EDITOR’S NOTE: In a stunning twist, Jason Kidd appears set to sign with the Knicks instead of the Mavericks.
The offseason hasn’t gone quite as planned for the Mavericks, with Dwight Howard out of the picture, Deron Williams staying in Brooklyn and a bunch of hoarded cap space remaining unused — for now. And with almost every veteran member of the Mavs’ backcourt entering free agency, Dallas ran the (slight) risk of entering the 2011-12 season relying on mostly inexperienced kids to lift a very thin team into a bottom-tier playoff spot.
Taking all that into account, Dallas did something Thursday that probably doesn’t move the dial in any significant sense, but at least provides some stability and might cheer up Dirk Nowitzki. Per ESPN.com’s Marc Stein, the Mavs are close to an agreement with Jason Kidd on a three-year, $9 million deal. And forgive me for sounding skeptical, but the biggest impact of this move — depending on the particulars, including whether the second and third years are guaranteed — might end up being that the Dallas front office has to jump through an extra loop or two in clearing max-level cap room next summer. They’re still set to have a mid-level amount of space — perhaps $8 million — when league business resumes on July 11, assuming cap holds for Kidd and Jason Terry, headed to Boston, come off the books at the stroke of midnight.
Add up the maximum possible salary Dallas might have on its books for 2013-14, and the Kidd deal could take them all the way to something like $52 million after factoring in various charges: a cap hold for Roddy Beaubois, a $3 million guarantee for Kidd, a $2 million Vince Carter buyout and charges for empty roster spots. That looks bad, since $52 million in salary would leave Dallas with approximately $7 million in cap room as Howard, Andrew Bynum and Chris Paul enter free agency in 2013.
But it could just be a minor inconvenience. Dallas could buy Carter out earlier, and for cheaper. They could renounce the rights to Beaubois and his perpetual potential. They could decline a team option on Dominique Jones, and Kidd’s deal might not be fully guaranteed, which could make him a Chris Duhon/Quentin Richardson-sized trade chip to use in possible midseason trade discussions for Howard, though Duhon’s deal for 2013-14 is also only partially guaranteed. At least for now, the Mavs can still offer Orlando the prospect of some cap relief via the absorption of a Glen Davis/Jason Richardson-sized salary, in addition to Beaubois, other prospects and future picks. That is not a very enticing package, but neither is Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez/Kris Humphries/MarShon Brooks/draft picks deal — one that would appear to come without much cap relief, unless Brooklyn finds a way to involve a third team.
Dallas also has the amnesty provision to use on Brendan Haywood, a move they’ll likely hold in reserve for now, but one that would slice $9.1 million off their 2014 cap sheet if they use it in a year.
Look: Kidd is obviously in decline and on the verge of becoming a one-skill player. And that skill isn’t necessarily three-point shooting, since Kidd shot just 34 percent — below the league average — two seasons ago and 36 percent last season. In Kidd’s defense, he heated up over the final months of last season after a frigid and perhaps lockout-induced clank-fest to start. But if Kidd’s three-point shooting falls off as he enters his 40s (!), he would only bring one reliable above-average skill on a night-to-night basis: his whip-smart ability to pass the ball around the perimeter. Kidd anticipates defensive rotations and tosses passes that are one step ahead of defenders or wrong-foot them entirely.
That’s a very valuable skill, especially if you surround Kidd with shooters. The Mavs have been a very good offensive team with both Kidd and Nowitzki on the floor over the last two seasons, and the numbers got even stronger least year — Spurs-level strong — when Kidd was out there with Nowitzki and another shooter, someone such as Terry or Carter. That is encouraging, particularly since the Mavs’ offense fell off so notably overall last season. The team’s numbers with Kidd on the floor and Nowitzki on the bench were almost Bobcats-level ugly, though it’s a good thing that the two will be back together next season.
But even those genius passing skills started to come with caveats last season. Kidd posted the highest turnover rate of his career, and many of those turnovers came on head-scratching, high-risk passes that smacked of desperation — the kind of desperation a player and team show, especially in transition, when they’re aware it will be hard to score in the half-court. And Kidd is a borderline non-threat off the dribble at this point. About 85 percent of his shot attempts were threes last season, up from 65 percent the year before, and defenses have begun adjusting to his reluctance to drive in a way that hurts the Mavs. Watch Kidd run a pick-and-roll with Nowitzki against a defense that is paying close attention, and you’ll often notice Nowtizki’s man will stay attached to Dirk’s hip rather than jump out and try to deny Kidd’s dribble attack. The message is simple: We know Dirk can kill us, and we don’t think you can hurt us in the lane. And too often at this point, those defenses are right. Kidd barely shoots from inside the foul line and drew just 28 free throws the entire season. As great a passer as he is, it’s hard to make productive passes when defenses don’t respect your scoring.
Defensively, the guy still has the brains, quick feet and size to defend point guards, shooting guards and small forwards — a valuable level of versatility. Kidd just doesn’t do it as well anymore, especially without Tyson Chandler around to act as a human helper wall. The brain is willing and able, but the body is starting to fail. Such is life for an NBA player nearing 40.
Again: This is a no-harm, no-foul move for Dallas. This is one of the league’s most creative front offices, and if they want max cap room next summer, they’ll get it. Their training staff is top-flight — Casey Smith, their head trainer, is filling the same role for Team USA at the Olympics this summer — and they know how to deal with veteran players. But this signing doesn’t change the fact that Dallas looks like a borderline lottery team right now, especially with Utah improving its roster, Denver gaining a a year of experience and Portland perhaps building toward something. It helps that Houston is in flux and that Phoenix is in full rebuild mode with Steve Nash gone and Goran Dragic (good!) and Micheal Beasley (ugh) agreeing to come on board.
If Delonte West joins Kidd in returning to Dallas on a one-year deal, we might go through the same scenario again in which Beaubois, Jones and Dallas’ incoming rookies don’t get consistent rotation spots or a chance to show how they might fare in those roles. But again: Dallas is doing its best to stay competitive while remaining flexible. That’s really all that a team can do when free agency doesn’t go its way.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.