The Sleepers

The Dallas Mavericks have the No. 17 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and for the last few weeks they’ve been linked to a variety of names in recent mock drafts from the likes of ESPN’s Chad Ford, CBS’ Jeff Goodman, and the folks at DraftExpress and nbadraft.net.

Some of the names I’ve seen are Kendall Marshall, Arnett Moultrie, Terrence Ross, Dion Waiters, Jared Sullinger, Damian Lillard, and Terrence Jones. It’s hard to predict which of these players will be available, though, because they are all considered lottery-level talents. A few, like Waiters and Lillard, have seen their stock rise significantly and will definitely not be around at 17.

So I’m going to take a look at some draft sleepers that are more likely to be on the table at 17 and probably even later should we choose to move down in the draft.

Moe Harkless

There could be some debate over whether Harkless is truly a “sleeper.” Chad Ford has him going to the Houston Rockets with the 16th pick and several analysts have mentioned that he could be in play even in the lottery, but the majority of mock drafts have him going after 17, so I’ll include him.

He’s a one-and-done freshman out of St. John’s and the 3rd-best small forward in the draft behind Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Harrison Barnes. Harkless has excellent measurables for an NBA small forward — 6’9 in shoes with a 7’0 wingspan, 207 lbs, with room to add more muscle. He has good quickness and lateral agility on defense and anticipates passes well, which helped him force a lot of steals this year. He also was a very good rebounder in college, pulling down 8.6 a game. That number probably won’t translate exactly to the NBA because, at 6’9, he played more as a big man in college. But, in general, Harkless seems like a solid energy/high-motor/do-it-all kind of player that the Mavs could sorely use.

On top of that, the Mavs are very thin at small forward. Shawn Marion is getting older and less effective offensively, even though his individual defense this year was worthy of the All-Defense team. Vince Carter occasionally gave us good minutes at the 3, but he’s also quite ancient and incapable of doing the things Marion does. Kelenna Azubuike is a total question mark, and even if he manages to be a decent rotation player, he’s still a bit undersized (6’5) and more of a shooting guard.

Harkless’ offensive game is still a little raw and isn’t a great shooter, but he’s only 19 and shows a lot of potential to be a prototypical NBA small forward. DraftExpress’ NBA player comparison for him is Trevor Ariza, who isn’t a superstar by any means, but also is a pretty solid player that I would gladly take on the Mavs. Harkless reminds me a lot of Kawhi Leonard, who the Spurs stole in last year’s draft at a similar spot (with the 15th pick). Leonard shows stellar defensive skills and rebounding ability and the Spurs even taught him to make corner threes (after he shot an unimpressive sub-30% from three in college) like Bruce Bowen. By the end of the year, he was really contributing significantly and certainly proved himself to be one of the better picks in last year’s draft, with a lot of room to get even better. If Harkless can do some of the same things, this would be an excellent pick at a position of real need for Dallas.

By the way, I’m aware that John Hollinger’s draft rater isn’t very high on Harkless. Being a big stats guy, that unnerves me a little bit — but Hollinger himself says that the rater has been sketchier in predicting the success of one-and-done players, who haven’t accumulated as much predictive data as players who stay in college longer.

Royce White

White is probably the most unique player in the draft. He’s a 6’8, 260-lb power forward who was often utilized as a primary ball-handler and point-forward by his coach at Iowa State…and it wasn’t a disaster. No, in fact, White posted very good statistics, with 13.4 ppg, 9.3 rpg, and 5.0 apg in college last season and led his team to the NCAA tournament.

He moves very fluidly, dribbles very well, and shows outstanding court vision — all point-guard-ish qualities — but he can also do big-man things well, like rebounding the basketball and playing in the post. In that way, he’s elicited lots of comparisons to Boris Diaw, a similarly versatile NBA big man.

Several talent evaluators have said that White is easily a top-10 prospect in terms of talent. That may or may not be true, but he does have several weaknesses. His jump shot is pretty poor; he only attempted around 1 per game and connected on just 24% of those attempts, according to DraftExpress. He shoots barely 50% from the free-throw line. And, just like many other big men with his size and level of athleticism, he faces serious questions about how he will be able to guard NBA 4’s. White is pretty hefty and doesn’t have good lateral quickness or above-the-rim shotblocking and, even worse, his effort just isn’t there on the defensive end.

Many teams have also been concerned with some off-the-court issues regarding White. He pleaded guilty to theft at a mall in 2009, and then was involved in a laptop theft incident later on that caused him to leave the University of Minnesota and transfer to Iowa State. Legal problems aside, he’s also suffered from anxiety disorder and fear of flying, both of which can be pretty serious issues. Fortunately, he seems to have moved on from his previous incidents and sought medical help and treatment. He had a particularly impressive interview at the Draft Combine that definitely reassured a lot of general managers and teams that he’s a good character guy (and unique — he claimed he grew his beard to honor John Lennon).

In sum, White seems like a highly intriguing prospect for a contending team to take a chance on late in the first round. He doesn’t, however, seem like a good fit for Dallas, purely because we need taller big guys that can play defense, be athletic, and do the dirty work.

Jeffery Taylor

Taylor is a 6’7 small forward out of Vanderbilt projected to be taken in the late first round. Most mock drafts have him going to contending teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat.

He played all four years in college under Kevin Stallings and was a very productive player last year, posting averages of 16.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 49.3% FG, 42.3% three-point. These are obviously very good statistics, particularly in the shooting categories, which Taylor really improved upon in his senior year. He was pretty clearly Vanderbilt’s best all-around player (even though John Jenkins was their best scorer).

Taylor’s NBA role would seem to be that of a defensive stopper and complementary wing player, kind of like Thabo Sefolosha, Raja Bell, or Shane Battier. He’s got good height at 6’7 and elite athleticism, with a muscular 215-lb frame. The one knock on him, physically, is his mediocre 6’6 wingspan, but his lateral quickness and strength are both very good. Offensively, he’s a capable shooter and average ball-handler, but he should really earn his money on the defensive end.

