Nothing could keep the Mavericks front office from thinking it’s really clever. Not near-death experiences, not the ever-more-looming threat of nuclear war and certainly not the results of any of their decisions.
They thought they were extremely clever when they more or less invented the Seven Seconds or Less Suns by refusing to pay future two-time MVP Steve Nash. They thought they were even more clever when they let Tyson Chandler go so they couldn’t defend the only title in team history and could instead muck around as a non-threat for the rest of Dirk Nowitzki’s career. They thought they were clever when they determinedly kept their team mediocre to offer big contracts to top free agents who had offers from much better teams, and they think they’re being clever now.
There are benefits to thinking you’re so clever — although, to be clear, they are only partially intentional. You pretty much never end up signing Chandler Parsons to the so-far disastrous deal that Memphis ended up getting him for which, of course, was a possibility for them. That’s the good side. But it’s out-produced explicitly by the bad side: they never get anyone else either. Because they believe, so deeply, so so deeply, that at some point — maybe even before the end of time itself — they’ll be able to convince one of the best players in the league to sign with a team that isn’t very good, or one of the better players in the league to sign for a number they think is fair even if they have better offers from better teams.
That’s the thing about the Mavs front office. They have lots of apologists because they typically do make offers that don’t get the job done. Some people say they never offered Nerlens Noel the $17.5 million a year that was reported, but Woj says it was four-year, $70 million offer and it’s hard to doubt him about this kind of stuff. That’s enough, as whatever garbage they offered Chandler or Nash or whoever was enough, for some people to think the issue is players having too high an opinion of themselves. But it’s not, because they get those contracts elsewhere, and if what you’re doing doesn’t work, and has never worked, getting self-righteous about what players really DESERVE will only ever be a hobby.
In this case, for the first time ever, the Mavs seemed to have insurance against being themselves. Noel was a restricted free agent, which means the Mavs could match any offer anyone else made, which means they could have offered him more than they did but less than the max, and either gotten him to sign it or else been bid upwards by another team. They could also have offered him the max, but unlike the max contracts they’ve offered to every other big name free agent over the last few years, they could have been sure he’d take it. It could have been an overpay. Most likely they could have gotten him for less than he’ll get next year if he’s at all good this year while nobody else had a bite at the apple, even if it’s more than they wanted to pay today. If not, they could have gotten him for the same as they’ll likely have the chance to pay him next year, but with the guarantee he’d actually take it.
Instead, once again, refusing to understand that good basketball players are extremely valuable commodities who almost always have good options, they asked Noel to call their bluff. He did, and did the one thing that evaporated literally all of their bargaining power. By signing the qualifying offer, Noel insured he’d be underpaid this year but an unrestricted free agent next year. The Mavs will still be able to offer him a little more money, but if he plays well at all he’ll be able to go to any team in the league prepared to express their appreciation for him, rather than holding him up to ridicule. And, obviously, he’ll remember this offseason when making his choices. So, in other words, the odds the Mavs get one deeply discounted year from a guy with huge potential this year when it doesn’t matter, and next year are utterly irrelevant, no matter how good Dennis Smith Jr. is, just went way, way up.
Of course, basketball is an uncertain game. Paying Noel the max, or just a little less, was a risky proposition. He might get injured or underperform, and if not now then at any point in the next few years when he could have been under their control. But the important thing to remember is they will look smart. They won’t have been smart. Smart is committing to a potentially game-changing young center to pair with a potentially game-changing young point guard to start out a new era of the Mavs. Not doing that is not smart. No other teams can tell the future either.
In a way, the fact that when all is said and done, the Mavs will most likely be left with only Harrison Barnes and Dennis Smith Jr. is the most honest possible representation of how they operate. They got Smith, the most exciting young player they’ve had since Dirk, by doing another thing they’ve refused to do for years which is just staying in the draft slot they were given (or trying to trade up) and drafting the best player available. Smith could be playing with a lot of young talent if the Mavs weren’t so intent on trying to sign the DeAndre Jordans of the world.
Then, there’s Barnes, a capable player and more or less the one successful free agent signing in Mavericks history. Barnes was better last year than he’s ever been and may even have some talent left to explore. But given their reticence to offer anybody else that kind of commitment ever, the fact they did it for a guy who if anything deserved it less than Noel, from a team that pretty much had to get rid of him, you get the feeling they did it just to prove there were circumstances — beyond all comprehension, but circumstances — in which they would. But they consistently act like there is an inexhaustible pool of game-changing talent in the league such that they can haggle or refuse any time they don’t like what they have to do. There just isn’t.
You can be skeptical that Noel, a player who hasn’t had much opportunity, and has had serious injuries, deserved more than he was offered or even as much. You can agree with the Mavs that he didn’t. But at the end of the basketball day, the fact is the Mavs had a golden opportunity to position themselves for the future, didn’t close the deal and still have nothing to show even for breaking up the championship team and getting Dirk to take less money twice. But the fact of the matter is, if you consistently fail to improve your team, your logical explanations for why you haven’t done so eventually just don’t matter. It’s not like the Mavs are the only team that wishes they could pay players less, but others still find ways to improve.
People often ask me why the Mavs can’t sign the big name free agents they go after and I always say the same thing: it’s not the right question. No one signs those guys. They find a way to get to Golden State or San Antonio, or they take the max from the best team offering. Because the existence of the max means you can only ever offer the exact same thing other teams are offering and hope they pick you for other reasons.
The “restricted free agent” class of things was invented as the only way out of that trap, so of course the Mavs manage to spring it anyway. If they “dodged a bullet” here it will be because they accidentally ducked at the right time or are Neo from the Matrix — not because the endless wait for the perfect free agent, who will take what they’re worth and no more, who will never compromise the front office’s mission in pursuit of their own, is a good way to do business in the NBA.