If Dwight Howard chooses Dallas, then what? How do the Mavericks fill out the roster around him?
The grand plan is to add another major piece or two to the championship puzzle next summer, when Dirk Nowitzki clears cap space by taking a drastic pay cut on his next contract. But the immediate goal will be to construct a roster that gives the Mavs the best possible chance of contending this season.
Let’s take a look at the options, assuming for the sake of discussion that the Mavs dump Shawn Marion’s salary in a deal to create the cap space necessary to sign Howard to a max deal and then some. If the Mavs took no money back in a Marion trade, that’d leave between $5.6 million and $6.6 million in cap room after signing Howard, depending on whether they kept Brandan Wright’s Early Bird rights and the non-guaranteed contracts of Bernard James and Josh Akognon.
That could very well be enough money to sign point guard Jose Calderon, a prime Mavs target who turned down an offer from the Kings this week because he wanted to play for a winner.
If that’s the case, the Mavs would have a terrific basketball brain, distributor and spot-up shooter to help put Howard and Nowitzki in position to succeed offensively. Calderon’s defensive flaws – and that’s putting it politely – would be masked by having a three-time Defensive Player of the Year behind him.
Other point guard options include Mo Williams, Jarrett Jack and Monta Ellis. Acquiring a starting point guard is a must, and it’d be a bonus to get a savvy veteran willing to mentor rookie backups Shane Larkin and Gal Mekel.
The Mavs would like to re-sign Wright, a backup center/power forward who has received interest from the Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic, Toronto Raptors, New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons. The Early Bird rights would allow Dallas to make a competitive offer – up to the average player salary of more than $5 million per year, if they wanted – for the high-flying backup center/power forward.
The Mavs would still have holes at shooting guard and small forward. They’d prefer to keep Vince Carter as a sixth man, so his minutes can be limited while he provides scoring punch off the pine. Jae Crowder is a candidate to start at small forward, but it’d be ideal to have other options.
The Mavs would have the midlevel exception, bi-annual exception and minimum-salary deals to fill out the roster.
Matt Barnes might not win a popularity contest with Mavs fans, but he’d be a great fit as a gritty, versatile, 3-point threat who could play significant minutes at small forward and spot duty as a small-ball power forward. He was a major bargain as a minimum guy for the Clippers last season, drawing interest from a dozen teams early in free agency. Could the Mavs get him for the $2 million bi-annual exception? A chunk of the midlevel exception? (UPDATE: Barnes is off the board. He announced via Twitter that he will re-sign with the Clippers.)
Another potential bi-annual exception target: Chauncey Billups, whose career took off when he played for coach Rick Carlisle in Detroit. He could be a 16-minute per game starter at shooting guard and still play point guard if needed.
Anthony Morrow didn’t make any impact during his brief tenure in Dallas last season, but Howard’s good buddy would make sense as a low-cost shooter off the bench.
Elton Brand might get better offers elsewhere, but the Mavs are interested in bringing him back as a low-cost bench banger.
Let’s say Howard commits to the Mavs -- and that, of course, is a monstrous assumption -- and the balls keep falling their way in the following days. Here’s how their roster could look in that case:
PG – Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin, Gal Mekel
SG – Chauncey Billups, Vince Carter, Ricky Ledo, Josh Akognon
Matt Barnes, Jae Crowder, Anthony Morrow
PF – Dirk Nowitzki, Brandan Wright
C – Dwight Howard, Elton Brand, Bernard James