Many contending teams have recently drafted instant defensive stoppers like Iman Shumpert and Avery Bradley, so it’s possible Taylor could bring some of the same things to the table for Dallas. More than most players in the draft, Taylor’s NBA-ready body and solid fundamentals and defense suggest that he can contribute immediately. He doesn’t have huge upside and 17 might be a little high to take him, but if the Mavs really want a guy who can step in and D up, Taylor’s the man.

Tony Wroten

Wroten is an uber-talented combo guard out of Washington (where he was teammates with Terrence Ross) who’s seen his stock fluctuate from mid-first round to early second round and everywhere in between.

Physically, he’s a freakishly impressive specimen at 6’5, 203 lbs with a 6’9 wingspan. He played point guard for the Huskies under Lorenzo Romar and averaged 16.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.7 apg last year. These seem like pretty good statistics, but he had more turnovers than assists (3.8 per game) and was a horrific shooter, hitting 16.1% from three and 58.3% from the free-throw line.

Wroten’s biggest strength is getting to the basket. He uses his strength and quickness very well to get past his defender and create shots, but often has trouble finishing with his right hand, something that will be exposed by NBA defenses. He also has displayed excellent court vision, with many of the analysts at the Draft Combine stating that he showed a flair for the highlight-reel passes in transition. Ultimately, though, he’s a pretty ball-dominant offensive player who still needs to learn a lot about offensive flow and how to run an offense as a point guard.

His jump-shooting, certainly, has to improve for him to get any playing time. His shooting mechanics are downright awful and need to be altered, but other players at his position have shown improvement in this area — like Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook.

Defensively, he has shown all the tools to be a successful defender of both point guards and shooting guards in the NBA. He has excellent lateral movement, the ability to intercept balls in passing lanes, and great length, so he’s not lacking from a physical standpoint. His production will likely depend on his own commitment to team defense.

The Mavs could really use an athletic, young stud in the backcourt, which is the main reason why there’s such a desire to land Deron Williams. Point guards like Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose are really dominating the position these days, and, physically, Wroten has a similar profile. Ultimately, though, I think Dallas should steer clear of Wroten. He has some truly impressive upside, but there are some big question marks — poor shooting, questionable attitude, ability to be a team player. It’s entirely possible that he could be the next Rajon Rondo in five years, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Darius Miller

Miller is a 6’7, 233-lb small forward who played as a sixth  man for John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats. He is the rare UK player to have stayed for all four years of his college career under Coach Cal and while he was often overlooked due to the ridiculous talent they’ve hauled in the last few years, he was a highly efficient and useful player during his time there.

He averaged 9.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, and 2.1 apg on 47.4% shooting from the field and 37.6% from three — all in around 26 minutes a game, which is extremely respectable for a complementary college player on a team with talent like Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Lamb, Teague, and Jones. Miller’s role was primarily to space the floor with his shooting and fill in capably for the wing starters, and he executed it quite well, hitting 46% of his threes over Kentucky’s last 15 games of the season according to Synergy Sports Technology.

NBA scouts have always been interested in Miller due to his good size and weight, which mirror those of the average NBA small forward. His ceiling doesn’t appear to be very high because he’s mostly just a jump shooter with limited defensive skills and offensive variety, although he does possess decent athleticism. His main problem defensively seems to be getting beat off the dribble, which isn’t a good sign coming out of college.

On the other hand, his willingness to accept his limited role, improve his skills, and play well with better players at Kentucky suggests that he could work very well as an NBA role player. If Miller can maintain his good three-point shooting and at least become a serviceable defensive player, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to contribute as a backup wing player like a James Jones, Dorell Wright, etc.

Tyshawn Taylor

As any Jayhawks fan can tell you, Taylor is truly an enigma. Scouts have always recognized his great physical attributes — 6’4 height, 6’6.25 wingspan, great speed and quickness. But they are even more concerned with Taylor’s struggle to play mistake-free, efficient basketball on a consistent basis.

There were times this past year when he looked like a lottery talent, pulling off incredibly athletic drives and finishes in the paint and racing the floor in transition. And other times when he made every poor decision you could make…shooting, passing, and dribbling wildly out of control. There were plenty of times when Taylor registered near double-digit turnovers against good college teams and even though he has good statistics (16.6 ppg, 4.8 apg, 2.3 rpg) and really improved his outside shooting this year, he also had one of the highest usage rates in the nation.

It’s this dichotomy that has caused a lot of debate about Taylor’s worth to an NBA team, and which explains his late-first-round-at-best status.

I don’t see Taylor as an NBA starter at point guard or two-guard, but I think he’s plenty talented enough to provide scoring punch, dribble penetration, toughness, and defense off the bench, maybe as a Delonte-West-type player. Granted, one of Delonte’s best qualities is his reliable, controlled style of play, something which Taylor will no doubt have to work hard to grasp, if he ever does.

John Hollinger’s draft rater gives Taylor a pretty favorable rating relative to some of the other highly-touted perimeter players — his score of 10.19 is better than that of Austin Rivers, Damian Lillard, and Terrence Ross, all of whom are very likely lottery selections. I don’t know that I would predict he will be a better pro than all three, but to have advanced metrics on your side isn’t a bad thing — all in all, it seems like Taylor is slightly underrated given his talent level.

For the Mavericks, taking him at 17 would be a bit of a stretch — there will probably be a better player available that early. But if Dallas can trade up to the late first round or early second (or even if they stick at 55) and if Taylor’s available, I think he could prove to be a good pick down the road.

William Buford

Buford is a shooting guard who, over four seasons, had a highly successful college career for the Ohio State University. This year he was an important part of the Buckeyes’ Final Four run and core group, along with Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft, and Deshaun Thomas — as you can see, not a slouch in the bunch.

It’s not uncommon for very good college players to be less highly regarded as NBA prospects, but I was a little surprised when researching to discover that Buford is, according to pretty much everyone, a second-rounder.

At Ohio State, Buford was a physical, versatile offensive scorer who managed to play with great aggression and moxie, but also unselfishness. He averaged 14.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, and 2.7 apg on .520/.748/.345 shooting splits (and his shooting from the free throw line and from three were down from his junior year).

