By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
DALLAS — Aggressive as they were, the Dallas Mavericks couldn’t land the big fish the last two summers. Still, the crew of the S.S. Cuban isn’t deterred. They’re prepared to chug back out to sea for another go.
For this expedition, Mark Cuban and co-captain Donnie Nelson believe their hook is finally lined with the savory bait that could make this season’s whopper, Carmelo Anthony, bite.
“My feeling is that if I’m a prospective free agent out there, we became a lot more attractive,” Nelson, the Mavs’ president of basketball operations said Thursday, a day after he pulled the trigger on a deal with the New York Knicks that returned 7-foot-1 center and defensive anchor Tyson Chandler to Dallas. “I don’t know many front lines that not only have that kind of punch in terms of inside-outside [Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki], but also two great guys, great teammates, guys that you love to go to war with night in and night out.”
The king fish, LeBron James, remains mostly a pipe dream around here, but there is growing confidence that Anthony will give the Mavs as fair a look as he will his re-tooling, hometown Knicks under Phil Jackson, the tantalizing roster of the Chicago Bulls and that of the hyper-aggressive Houston Rockets. ESPN.com reported earlier this week that Anthony will grant the latter three teams face-to-face meetings when free agency begins next week.
The Mavs lacked a roster with enough enticements to convince Deron Williams and then Dwight Howard to come aboard. Now, a trio of Chandler, Nowitzki and Monta Ellis, coming off arguably the most efficient season of his career, drastically changes the dialogue — even with Ellis eligible to opt out after next season and Chandler set to become a free agent — the Mavs’ front office believes.
Landing Chandler, the fiery leader of the Mavs’ 2011 championship squad, an ardent supporter of coach Rick Carlisle and his system, and, of course, a friend of ‘Melo’s, was a key step in that strategy.
“He wants to win, and he wants to be in a system and he wants to be in a culture,” Chandler said of Anthony during a conference call Wednesday. “I think that’s going to go into a big part of his decision-making.”
Chandler said he will “absolutely” be in Anthony’s ear.
“I’m going to do whatever I can to help the team and the organization,” Chandler said. “At the end of the day, free agency is kind of an individual thing … But I’ll tell you one thing: Dallas isn’t a bad place to be; it’s a great opportunity and clearly we’ve done it in the past. It’s not a hard place to sell. I’m going to do whatever it takes.”
Chandler’s arrival cut slightly into the Mavs’ cap space. They don’t quite have room to squeeze in a full max contract once Nowitzki signs, likely for around $10 million per season. But Dallas does have options, such as trading backup center Brandan Wright, who is due $5 million next season, to a team with cap space.
Dallas, with no picks in Thursday night’s Draft after sending two second-rounders to New York in the trade that also swapped starting point guards — Jose Calderon to the Knicks and Raymond Felton to the Mavs — made no effort to jump into the first round, which would further dig into this summer’s cap space.
“Starting July 1, every penny is going to count,” Nelson said.
There’s also a growing sense that star players like Anthony are locks to play for whichever team can stack the money the highest. Howard left millions on the table in leaving Los Angeles for Houston. James, by opting out, likely will sign for less even if he stays in Miami as a means to help it add impact players.
Star players who have already cashed in on one max contract have made a tremendous amount of money — some $135 million in salary alone in Anthony’s case — and seem to be more acutely aware of the salary cap brought forth by the collective bargaining agreement and the limitations it can impose on capped-out teams. There seems to be a greater awareness placed on situation than solely salary.
During All-Star weekend, Anthony told reporters as much.
“As far as the money goes, it’s not my concern,” Anthony said. “My concern is to be able to compete on a high level, a championship level, coming in this last stretch of my career. I want to compete at that level.”
The Knicks can offer Anthony the most money, a reported $129 million over five years, compared to a maximum $96 million over four years anywhere else. Jackson has challenged Anthony on his stance, suggesting he should re-sign with the Knicks at a reduced rate to make it easier to build around him.
Still, at least for the coming season, the Bulls, Rockets and Mavs provide the greater opportunity to win now.
The Mavs, a 49-win team last season and pushed San Antonio to seven games in the first round, aren’t without flaws. At the moment, the disappointing Felton is their starting point guard. They hope to re-sign Devin Harris as well as veterans Shawn Marion and Vince Carter, who has become a terrific 3-point shooter.
No matter what happens on those fronts, the pitch to Anthony will challenge him to find a team with a better core to win this season, plus the vast cap space to add another max player and more next summer.
The Mavs, and especially their fans, understand these high-stakes expeditions come with no guarantees. Still the S.S. Cuban is fueled up and ready for another round of deep sea fishing.
“With our system,” Nelson said, “with Rick being one of the best [coaches] in the business, in my opinion, of taking guys and figuring it out on the fly; and then you’ve got Tyson as a defensive backdrop and certainly one of the best power forwards in the league to play the game and a future Hall of Famer, Dirk, and cap space, we’re positioned pretty well.”