With a series of moves on the first day of the NBA's free agency period, the Dallas Mavericks were able to turn lemons into lemonade. Of course, they're the ones who gathered the lemons in the first place, but it's a start.
Tyson Chandler took their title chances with him when he went to New York, which Deron Williams acknowledged when he stayed in Brooklyn rather than coming home. After losing out on Williams, Dallas needed to walk a fine line between remaining competitive in 2012 and keeping their cap space headed into the summer of 2013.
They pulled it off Wednesday, signing Chris Kaman to a one-year deal and dealing Ian Mahinmi to the Indiana Pacers for Darren Collison and Dahntay Jones. The trio will make the Mavericks a better team than they were last season without sacrificing any of the team's hard-earned salary cap flexibility, as none are under contract past next season.
Collison (who took 29% of his shots in the paint last season) is a huge upgrade over both Jason Kidd and Jason Terry; the two are legends whose jerseys will one day hang from the rafters from the American Airlines Center, but they're both well into the decline phase of their careers. Neither Terry (10%) nor Kidd (4%) have the foot-speed to consistently get into the lane or stay in front of their men on defense.
In the playoffs, the Oklahoma City Thunder ran the Mavericks older guards off the floor. If this team was going to contend going forward, they were going to need perimeter players who were younger and more athletic, not older and slower, than Dirk Nowitzki.
Collison, at 6'1 165, doesn't have the size or passing ability of a front-line PG, but he's a speed demon who can score in a hurry (career per-36 minute average of 14.9 points on 46% shooting), stretch the floor (career 36% shooter from deep) and play pesky on-ball defense. JJ Barea made $20 million coming off Dirk screens; Collison's speed will give defenses nightmares when he runs the pick-and-pop with Dirk. The No. 21 pick in the 2009 draft, he'll be a restricted free agent at the end of the season in a perfect position to prove himself to the rest of the NBA.
Dallas will likely start Collison with Vince Carter in the back-court, while running Rodrigue Beaubois and first-round pick Jared Cunningham off the bench. Delonte West, if the team can convince him to re-up on the same type of short-term deal he signed last year, could provide some playmaking and defensive versatility as well. Jones doesn't have much left, but he still has DeShawn Stevenson's combination of toughness and perimeter shooting from the 2/3 positions.
Along with the ageless (thanks mainly to his pteroadactyl-like wingspan) Shawn Marion, the Mavericks could actually have an athletic edge on the perimeter for the first time in many, many years. It's a good fit with their new starting front-court, the gigantic but lumbering 7'0 duo of Dirk and Chris Kaman.
Kaman is replacing Brendan Haywood, who, asides from his 15+ minutes of post defense against the Lakers in the 2011 playoffs, gave the team exceedingly little for the $55 million contract he received. He'll likely be amnestied, and his waffle-iron hands, abysmal free throw shooting and general indifference will not be missed.
As Mavericks TV announcer and
frighteningly average pickup basketball player Jeff "Skin" Wade pointed out on Twitter, Kaman will be the most skilled center in team history. For a 7'0 265 behemoth, he's got surprising skill and touch, with the ability to score over both shoulders in the post as well as step out and hit a 15-20 jumper. Unlike Haywood and Mahinmi, he's capable of consistently catching the ball and finishing in the lane.
He has career per-36 minutes averages are 14.4 points, 10.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks on 48% shooting. He hasn't been able to stay healthy in the last two seasons, although New Orleans was "resting" him for significant chunks in order to "compete" for a top pick, but that's why he was available on a one-year contract in the first place.
However, despite his decent block averages, Kaman isn't exactly the fleet of foot defender Chandler was, and a lack of interior defense will still keep Dallas well below the upper echelon of the Western Conference. Brandan Wright is the team's one big man who can move his feet and protect the rim, which is why the Mavericks will have to be very careful if they end up acquiring the recently amnestied Elton Brand.
There will be a lot of moving parts for Rick Carlisle and his staff to juggle, but, if everyone stays healthy, the Mavericks should make the playoffs while being competitive on most nights. Kaman and Collison won't bring Dallas back to the Western Conference Finals, but they're solid professionals who could be useful pieces on an elite team.
The Mavericks still have a long way to go to make up for the self-inflicted wound they gave themselves last December, but they're back on the right track.