Scouts’ concerns about Buford seem to center around his lack of explosiveness and athleticism typical of starting guards in the NBA. He has good height and weight (6’5, 215) and has a big wingspan (around 6’10), but seemed to have a bit more difficulty scoring against better college perimeter defenders, something which projects to get worse at the NBA level.

That said, though, most analysts have noted that Buford is likely to, at minimum, become a quality NBA role player. Like most players who play for Thad Matta, he has good toughness and intangible qualities and has shown the ability to hold his own on the defensive end despite limited lateral quickness. DraftExpress’ conservative “best case” scenario of Buford is Gary Neal, who’s a similarly aggressive-yet-unselfish, good-sized shooting guard for the Spurs.

Maybe it’s just a gut feeling, but I think Buford would be a good second-round pick for Dallas, assuming they choose someone other than a shooting guard at 17. The Mavericks really need bigger perimeter players, as they’ve relied entirely too much on undersized guards in recent years (even though some have been quite good) — Terry, Barea, Beaubois, Jones, West, etc. Buford would fill that void, provide some spot-up shooting, and maybe even develop some more as a player over time.

Rise Up and Power Forward

Sorry this post is so late. Here’s my last position-by-position looks at the Mavs’ free agency options this summer. The only position left to address is power forward, which has been filled quite excellently by Dirk Nowitzki these last 14 years.

To look at what we need in a power forward, we should start by examining what we have. Nowitzki had, statistically, a poor season, primarily because he started off atrociously after the long lockout — and with no training camp to get his legs under him. His scoring numbers rose to his normal standards (23 to 25 ppg) by the end of the year, and he had a perfectly playoff-Dirk-quality series against the Thunder despite the team’s overall struggle to compete. I think we can expect Dirk to continue to score at around the same rate next year when he has time to prepare and come into training camp in shape.

One trend, however, that’s become more noticeable has been his declining rebounding numbers — down to 6.8 a game this year. Dirk has never been a particularly great rebounder, mostly relying on just pure size and athleticism (when he was a lot younger) to get the job done rather than good box-out technique or a nose for the ball. Unfortunately, the Mavs’ need of solid rebounding by our big men has really increased with the loss of Tyson Chandler. Brendan Haywood was decent — pulling down 6.2 in around 21 minutes a game — but his offensive ineptitude prevents him from playing significant minutes (or crunch-time minutes), and it’s probably the reason he’s likely to get amnestied this summer. Both Brandan Wright and Ian Mahinmi have pretty good per-36-minutes rebounding numbers (8.2 and 9.4) and possess good athleticism and willingness to crash the boards, but they also have their own offensive limitations and give up a lot in muscle mass and strength to opposing bigs. To resolve these issues, I think we need to target players that can rebound, play good defense, at least be accounted for on the offensive end, and ideally provide a certain tenacity on the floor.

Obviously we are not in the market for a starting power forward (so no Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, or Elton Brand), so I will limit the conversation to guys that could be quality backups or could fill the role of “generally useful big man” — basically people who can be plugged in to play alongside Dirk at the 5, but should technically be classified as power forwards.

Here’s the breakdown.

Category 1 — Wily veterans seeking a contender

1. Boris Diaw. Diaw had an interesting year, going from the league-worst Charlotte Bobcats to the league-best San Antonio Spurs after he was waived in March. Few people remember, but Diaw was a really great all-around player for the 2006 Phoenix Suns. He has an extremely versatile game, with excellent vision and passing instincts for a big man, the ability to hit outside shots, and the newly-added girth (basically, he got really fat in Charlotte) to bang down low with opposing centers despite only being 6’8.

In fact, as I watched Diaw tearing it up with the Spurs in these playoffs alongside Duncan (even though he only played 20 minutes), I can’t help but think that he filled the role Lamar Odom could have filled for us had this awful season gone differently. Of course, Odom should have been (and is, when he actively tries) a far better player — taller, way more athletic, and much better off the dribble.

Anyways, back to Diaw. He’s done a great job in his role with the Spurs, but a lot of credit has to go to Gregg Popovich’s system — the excellent spacing of their three-point shooters, the penetration abilities of Ginobili and Parker, and the defense’s need to always account for Duncan all contribute to Diaw’s ability to make smart passes, get easy lay-ins, and even make moves off the dribble.

I think Diaw is pretty much a lock to stay in San Antonio. He’s clearly experienced a career resurgence there and would be foolish to think he could be as successful anywhere else. Plus, he’s good friends with fellow Frenchman Tony Parker. I”m not sure what he can expect to be paid, since the Spurs have a little over $48 million in salaries committed to next season and still have to lock up Tim Duncan, decide whether to pick up DeJuan Blair’s option, and then choose whether they want to re-sign Danny Green and Gary Neal.

2. Reggie Evans. Evans is a 32-year-old hustle player whose most famous NBA moment was grabbing Chris Kaman’s balls in a 2006 game. I, for one, believe the Mavs should make every push they can to sign both of these players merely for the entertainment value. Regardless, Evans has bounced around the NBA quite a bit, going from being a regular contributor in Seattle to spot duty off the bench in stops in Denver, Philly, and Toronto. This year, Evans really played a big role as the Clippers’ energetic rebounding big off the bench and played a part in their run to the second round, particularly in that thrilling 27-point comeback in Game 1 of the first round against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Evans is only 6’8, but he’s a terrific rebounder with a career average of 12.8 rebounds per 36 minutes. Despite his relative shortness, he uses great strength and good technique to box out for rebounds and, more importantly, he has a great motor and always hustles for loose balls. For similar reasons, Evans is a solid, physical defensive player. Unfortunately, on the offensive end, Evans is extremely limited. Having Chris Paul as their point guard has helped the Clippers in that regard since he has the ability to create some easy lay-up chances. For the most part, though, Evans is not a threat to score and, worse, he’s an atrocious free throw shooter, at only 50.7% this year.

Although Evans doesn’t really have a well-rounded game, the Mavs were frequently outrebounded this season and acquiring him would be a good step to solving their issues on the boards. Evans made about $1.25 million this year and might make more this go around, but probably not significantly. The Clippers’ financial situation is pretty unclear since they have $57 million committed but have decisions to make regarding a lot of their free agents: Nick Young, Randy Foye, Chauncey Billups, and Kenyon Martin.

