What's behind the Mavericks-Nerlens Noel staredown? A theory

In a move with just a little relevance for the Mavericks, the Brooklyn Nets  traded for Allen Crabbe. The move, which eats up most of their cap room, knocks the Nets out of the running for Mavericks free agent center Nerlens Noel. It is not clear that they even considered making an offer, but they certainly were one of the few clubs left that could have.

For a Restricted Free Agent like Noel, it really only takes one other team to put the Mavs in the position of signing a contract they don’t really want to. That team could still exist. It could be the Atlanta Hawks, for example. But it’s starting to seem unlikely.

At this point there are several remaining possibilities. Remember, the Mavs are guaranteed to end up with Noel as long as they are willing to match an offer from another team. And, they are no doubt using that fact as leverage. But how? Do they both broadly agree that it’ll be a long term deal with something between 17-23 million? Or is something else going on?

I think it’s fair to say that in the last six years or so the Mavericks have never taken the easy way out in contract negotiations. Other than Dirk, they never give a player what he asks for, and other than Harrison Barnes, this front office has never really given anybody an uncomplicated contract. The Mavericks also have a particular peccadillo  – they love bigger fish than the those they have already hooked, and they don’t mind letting them know.

There have been rumors for years that the Mavericks covet DeMarcus Cousins. The front office is extremely tight-lipped, now as ever. And wanting DeMarcus Cousins isn’t exactly news – most talent evaluators do!? But if what all this means is that the Mavs are planning to play everybody’s least favorite game – trying to keep the guy in hand while making it very clear to him they prefer the guy in the bush – it’ll probably work exactly as well as it always has (see Chandler, Tyson). There’s a fine line between negotiating well enough not to overpay and making a player feel unwanted, and the Mavs have pretty much fallen over that line face-first every time they’ve tried.

If they are in fact, offering Noel both a lower per-year figure and fewer years under contract, in order to leave the possibility of going after Cousins open, that could explain why nothing has happened in that direction yet. And it is at least reasonably likely to work for now. Noel could take his qualifying offer, which would make him an unrestricted free agent next year, but it’s significantly less money than the Mavs have no doubt offered. It’s possible if they insult him enough, but remains unlikely. 

Yet, with a young player like Nerlens, it’s not about the short term. It would be very good for the Mavericks’ bottom line if they could, say, sign him to a two year deal with a team option on the second season, so unlike with Tyson Chandler they could actually keep him on the hook while they went after Cousins, and could then offer him a big contract if (and more likely when) they failed. But it wouldn’t make him happy, and it’s not a smart play if they really want him to be part of the future. It also doesn’t make sense of what they have currently been doing – if you’re not ready to invest in a young core now, why give Harrison Barnes that max contract? So you can build around him in 2019, when he has a player option coming up? Or 2020, when he’d be unrestricted?

We won’t know what they’re doing until it’s all over. But it sure would be nice if that were soon.

© 2017 WFAA-TV


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