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Mavericks keep pushing forward, even jeopardizing 2021 cap space

Mavericks guard Josh Richardson

DALLAS, TX - DECEMBER 10: Josh Richardson #0 of the Dallas Mavericks poses for a portrait on NBA Content Day on December 10, 2020 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Next summer still looms large for the Mavericks.

That’s their last offseason before Luka Doncic begins his inevitable max – likely super-max – contract extension. Though it wouldn’t be impossible to open significant cap space with Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis on max deals, it’s far easier with Doncic still on his relatively cheap rookie-scale contract. No, Dallas isn’t signing Giannis Antetokounmpo as hoped. But there will be other free agents, and 2021 will be the last good window to add a premier one.

That’s why the Mavericks unloaded Seth Curry (three years, $24,538,620 remaining) and Delon Wright (two years, $17,526,316 remaining).

Yet, between trade and free agency, Dallas added nearly as much 2021-22 salary as it sent out.

Why? Because winning creates flexibility.

That was the painful lesson Mavericks owner Mark Cuban learned from 2011. After its championship, Dallas let key players leave, maintained cap space, got worse and struck out on top free agents.

Though cap room allows the clearest maneuverability, good players on reasonable contracts also allow a team to shift directions. They can always be easily moved. See Curry and Wright. The better the team, the better its players and their contracts look. Winning polishes everything – and is rewarding in its own right.

So, the Mavericks dealt Curry to the 76ers for Josh Richardson and a second-round pick. Richardson is the better player, but his $11,615,328 player option for 2021-22 could be an impediment. Of course, if he plays as well in Dallas as expected, he’ll decline the option and give the Mavericks additional cap space. They could also hold his Bird Rights if they want to re-sign him.

Curry fit well as a combo guard in Dallas’ system, but re-signing Trey Burke (three years, $9.45 million with a player option) limits the loss. Burke flourished in the bubble, looking like a perfect fit in the Mavericks’ two-point-guard lineups. If all goes well, his contract will also hold positive value next summer if moving him becomes necessary to sign a bigger fish.

Wesley Iwundu (two years, minimum) is less likely to shine, but at least he costs less. The former Magic forward’s defensive versatility could help Dallas.

That said, these additions carry risk. If things so south, the Mavericks might have to attach positive assets to unload contracts next summer.

James Johnson (expiring contract acquired in the Wright trade) and Willie Cauley-Stein (re-signed for two years, $8.2 million with a team option) offer more-direct flexibility beyond this season.

Johnson could be the bigger defensive forward the Mavericks need to match up with Lakers star LeBron James and Clippers star Kawhi Leonard in potential playoff series. Surrendering two second-rounders to get him in the three-team Wright trade rather than just taking Trevor Ariza (also on an expiring contract) shows Dallas sees something in Johnson.

Cauley-Stein’s rim running will get him opportunities playing with Doncic and Porzingis.

With Doncic and Porzingis already on the roster, the Mavericks just aren’t content to wait around for additional help. They targeted players who should fill needs, even if it meant guaranteeing 2021-22 salary.

Of course, Doncic (21) and Porzingis (25) offer a longer runway for Dallas to build a winner.

In the draft, the Mavericks got Josh Green No. 18, Tyrell Terry No. 31 and Tyler Bey No. 36. I like Terry most of that trio. Using the mid-level exception to sign him to a cheap four-year contract with a team option could really pay off. Green (youth, athleticism) and Bey (athleticism) at least have positive attributes that could help them develop into contributors.

Dallas also cleverly got J.J. Barea a sendoff gift. Those gestures can matter.

The Mavericks have developed a reputation for taking care of their players. They’re also developing a reputation for winning after two straight seasons of improvement.

Those selling points look slightly stronger heading into 2021 free agency.

That makes the added multi-year guaranteed contracts an acceptable risk.

Offseason grade: C