3. Louis Amundson. If there was an award given to the NBA player who looks most like a Die-Hard villain, Amundson would have a great shot at it. Like many of the others in this category, he’s a guy who makes most of his money by providing rebounding, hard fouls, and energy off the bench, most famously as a member of the 2010 Phoenix Suns’ fantastic second unit that thrashed the Spurs.

He played 12.6 minutes a game for the Indiana Pacers this year sharing bench minutes with Tyler Hansbrough to back up David West. Amundson had decent numbers, averaging 10.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per 48 minutes. He has little to no offensive game other than from offensive rebounds and easy lay-ins created by others, not to mention his poor free throw shooting (around 43%).

If the Mavs have a few other good big men, though, Amundson isn’t a bad guy to have as a third or fourth big off the bench. He should be pretty cheap and he’s still 29, so he could be a solid bench player for the next few years.

4. Ronny Turiaf. Turiaf is a 6’10 big man who signed with the hated Miami Heat in late March after being waived by the Nuggets. He’s seen some increased minutes off the bench for Miami in the playoffs due to the absence of Chris Bosh, and gave them 3.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in 17 regular season games.

I think Turiaf is easily the worst player in this category. Despite his good size and build, he’s not a particularly good rebounder and doesn’t offer anything offensively. If anything, his statistics are inflated from benefiting from playing with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

Turiaf will almost certainly return to Miami as he has a player option worth $1.2 million he can pick up.

5. Kenyon Martin. Martin, the 34-year-old former longtime Nets forward, signed with the L.A. Clippers (yes, people actually are choosing to sign with the Clippers these days) in early February for the $2.5 million mini mid-level exception. K-Mart primarily backed up Blake Griffin, logging around 22 minutes a game.

While he’s no longer an elite talent like he was in New Jersey, he can still be useful as a multifaceted defender, with the muscle and height to play traditional, physical power forwards, but also the lateral quickness and length to bother small forwards and two-guards. In fact, Martin played a lot of important defensive crunch-time minutes against the Grizzlies and was able to switch on pick-and-rolls and really bother Rudy Gay on his jump shots.

His offensive numbers were pretty abysmal this year (5.2 points and 4.3 rebounds and 37% free throw shooting), but some of that can be attributed to his reduced role and the Clippers’ abundance of other shooters. In any case, Martin wouldn’t be expected to contribute all that much offensively wherever he goes.

I don’t see Dallas being that interested. Martin is likely to cost more than other players with similar production simply because of his name and the fact that the Clippers had a good year, and Cuban’s bad blood with him (due to a 2009 confrontation with his mother) all but rules it out.

6. Antawn Jamison. Jamison, the 2004 Sixth Man of the Year for the Mavs, has spent the last 8 seasons playing for mostly laughingstock teams in Washington and Cleveland. Despite that, his numbers have always remained consistently good, including this year — 17.2 ppg and 6.3 rpg.

Those numbers are pretty misleading, though. Both the Wizards and Cavs the last few years have been largely devoid of talent and Jamison has gotten more touches. The last two seasons, particularly, his efficiency has declined alarmingly — 42.7% and 40.3% from the field.

Regardless, I still think Jamison is probably the best offensive player in this category (maybe debatable between him and Diaw). He has very good length, a very fast second jump (which helps him get offensive rebounds), and the ability to make a lot of unorthodox shots in the paint, a lot like Shawn Marion.

Jamison’s getting older (he’s 35 now) and coming off a huge contract that paid him $15.1 million this year. I would expect him to want to sign with a contender for the mid-level exception or maybe less. If he’s cheap enough, I think Dallas would be interested (and maybe he would be too) because although he’s aging, he’s a known quantity, a consummate professional, and still has some game left. Other good teams (like the Spurs) have had great success with integrating aging big men into their lineup.

Category 2 — Quality players in their prime looking for a contract

1. Brandon Bass. This former Mav played big minutes (around 31.5) for the Boston Celtics this year, mainly because of their pathetic lack of frontcourt players not named Kevin Garnett. Celtics GM Danny Ainge managed to trade Glen Davis for Bass straight-up, which is kind of a coup. Bass is a strong, capable defender and he has a knock-down mid-range jump shot. He isn’t a guy you can throw the ball to in the post, but he’s at least able to finish strong when he’s set up to do so. Bass also isn’t that great of a rebounder, which helps to explain why the Celtics were historically bad in that department this year.

Overall, he’s a pretty solid player who has improved since he left Dallas. Unfortunately, because of the increased load he shouldered for the C’s this year (and his higher numbers), he’s likely to have more value this summer. Bass has a $4.3 million player option he can pick up, but I see him declining that and testing the open market. Boston could still be interested in signing him because they have plenty of cap space and are looking to rebuild around younger players.

2. Kris Humphries. The Mavs might be tired of reality TV stars after how Lamar Odom turned out, but Humphries, just 3 seasons after leaving Dallas, has developed into a very solid young power forward. (Hmm… is there a trend here? Bass? Humphries? Dallas? Not saying we don’t develop players, but…).

Despite the Kardashian drama that’s surrounded him the last year, Humphries can play some ball. He’s really broken out as a terrific rebounder and legit 10-10 guy every night for the last couple years. He’s also only 27, so he can still be a big piece for a team for quite a while.

He’s not really a fit for Dallas — he made $8 million this year as a starter, but that’s not happening on the Mavs. Some team will likely throw him enough money to be a starter (if they’re dumb enough, Brooklyn) and he’ll eventually be known only as the guy who used to bang Kanye West’s wife.

3. Carl Landry. Landry spent the past year playing 25 minutes a game for the New Orleans Hornets, who acquired him in a trade with the Sacramento Kings in 2011. Similar to Bass, he’s an undersized (6’9) but well-built big with average rebounding ability. Landry’s main value is his scoring ability — he can shoot pretty well, has some very good post skills, and draws fouls very well in the paint (and converts the free throws too — knocking them down at a a near-80% clip).

