At first glance it seemed impossible: The Mavericks gutted the core of their first title-winning team because of ... money? Not Dallas. Not Mark Cuban, who since buying a majority stake in the Mavs in 2000 has never hesitated to pad his payroll. But the salary-cap restrictions imposed in the new collective bargaining agreement—specifically a diminished mid-level exception, limited sign-and-trades and a punitive supertax—forced Cuban to choose between locking up his own aging free agents to long-term contracts, effectively eliminating future flexibility or bringing in players on shorter deals then replenishing the ranks around Dirk Nowitzki with younger talent this summer. Dallas chose the latter. Out went Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and Caron Butler; in came Lamar Odom, Vince Carter and Delonte West, the latter two on deals that aren't guaranteed beyond this year. "In the past I could fix mistakes by making trades and taking on more money," says Cuban. "That's no longer the case."
The Mavs' strategy is risky: They'll need to retool quickly to take advantage of Nowitzki, who probably doesn't have much more than three elite years left in his 33-year-old body. Dallas was off to an uneven start (8--5 at week's end, seventh in the Western Conference standings), and if Cuban can't import top players, he may regret prematurely blowing up a champion. "What they are doing is unprecedented," says a Western Conference G.M. "Most teams rebuild after mediocre seasons. They are trying to do it on the fly."
Cuban believes that now more than ever cap space is the league's most important currency, and this summer he could have plenty. With a few shrewd moves (renounce his rights to 34-year-old guard Jason Terry; buy out the disgruntled Odom, who has one year left on his deal; use the amnesty clause on Brendan Haywood), the Mavs can reduce their cap charges to $41.7 million, which would make them a player for the big names on the market, including:
The league's top center has informed the Magic that Dallas is one of three teams (along with the Nets and the Lakers) that he'd be amenable to joining; he has also told friends that his game would mesh well with Nowitzki's. If Howard goes to free agency, keep in mind that his agent, Dan Fegan, has a strong relationship with the Mavericks.
The point guard's future with the Nets is tied to whether they can acquire Howard. If they can't, Williams—who played his high school ball nearby in The Colony, Texas—is expected to strongly consider coming home and replacing Jason Kidd, whose contract is up after this season.
The Hawks have a top 10 payroll and a history of early playoff exits; one more could mean substantial changes this summer. The second pick in 2005, Williams, 25, has not lived up to expectations, but he's a versatile, capable scoring forward who would give the Mavs a badly needed infusion of youth at the wing.
The 25-year-old will be a restricted free agent next summer, and bidding will start north of $10 million—"the going rate for young centers," says one exec. The cash-strapped Pacers have several key contracts coming up in the next few years (Darren Collison, Tyler Hansbrough, Paul George), and if Hibbert's price is too high, they might move him in a sign-and-trade.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
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