Yes, big Al Jefferson comes with a price tag to match, $42 million over the next three seasons. Not to mention the cost to get him: The $13 million Erick Dampier trade chip and two conditional first-round draft picks.
A reasonable arguement exists that it is too steep a price to pay for a 25-year-old, 6-foot-10, 265-pound power forward/center that can dominate the low block, score, rebound and perhaps, even with a past knee injury, prove to be a perennial All-Star. To that end, patience will be preached by the Dallas Mavericks in hopes of using the Dampier trade chip down the road to commit Pau Gasol-like thievery and fleece a financially desperate franchise of its star.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is hailed, and rightly so, as a big spender and a risk-taker. He will absorb unsightly contracts in the name of winning and winning now. He proved it with the 2008 Jason Kidd trade and again in 2009 with the Caron Butler-Brendan Haywood-DeShawn Stevenson deal.
Yet, in 2004, the heart of the franchise, Steve Nash, walked without a fight. Now what must Dirk Nowitzki be thinking? He recently preached caution to Cuban about doling out unwarranted contracts and becoming trapped under them. His new four-year deal, Nowitzki rationalized, affords time to acquire heavy hitters, if not this summer. But, how welcoming would Big Al on the blocks be to Nowitzki; a dominant, young scorer and rebounderwho could relieve responsibility from Nowitzki's broad shoulders as he heads into the latter years of his career? Never has the Mavs' unconventional power forward played with such a low-post force.
The shame is past decisions to take on salary has hindered the franchise as opportunity knocked. Two summers ago, the Mavs spent their entire mid-level exception on happy-go-lucky center DeSagana Diop not long after they traded him to New Jersey. A couple months into the season, the Mavs shipped the underwhelming 7-footer to Charlotte for 3-point shooter Matt Carroll and his suprisingly large, long-term contract, plus skinny, developmental center Ryan Hollins.
Hollins is long gone. The affable Carroll, meanwhile, remains a fixture, in full sweats, at the end of the Mavs' bench despite being due $4.3 million next year. That's actually $8.6 million when figuring the dollar-for-dollar luxury-tax penalty and a whopping $23.4 million total over his remaining three seasons (Carroll is owed $11.7 million in salary) if the Mavs continue to remain north of the luxury tax.
Cuban played hardball with Minnesota Timberwolves general manager David Kahn, demanding Kahn absorb Carroll and Stevenson if the Mavs were to agree to relinquish two first-round draft picks. Carroll's albatross of a contract ultimately made a deal for Jefferson unpalatable for Kahn, a man who just signed Darko Milicic to a four-year, $20-million contract. It's possible that Kahn would have agreed to take Stevenson's expiring contract ($4.1 million), but Carroll's money was too much. Both parties stood firm.
The Utah Jazz, armed with a valuable trade exception, was capable of completing the trade without forcing bad contracts on the Wolves. Deal. Utah essentially replaced the departed free agent Carlos Boozer with Jefferson, and a main Western Conference competitor got better than it was the day before.
Jefferson's flimsy defense and the health of his knee are real concerns. So is the fact that former 15th overall draft pick might be a luxury-priced reserve in Dallas, playing behind Nowitzki and Haywood, who was promised the starting job at center before signing his six-year, $55-million deal.
Picking starters and divvying up playing time is coach Rick Carlisle's challenge, one he just might have enjoyed with a frontcourt of Nowitzki, Haywood and Jefferson, who averaged 17.1 points and 9.3 rebounds last season. Carlisle will have to sit tight. Suddenly, a franchise that bills itself as living in the moment, always prepared to drop the hammer, is preaching patience and frugality, from Cuban to Nowitzki, at a time when going all in would have been completely -- and enthusiastically -- justified.