It’s easy to fall in love with Landry’s per-36 numbers, which looked great this year: 18.4 ppg, 50.3% from the field, and 7.7 rpg. Unfortunately, he doesn’t play 36 minutes a game and will probably be very highly paid, ruling out the Mavs.

4. Ryan Anderson. Whenever a tall white guy can shoot the 3-ball well, he is immediately said to be “a poor man’s Dirk Nowitzki.” Anderson is this breed of power forward. He’s shouldered a much bigger scoring load for the Orlando Magic the past couple years, even winning the league’s Most Improved Player Award this year on 16.1 ppg and 7.7. rpg (with shooting splits of .439/.393/.877).

He didn’t really deserve to win MIP, mainly because his per-36 numbers are nearly identical to his 2010-11 statistics (indicating that his increased production was just due to more minutes), but he’s nevertheless a very good shooter and arguably the Magic’s second-best player.

Still, the majority of Anderson’s offense comes due to the open shots generated by Dwight Howard’s paint presence. When Howard doesn’t play (like in the playoffs against Indiana), most open looks in the offense disappear and Anderson can’t simply be a spot-up shooter, which is really what he does. In that sense, a stretch 4 like Anderson (and maybe Dirk in the future) is a perfect fit next to Howard in terms of providing offensive balance and provides more value for the Magic than other teams. It’s likely that Anderson will be overpaid for his good numbers this summer by another team, but that’s okay — we already have the rich man’s Dirk Nowitzki.

5. Ersan Ilyasova. The man who deserved Most Improved this year. Ilyasova saw pretty staggering statistical improvement in nearly every per-36-minute category this year — 13.7 to 17.0 in points, 8.7 to 11.5 in boards, 29.8% to 45.5% from three. The only area he did worse was at the free throw line, where he still shot 78%.

His game is pretty similar to Anderson’s since they’re both great long-range shooters, but Ilyasova is a much better rebounder and off-the-ball player. Not to mention, there’s no player on the Milwaukee Bucks with anything remotely close to Dwight Howard’s talent level.

He should be in line for a pretty good payday this summer, but obviously not from Dallas.

Category 3 — Talented guys with something to prove

1. Michael Beasley. For a former No. 2 pick, Beasley has had an interesting career to say the least. He was an absolute stud scorer in college, putting up 26.2 ppg and 12.4 rpg and sweeping a variety of “best freshman”-type awards at Kansas State. Beasley hasn’t been nearly as impactful a player in the pros, but through all his different struggles and fluctuating team situations, his talent for scoring has persisted. He’s consistently shot around 45% from the field for his career and 37% from three the last couple of years, and despite only playing 23 minutes a game this season, his per-36 scoring average was around 18, which isn’t far from his career average of 19.5.

He’s an undersized (listed at 6’9, but more like 6’7) power forward who’s had some trouble playing against the larger, more athletic big men in the NBA. As a result, his game has become more perimeter-oriented and his role has diminished, especially with the rise of Kevin Love as an All-NBA First-Team player and the Wolves’ general depth at forward. I’m not convinced that Beasley wouldn’t be better-suited to being an NBA small forward but, regardless of position, he’s got to consistently show high-level effort and commitment to defense — things that he has neglected thus far in his career.

Unfortunately, Beasley’s also had a lot of off-the-court issues, including several marijuana incidents. This baggage could definitely deter a lot of teams from pursuing him and could cost him some money, but Beasley will easily be a hot commodity this summer. He’s simply too young (only 23) and too talented to not get another shot as a starter.

He has expressed interest in returning to Minnesota, but he has a $8.172 million qualifying offer that I seriously doubt Minnesota wants to pay. Ultimately, I expect him to get a mid-level exception-type offer to be a starter somewhere. I don’t expect the Mavs to get involved, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did either — Beasley could represent the classic low-risk-high-reward move that Mark Cuban loves, especially as a cheap option to put another potential playmaker in the fold if Deron Williams signs with Dallas.

2. J.J. Hickson. Hickson is most known for being a part of the Cleveland team that LeBron James left out in the cold a few years ago. He’s always been known as a physically talented athlete (with his 6-9, 240 lb frame and very good athleticism), but pretty raw basketball player — mostly just good at throwing down dunks.

The Cavaliers traded Hickson to the Kings for Omri Casspi in 2011, so he played the bulk of this season for Sacramento. Unfortunately, he was a train wreck — he went from 13.8 ppg and 8.7 rpg on 45.8% shooting to 4.7 ppg and 5.1 rpg on 37% shooting. Some of this is just due to decreased minutes, but he was never comfortable and couldn’t carve out a productive role.

The Kings understandably waived him in March and he was claimed off waivers by the Blazers. In Portland, he became a totally different player, playing 19 games for them (starting 10) and posting these stats — 15.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 54.3% shooting. That’s a pretty impressive turnaround, even though LaMarcus Aldridge’s injury no doubt gave him more of a chance to pick up the slack offensively.

Hickson has a $3.4 million qualifying offer. I think basketball-wise Portland would like to keep him since he’s only 23 and has shown some promise in their system. Financially, though, it’s murky — the Blazers’ highest priority is re-signing Nicolas Batum, who is sure to get a big raise. They will have some cap space to work with but exactly how much isn’t clear — Jamal Crawford and Shawne Williams both have player options to consider.

I think Dallas would be totally out of the picture here. Hickson seems to be a clone of Ian Mahinmi, only shorter.

3. Jason Thompson. Nobody really knows what goes on in Sacramento anymore. I saw a Kings game this year and even I couldn’t tell you Thompson plays for them. Side note: That game was the Kings’ dreadful blowout of the Mavs on their Grateful Dead Tribute Night (seriously), with Tyreke Evans and others raining 3’s, Drake in attendance, and Bill Walton gleefully commenting about how great it was to…actually I don’t remember what he thought was so great — he was rather incoherent.

Anyways, Thompson. He was a pretty reliable contributor for the Kings this season, logging around 25 minutes a night and registering a 9.1-6.9 for them on .535 shooting. He doesn’t seem like a starting-caliber player by any stretch, but he provides adequate interior scoring, post defense, and rebounding, and he’s very tall at 6-11. I think he’s a player who could give a good team around 20 quality minutes a night.

