- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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The fifth in ESPNDallas.com’s position-by-position series previewing the free agency market that opens July 1:
The Mavericks are preparing to make their best pitch to Dwight Howard.
Dirk Nowitzki will make it clear that he’s more than willing to shift into sidekick mode and gush about how great it is to the The Man for a franchise owned by Mark Cuban. And Dirk will stress that he plans to take a huge pay cut next summer to create the cap space necessary to construct a championship-caliber supporting cast.
Proven championship coach Rick Carlisle, whose concrete job security could appeal to a superstar who is sensitive about his developing coach-killer reputation, will explain exactly how the Mavs intend to tweak their offense to get the big man a bunch of touches.
Cuban and Donnie Nelson will emphasize their experience in building and sustaining a contender around a superstar. They’ll remind Howard of the Mavs’ recent run of 11 consecutive 50-win seasons, capped by the 2011 title, and get his imagination racing about the possibilities with him as the centerpiece and unofficial assistant GM in Dallas.
Cuban, the NBA’s favorite Shark Tank star, will also play to Howard’s fun-loving personality and desire to be loved. He’ll discuss a marketing strategy for Dwight in Dallas to help boost a Q rating that has taken hits during the last two injury-riddled, indecisive seasons. Cuban will also mention his history of taking PR bullets for his players – or just creating media firestorms to shift the attention – when the heat is on.
And Cuban might just subtly hint at some reasons the Houston Rockets might not be such a great fit for Howard, such as James Harden’s Kobe-like offensive game and Kevin McHale’s lack of coaching credentials.
What if all of that doesn’t work? Well, the Mavs still need to find a starting center.
Some big man candidates who will be in the free-agent market this summer:
Chris Kaman: Just kidding. Ain’t no way he’s coming back to Dallas after last season’s $8 million disaster.
Andrew Bynum: Feeling lucky? Want to take a chance on an occasionally dominant 25-year-old center with bad knees and attitude issues?
The Mavs’ answer would depend on several factors: Dwight’s decision, their doctor’s opinion, the market for Bynum and how much they could manage the risk in his contract.
The 7-foot, 285-pound Bynum is talented enough to merit serious consideration even with all of those concerns. He averaged 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 2011-12 for the Lakers before being traded to the 76ers and sitting out all of last season.
Cuban proudly considers his medical staff the best in the NBA. Look at how Tyson Chandler thrived after arriving in Dallas with major foot and ankle problems. That could – and should – be appealing to Bynum.
As far as money goes, Bynum lost a ton of leverage when Philly’s new management pulled off a draft-night blockbuster deal to acquire Kentucky center Nerlens Noel. Will somebody still pay Bynum in the range of $12-14 million per year? Probably.
If that’s the case, the language of the contract will be key. It’s hard to imagine Cuban paying that kind of money to an injury-riddled headcase without team outs in the deal, perhaps with guarantees based on games played.
Al Jefferson: The Mavs almost traded for him before acquiring Chandler. Nowitzki has mentioned his name several times this week as a potential backup plan if the Mavs miss out on Howard.
The 6-foot-10, 289-pound Jefferson, who averaged 17.8 points and 9.2 rebounds for the Jazz last season, would be by far the best low-block scorer to ever be paired with Nowitzki. He’s vastly improved as a passer out of double-teams the last couple of years, increasing his assists and cutting down his turnovers. He’d take a ton of pressure off the 35-year-old face of the franchise on the offensive end.
What about defense? Oh, boy, a Dirk/Jefferson pairing might be a disaster. Despite being a little short for a big man, Jefferson is an adequate rim protector, but he’s Kaman-esque as a pick-and-roll defender. That isn’t going to get any better if his ample backside expands as the 28-year-old Jefferson ages.
The defensive concerns, along with dollars and the draft picks Minnesota was demanding, caused the Mavs to back away from trade talks involving Jefferson in the summer of 2010. But he might end up being the Mavs’ best big-man option this summer, especially if the price tag is around $10 million per year.
Tiago Splitter: The Mavs and their analytics really like the 28-year-old Brazilian. But so do the Spurs, and they’ll have the right to match any offer to the restricted free agent.
The 6-foot-11, 240-pound Splitter (10.3 points, 6.4 rebounds in 24.7 minutes last season) isn’t a go-to guy but is an outstanding roll man on pick-and-rolls. He has defensive limitations due to a lack of mobility, but Splitter’s toughness and intelligence also fit the mold of what the Mavs want.
Would the Spurs match an $8 million per year offer? We might find out.
Nikola Pekovic: There are a lot of reasons to love a rock-solid, 6-foot-11, 290-pound 27-year-old who averaged 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds last season. But Minnesota is expected to match any offers for the restricted free agent unless perhaps a team decides to max him out. That won’t be the Mavs.
J.J. Hickson: He was a $4 million bargain last season, putting up 12.7 points and 10.4 rebounds for Portland. He’ll probably get at least a 100 percent raise. But Hickson is far from an ideal fit for the Mavs. At 6-foot-9, 242 pounds, he’s really a power forward who has played a lot of center. His size is a problem defensively as a center, and so is his tendency to make a ton of mental mistakes.
Brandan Wright: The Mavs and Wright have expressed mutual interest in him returning as a high-flying weapon off the bench. This could happen even if the Mavs sign Howard.
The Mavs have Wright’s Early Bird rights, so they can exceed the salary cap to sign him to a contract up to the league average ($5.3 million last season). They probably won’t go that high in the bidding for him, but if he ends up in the Ian Mahinmi range (four years, $16 million), there’s a better than average chance that Wright returns to Dallas.
Greg Oden: It sounds likely that the Oden reclamation project will happen in Miami, but the Mavs have been tracking his progress since he left Portland. They’ll continue to do so and could make a bid on him, depending on their doctor’s opinion. Obviously, they wouldn’t count on Oden to come in as a starter.
Elton Brand: The Mavs have much respect for the 6-foot-9, 254-pound Brand. He was a good solider and great presence in the locker room while averaging 7.2 points and 6.0 rebounds as an undersized backup center last season. They wouldn’t mind having him back in that role, but they just wouldn’t pay much to bring him back. Maybe not more than the minimum.