Mavericks' focus will turn to roster
New restrictions could make re-signing players such as Tyson Chandler more difficult
FRISCO, Texas -- Texas Legends owner Donnie Nelson smiled, shook hands, posed for endless photos with fans perched between him and his Hall of Fame father, Don Nelson, and then bounced his cupped hands up and down to indicate the many balls he was juggling before Saturday's Opening Day for his NBA Development League team.
Nelson, the Dallas Mavericks' president of basketball operations, put his index finger and thumb together and slid them across his lips to indicate that he's still sworn to silence, even as it appears we are moving close to a much more anticipated opening day for the NBA champions.
The breaking news came in the wee hours of Saturday morning after a 15-hour negotiating session looks to have saved the NBA season from David Stern's prophecy of a "nuclear winter."
The league's owners and players reached a tentative agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement that would start the 2011-12 season on Christmas Day, appropriately enough with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Miami Heat scheduled to be inside American Airlines Center to watch the Mavs receive their rings and raise the championship banner before their scheduled matinee reunion.
Mavs fan Anthony Campbell of Frisco, who had front-row seats for the Austin Toros' 101-96 win over the Legends, probably spoke for Nelson and Mavs owner Mark Cuban when he said, "I told my wife that I got my Christmas present this morning when I woke up."
Nelson awoke to the realization that it's time to try to put the Mavs' championship roster back together.
The champs are the champs for a reason, and without Tyson I don't know how possible it would be to repeat.” -- Jason Terry earlier this month talking about Tyson Chandler
When the deal is ratified, as the leaders of both sides expect, the proposed start to what will be a frenzied free-agent period will be Dec. 9, the same day training camps open. For the Mavs, that means six players from last season's title team -- Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, Caron Butler, DeShawn Stevenson, Brian Cardinal and Peja Stojakovic -- will enter the free-agent market instead of the Mavs' practice gym.
It might take a little Christmas magic to bring back Chandler, who will be one of three top free agents, along with Denver Nuggets forward/center Nene and New Orleans Hornets forward David West. Chandler, the Mavs' emotional leader and the man who brought accountability and attitude to Dallas' defense, will be in high demand and will want a five-year deal and a top-shelf salary to remain with the Mavs.
"The champs are the champs for a reason," Jason Terry said this month, "and without Tyson I don't know how possible it would be to repeat."
What is not known at this juncture is what price the market will bear for top free agents. However, the more punitive nature of the restructured luxury tax did come into focus Saturday night after SI.com obtained a memo detailing the entire tentative agreement between the league and players.
The new luxury tax structure is harsher and severely punishes teams that spend $10 million and more above the threshold. The degree of financial pain that Cuban is willing to endure will likely determine the payroll and roster he pursues in defense of the franchise's first title.
"There's no question it [the salary structure] is more restrictive," said a prominent agent who asked to remain anonymous because he is still gathering information on the new CBA. "We'll see how badly teams want to compete to win championships."
The players' association was scheduled to brief its constituents on the deal Saturday. Team management and agents are only now starting to put their arms around the finer points.
Under the old CBA, teams paid $1 tax for each $1 spent over the luxury tax threshold. According to the eight-page PDF obtained by SI.com, a team will pay $1.50 for each $1 spent over the cap up to $5 million. The tax increases incrementally after that: $1.75 for going over between $5-10 million; $2.50 for going over between $10-15 million; $3.25 for going over between $15-$20 million; and then an additional $.50 for each additional $5 million above the tax level.
There will be a two-year grace period before the harsher penalties kick in. That could help the Mavs think short-term, aggressively pursue Chandler and then seek trades or other outlets to chop payroll prior to Year 3.
Cuban shelled out some $88 million in payroll last season and paid close to an additional $18 million in dollar-for-dollar luxury tax. If the payroll remained the same in Year 3 of the new CBA, Cuban would pay a whopping $38.5 million in luxury tax above his payroll.
The Mavs already have $64.8 million locked into 10 player contracts for the coming season. With no additions, that mark will exceed the coming salary cap and is not far removed from last season's luxury tax threshold of $70.3 million, which is expected to remain in that vicinity for the coming season.
So it's easy to see how signing Chandler to a lucrative, multiyear contract and then still having needs such as re-signing Barea to back up Jason Kidd can quickly escalate the payroll and cause potential issues down the road when the stiffer penalties come into play and Dallas' aging roster might require more financial flexibility.
If the Mavs deem the price too steep to compete with other teams' offers for Chandler, is a Plan B in the works? Perhaps. If Chandler leaves, Dallas could decide to let their other free agents walk, then bring in low-wage players on one-year deals and take their best shot this season with an eye on the summer of 2012.
That's when Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard are set to become free agents. Dallas has about $44 million tied into payroll for the 2012-13 season, but that's earmarked for just six players and nearly $38 million goes to Dirk Nowitzki (more than $20 million), Shawn Marion and Brendan Haywood.
The Mavs could also utilize a one-time amnesty clause included in the new CBA to wipe a large salary off the books and get further under the cap in a potential bid to nab a young superstar to pair with Nowitzki in his twilight seasons and eventually to make the transition out of the Dirk era.
There are inherent dangers in both approaches. Cuban risks being money-whipped by the new CBA if he continues to finance one of the highest payrolls in the league. If he scales back to make a play for Paul or Williams, there's no guarantee he gets his man.
For now, the prospect of a season starting in grand style on Christmas Day appears to be on solid ground.
The looming and now larger question for the Mavs is who will be on the roster to defend the title? That's for the owner of the Texas Legends and his previously free-spending boss down the road in Dallas to figure out.
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.
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