offseason. Similarly, an investment in Brunson will keep Doncic's most reliable offensive teammate in Dallas and give the franchise a trade chip down the road if needed.
The Mavericks struggled to score without Doncic and Brunson on the floor together in key playoff stretches. Both are targets for opposing offenses. Finding a way to plug that defensive deficiency may be difficult, but it's one worth attacking. The Mavericks should re-sign Brunson and find the right combination of shooters and defenders to round the tandem.
That's easier to say than do, especially with the Mavericks' books with Brunson back at a big salary.
Full Roster, Deep in the Tax
After penciling in Brunson, the Mavericks may already have a full roster of 15 for 2022-23. That's assuming rarely used guard Trey Burke opts into his final year at $3.3 million. The team should also keep its two non-guaranteed players in Maxi Kleber (a key rotation big) and Frank Ntilikina (an inexpensive, young defender).
Internal improvement will come with a healthy Tim Hardaway Jr., who missed the playoffs with a foot injury. Hardaway is a capable scorer, shooter and defender, although his production dipped through 42 games this season.
In June's draft, the Mavericks also have the No. 26 pick, but a late first-round rookie may be unlikely to crack a playoff rotation. Dallas can agree to trade the selection before the draft but cannot execute it until after the pick is made (because of the Stepien Rule).
With the projected roster of 15, Dallas' payroll should balloon to $175 million with a $68 million luxury-tax bill. That's a huge jump from the current non-taxed playoff squad at around $123 million.
The budget should not lead to Brunson's exit, but Dallas will not have a ton of flexibility with a payroll that high. Its lone spending tool of note will be the taxpayer mid-level exception at roughly $6.3 million.
The team also has a $10.9 million trade exception (TPE) for Josh Richardson that expires on June 27, ahead of July free agency. Dallas can't use the TPE to sign a player but can absorb one earning up to $10,965,962 via trade. That additional salary could mean a staggering $51 million increase in luxury tax—it's not a given the franchise will be willing to use the TPE without finding ways to cut significant salary.
The Mavericks could try to sign and trade Brunson, but that won't be easy because of the complicated collective bargaining agreement.
Assuming Brunson's next contract starts at $20 million, a massive raise from his current $1.8 million salary, his outgoing value in trade for Dallas would be $10 million. The incoming team would need to have the means to take on Brunson at $20 million. Unbalanced trades can work but aren't easy.
Jerami Grant is believed by many around the league to be available. With Detroit's cap room, the Mavericks might be able to construct a deal with Brunson at $20 million. Dallas would then need to send out at least another $7 million in salary to take in Grant's $21 million.
But if the Pistons can sign Brunson outright, why would they give away Grant? Draft compensation could make a difference. Dallas owes a protected first-round pick in 2023 to the New York Knicks for Porzingis but could reasonably offer two distant firsts (perhaps 2027 and 2029).
While Dallas can offer the No. 26 pick via trade, pre-negotiating a deal with Brunson with a sign-and-trade in June is illegal. Last summer, the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls were penalized for arranging sign-and-trades before the July moratorium.
If Dallas keeps Brunson, it could also try to pry Rudy Gobert away from the Utah Jazz, bringing in a defensive anchor. Gobert doesn't space the floor offensively, but he's one of the most generous screen-setters in the league. He's also an expensive choice, due almost $170 million over the next four seasons.
Others to consider might include Collins (Atlanta), Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers), Christian Wood (Houston), Duncan Robinson (Miami) or Richaun Holmes (Sacramento).
The Mavericks have several players on short or reasonable contracts such as Maxi Kleber, Reggie Bullock, Dwight Powell, Boban Marjanovic, Josh Green, Sterling Brown, Marquese Chriss, Burke and Ntilikina. Dinwiddie has a team-friendly deal that pays him $20.2 million next season with a partially guaranteed $21 million in 2023-24. Bertans' contract may be harder to move.
Hardaway, coming off an injury, may have diminished trade value. Dorian Finney-Smith should be a keeper for the Mavericks (and can't be traded until Aug. 12 after a recent extension).
Dallas' flexibility will be limited moving forward with a sizable payroll. The team has undoubtedly moved into "win-now" territory. That may mean sacrificing draft picks (No. 26, future selections) and paying the luxury tax, but the more important question is how the Mavericks look to use their resources.
If next year's roster has a core seven of Doncic, Brunson, Dinwiddie, Finney-Smith, Hardaway, Bullock and Kleber, the team may only need a starting center to replace Powell—preferably one who can protect the rim and space the floor. On paper, that sounds like Turner from the Pacers.
If the Mavericks can't fill those needs in one, then the answer is quality depth with the understanding that any subtractions need to be replaced by equal or better fits.
Finding a generational talent like Doncic is the hardest step in the NBA. Building from here may take significant restraint. Instead of chasing names, the Mavericks need to do the work and find the right pieces next to their young superstar.
Email Eric Pincus at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.