His qualifying offer is around $4.1 million and the Kings have expressed some interest in re-signing him. That’s probably too much, but they’re the Kings so they’ll pay it.

Category 4 — Intriguing Prospects/Younglings

1. Lavoy Allen. Allen is a 23-year-old rookie who just finished up his first year with the Sixers. He only logged around 15 minutes a game, I couldn’t help but think he looked quite capable and mature for a young player, especially when he wasn’t at all fazed by Kevin Garnett’s verbal abuse in their second-round series with Boston.

He doesn’t contribute much at all offensively at this stage, but he has good per-36 rebounding numbers (9.9) and can shoot free throws decently (.786).

Allen’s got a qualifying offer of a little over $900,000, which I think the Sixers will easily match. He seemed to mesh well with their young players (like Holiday, Turner, Young, etc.) and other teams probably won’t be that interested.

2. Jordan Hill. Hill is a 6-10 forward/center for the Lakers who actually earned a pretty consistent role off the bench towards the end of the year. He was the 8th pick in the 2009 draft (by the Knicks) and never really met the expectations that come with that lofty a pick (like Brandan Wright).

Even so, Hill — along with Devin Ebanks — really broke out in that famous game against the Oklahoma City Thunder (yes, the one where Ron Artest could have killed James Harden). Hill brought a ton of energy, hustle, and rebounding to the Lakers and helped lead them to a huge comeback in that game.

Being a former lottery pick, Hill made around $2.9 million this year and has a qualifying offer of $3.63 million. The Lakers are in pretty bad cap trouble, though, so I expect them to let him walk. There will definitely be some suitors — Hill’s per-36 numbers are 14.5 points and 13.6 rebounds.

Category 5 — Brian Cardinal

1. Brian Cardinal. Sadly, I think the Cardinal era in Dallas is over. The guy didn’t make many of his threes this year and he’s lost his once-elite athleticism (sarcasm) so there’s no reason to waste a roster spot on him. It was good while it lasted though.

Kareem’s Poor Example

The great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar occasionally contributes stories to ESPN.com and he wrote a piece yesterday discussing the overall decline in scoring this postseason, and he had something interesting to say about our guy Dirk Nowitzki. (Here’s the link — http://espn.go.com/nba/playoffs/2012/story/_/id/8007685/nba-playoff-scoring-2012-vs-scoring-1985.)

In the article, Kareem basically lends his opinion that the increasingly common trend of players jumping to the NBA early has caused diminished skill development and mental maturity, both of which have somehow contributed to this year’s low point totals (a pretty bad causal conclusion given that the one-and-done rule has been in place several years now and we never freaked out about lower scoring).

And then, bam. To persuade the reader, he offers this perfect example of an underachieving player who could have used more college development: Dirk Nowitzki.

A young man can get into the NBA just because he has potential, but if that potential does not manifest itself, he will be traded or let go by a cost-conscious director of personnel. Even those players who are able to make it past the first hurdle don’t always play up to their potential. A great example is Dirk Nowitzki. As a 7-footer, he had the opportunity to play college ball in America, but people close to the situation say Dirk avoided playing U.S. college ball because he would be called on to defend and rebound and play with the big guys. Dirk has been an exceptional offensive player, but his NBA career stats show that he has limited skills as a defender, shot-blocker and rebounder. We’ll never know how good he could have been had he spent more time rounding out his skill set with a top college coach.

I have great respect for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was easily a top 3 center to ever play (along with Russell and Chamberlain) and had one of the five or so greatest basketball careers ever. He’s also always struck me as an eloquent and intelligent commentator on the game in several of his writings.

But there’s no doubt about it — he’s horrendously wrong with this example.

Number one, it’s pretty ridiculous that anyone could make a point regarding underachieving players and then offer Dirk Nowitzki as their “great example” of one. The man has career averages of 22.9/8.3/2.6 with .475/.380/.878 shooting splits. He is one of only 4 players to ever average 25 points and 10 rebounds for his playoff career. He’s also the only player in NBA history to have four straight games with 30 points and 15 rebounds apart from…Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Beyond the statistics, though, he’s worked as hard as anyone to improve his skill set, make himself tougher, and maintain consistency as “the man” for the Mavs over his 14-year First-Ballot Hall-of-Fame career. More than anything, Nowitzki’s game is as unique and recognizable as that of any player ever. He, along with Kevin Garnett, essentially redefined the power forward position by introducing the notion of a primarily perimeter-based, jump-shooting big man. In fact, Dirk’s fallaway jump shot has become so iconic now that it’s lauded as one of the most unstoppable shots ever — along with…Kareem’s sky hook.

To his credit, Kareem does praise Dirk for being an “exceptional offensive player,” a title not even the most stubborn Spurs fan could refute. But just acknowledging that in an attempt to downplay Nowitzki’s other skills undersells his overall value to his team. Just like a great team is more than the sum of its parts, I’d argue that an individual player is more than his assortment of skills. I’ll give my own example: Carmelo Anthony. Anthony is, like Dirk, an otherworldly offensive talent — many have said he’s the best in the game. His raw career per-game averages are superior to Dirk’s in most categories — points, assists, steals — and even in rebounding, he’s averaged 6.3 a game, a pretty high figure for a small forward. He’s also, like Dirk, a below-average defensive player. But Dirk’s teams, year in and year out, have been pretty successful 50 and 60-win teams that have made the Conference Finals thrice and the NBA Finals twice. Anthony’s teams, on the other hand, have won less in the regular season and have only made it out of the first round once despite being composed of similarly talented players.

So what’s the difference between Anthony and Nowitzki? His overall value to his team. Their statistical totals are pretty comparable, but Nowitzki gets his points more efficiently (shoots less and better), initiates good offense for his teammates, and has, over the past few years, shown a real commitment to good team defense. This value is obvious to anyone who has watched the Mavs play and really bears out in their abysmal win-loss record when he sits. So, getting back to the main point, characterizing Nowitzki as some scoring maestro who can’t contribute in other ways is just false.

Another thing Kareem misses on, in my opinion, is the idea that Dirk’s rebounding and defensive deficiencies are due to a lack of coaching earlier in his career. Dirk, for a seven-footer, has never been a great rebounder — he’s never even averaged more than 10 a game in the regular season, a feat which his peers, Duncan and Garnett, have routinely accomplished. Any basketball coach will tell you rebounding is about three things — effort, anticipation, and athleticism.  I hate to tell you, but Dirk is 0 for 3 (for whatever reason, I’ve never gotten the sense, especially in recent years, that Dirk has a ravenous hunger to crash the boards). As far as defense, Dirk has pretty bad physical tools — poor lateral quickness, not much vertical leap, and only decent length and bulk to bang down low. In spite of all that, he’s improved noticeably in recent years by executing the proper rotations, using the length he has, and improving his hands — I noticed several deflections and steals he made in last year’s playoffs that he would never have managed earlier in his career. These are changes to his game that have slowly developed over several years under Rick Carlisle’s coaching and team defensive principles — basically, I have a hard time believing Dirk could have been a superior defender merely if he “rounded out his skill set with a top college coach” as Kareem suggests.

The last problem I have is Kareem’s depiction of Dirk as a talented 19-year-old player who was scared of playing college basketball because “he would be called on to defend and rebound and play with the big guys.” This is classic Euro-stereotyping bullshit and a double standard — when high school players like Garnett and Kobe Bryant go pro, it’s justified because they want to make money and prove their superior talents on the biggest stage. But when a European like Nowitzki goes pro, he’s just scared. As annoying and tired a stereotype that is, though, I’m even more leery of Kareem’s “people close to the situation.” After all, Kareem, with his unimpeachable journalistic credibility and experience, has sources close to every situation, including ones that could tell him exactly what went through Dirk’s mind as he pondered whether to play college ball or jump to the NBA…right.

Well, that was a long rant, but I just felt I had to dissect the pure lunacy of that paragraph.

I’ll leave you with one simple sentiment: I will never spend sleepless nights wondering how good Dirk Nowitzki “could have been.” The man has carved out a legendary career and done as much to maximize his potential as any player I’ve ever seen. He’s one of the best five power forwards ever and one of the fifteen or twenty greatest players ever.

And that’s good enough for me.

Sullinger? Count Me In

Perusing through the mock drafts every now and then has become a sort of hobby of mine, and I noticed this morning that nbadraft.net has us drafting Jared Sullinger of The Ohio State University with the 17th pick.

This is a pretty surprising projection. For one thing, it was only last year that Sullinger was viewed as a consensus top-5 pick, with some mocks projecting him to go in the top 2. This year, he has slid to mid-to-late lottery status in most mocks, with the chance of being a late-teens pick, as in this case. (Part of this can be explained by the relative weakness of the 2011 draft. By my count, only seven players in the 2011 class had above-average rookie years — Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Iman Shumpert, Kenneth Faried, Marshon Brooks, Chandler Parsons, and Isaiah Thomas.)

For a top-notch college player with great production and pedigree and no character issues, this is a pretty dramatic slide that hasn’t been thoroughly explained. So let’s examine the facts.

Sullinger returned to Ohio State in 2011 to come back and try to achieve his stated goal of winning a national championship. In his sophomore season, his production was basically the same as the year before — 17.5 ppg and 9.3 rpg compared to 17.2 ppg and 10.2 rpg. His team made it all the way to the Final Four and lost to Kansas in a close game in which Thomas Robinson and the Jayhawks rallied from 9 down at halftime. All in all, it was a really successful year for Sullinger from both an individual and team standpoint.

But Sullinger’s return to school also hurt him. College basketball in the one-and-done era works like this — there are at most a couple alpha-dog players every year that get all the press, recent examples from the past few years being JJ Redick, Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Tyler Hansbrough, Stephen Curry, John Wall, Kemba Walker, and Anthony Davis. Sullinger firmly occupied that spotlight in 2010, with seemingly everyone praising his skilled low-post game, impressive maturity for a freshman, and general dominance of games (and with Dickie V slobbering over his ability to use his “big backside” to move people around in the paint).

But Sullinger’s return changed all that — he wasn’t new enough or sexy enough to still draw headlines. The national attention shifted away from him and toward other prospects, and although he still was an AP All-American, he wasn’t often mentioned alongside Anthony Davis and Thomas Robinson in the discussion for major national awards.

And with the increased time to watch him play against his peers, basketball analysts and draftniks began to break down more flaws in his game, some of which they didn’t notice his freshman year or merely overlooked due to his being a freshman then. In particular, critics have consistently outlined two things that could constrain his NBA potential:

1. He is short for an NBA center so he could struggle against lengthier players in the NBA.

2. He has average athleticism and quickness, both of which are important in playing good team defense as a big man.

The first point is a valid concern because while Sullinger is a healthy 280 lbs, he stands only 6’10 in shoes. He has had some trouble with getting his shot blocked by taller players, which is a problem. However, he has above average length (a 7’1 wingspan) despite his height and he’s always exhibited great smarts and savvy in using his strength and moves to his advantage in the post. He’s also added a reliable face-up game and a solid 15-fo0t jump shot that is practically a necessity for scoring bigs in today’s NBA.

As to the second question, it’s undeniable that Sullinger isn’t Tyson Chandler. He plays a very “old-man” type of game and is a very capable post defender, but obviously doesn’t move that fast. Ultimately, though, there aren’t many players in the league that can — that’s why the Kevin Garnetts and Dwight Howards of the world are so rare. Sullinger seems to play with intelligence and desire on the defensive end, and that should enable him to grow into a decent team defender despite his physical limitations.

DraftExpress, a private scouting and pre-draft analysis website, sums up my feelings perfectly in this quote from their profile of Sullinger:

To Sullinger’s credit, there is already a model in the NBA for players in his mold (such as Kevin Love, Luis Scola, or Paul Millsap) who can be incredibly effective with similar limitations, so it may not be prudent to overanalyze his flaws and ignore his tremendous productivity.

Basically, I think that as analysts have focused more on the one-and-dones and “sleepers” of this draft, they’ve tended to nitpick and poke at Sullinger’s game while forgetting how damn good he’s been. He was hands down the most physical, skilled, and tough-to-stop low-post player in the country the last two years, bar none. He’s a great rebounder in spite of his ground-based game, a pretty good passer with great hands and low turnover rates, and a smart player who projects great effort and intangibles.

I think he should be a lottery pick and it would be an absolute steal if the Mavs could take him at 17. We really have lacked a strong low-post scoring presence since Erick Dampier left (joking) and have become an increasingly jump-shot-dependent team, so this would help with our balance. Additionally, I think Sullinger has shown in the past that he’s a mature guy and a winner who’s truly committed to the team (he made the choice to go back to college on his own and then shed 20 pounds this season to improve his mobility), both of which suggest he would be able to contribute immediately for Dallas.

Admittedly, a starting lineup of Dirk Nowitzki at PF and Jared Sullinger at C would lack some things defensively. It would, then, be important for us to get a good defensive backup (like Omer Asik or someone) that could step in at times. Ultimately, though, I would easily prefer this type of situation to what we had with the three-headed-monster this year.

Sullinger, more than most other prospects (and certainly most big men) this year, seems to be a known quantity. Assuming Dallas wants to fill a need at center — or even if they want to take the “best player available” approach — if Sully’s still on the board at 17, we should take him and run.

New Point Guard on the Radar

I wrote my point guard summer shopping list for the Mavs a few weeks ago. Turns out we can add one more name to that list: Kyle Lowry.

Here’s a breakdown of the situation:

The Rockets guard told the Houston Chronicle on Friday that he does not think he and Goran Dragic will both return next season. And he is especially unlikely to play for Houston if Kevin McHale returns as coach.

“I don’t think so,” Lowry told the newspaper about returning to play for McHale. “I honestly think it would be tough. Things have to be addressed. The situation would have to be addressed.

“If things aren’t addressed coaching-wise, I guess I have to be moved.”

Now, make no mistake, this isn’t a sure sign the Rockets are looking to move Lowry. Dragic is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and despite Houston’s claims they want to re-sign him, he will probably be able to receive offers from $7 to $10 million a year to play as a starter.

Lowry, however, only made $5,750,000 this year and is due to receive $5,750,000 and $6,210,000 the next two seasons (until summer of 2014). Given his range of skills and consistent production, this is a hell of a bargain, and one that Houston would no doubt be very reluctant to part with.

As for his issues with McHale, I wouldn’t read too much into this. Player-coach disputes happen quite often and even though Lowry seems adamant, it’s possible a few sit-down chats with Rockets management and McHale could yield a quick resolution.

If for some reason, Houston does decide to trade Lowry, he would automatically jump to my No. 2 spot on the point guard shopping list behind Deron Williams. Lowry doesn’t receive that much attention when we discuss point guards, mainly because he plays in the Western Conference (where guys like Parker, Westbrook, Paul, and Nash all steal the All-Star game slots) and the Rockets have struggled to compete the last few years.

Regardless, he is a top-10 point guard in the game (at a time when the depth at this position is truly historical) and you could conceivably rank him as high as eighth — behind only Paul, Williams, Westbrook, Rondo, Rose, Parker, and Nash. Lowry brings elite quickness and speed, good court vision, and gritty perimeter defense to the table. He’s quite limited in size (only 6’0), which hurts him defensively, but he has great athleticism and can play above the rim on offense. He has struggled to shoot well from the field during his career (only 40.9% this year, and some sub-40% seasons in the past), but he has improved his three-point shooting greatly the last two seasons (37.6% and 37.4%) and can hit his free throws at around an 80% clip. He’s also a very good rebounder considering his size, pulling down 4.6 a game this season. Lowry’s assist numbers aren’t staggering (6.6 per game), but they’re not bad either, and he’s shown great strides ever year. Houston’s system wasn’t really dependent on him dominating the ball and making all the decisions and, even then, he averaged 7.4 assists per 36 minutes (he only averaged 32 minutes a game this year), not a bad number considering the lack of really great scoring options for the Rockets.

If Dallas strikes out on Deron Williams and Lowry’s on the market, I think a phone call to Daryl Morey is a no-brainer. Lowry is just 26 and appears to be entering his prime, and he’s quite underpaid on his current contract that extends two more seasons.

I’m honestly not sure how the Mavs could possibly pull off this trade, but it’s worth a shot. Houston has no need for cap relief because they only have around $30 million committed in salaries to next year, so the Lamar Odom contract doesn’t seem to be all that useful. Shawn Marion wouldn’t interest them either because he’s 34and offensively limited and they have a good tandem of young SFs in Chandler Parsons (an All-Rookie selection this year) and Chase Budinger who each make less than a million dollars (with Parsons locked up until 2015). We would probably have to involve a team that does need cap relief to pull off a multi-team trade and throw in a lot of sweeteners (Roddy Beaubois, maybe Brandan Wright, draft picks), not to mention the possibility of Houston asking us to take on Luis Scola’s monster contract ($8,591,793, $9,408,207, $10,224,622, and $11,041,037 over the next 4 years). Ouch.

In the end, it seems highly unlikely we can get Kyle Lowry, but he’s a very good, if not elite, point guard so it’s definitely worth a look from Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson. In my opinion, getting him at this stage in his career would clearly be a better move for Dallas than signing Steve Nash (at 39) or Goran Dragic (who would cost more and hasn’t proven as much).

A Small Forward Look

This is my next post in the series on the Mavs’ free agent options in 2012. I’ve already covered centers, point guards, and shooting guards, so this time I’ll be going over our options at small forward.

In the 2011-12 season, the Mavs started Shawn Marion at small forward, with Vince Carter and Lamar Odom getting spot minutes there when Marion sat down. While Marion had an exceptional year defensively, including several lock-down efforts against all-world offensive talents like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, and rebounded more than he ever has in Dallas (7.4 a game), he struggled mightily on offense, managing only 10.6 points-per-game on 44.6% shooting, some of the lowest numbers of his career. The usual array of post hooks, bankers, and peculiar flip shots didn’t seem to be nearly as effective for Marion as they were in 2011, and his near-inability to make outside jump shots didn’t help either.

The unrelenting 66-game schedule, combined with the loss of solid perimeter defender DeShawn Stevenson, undoubtedly tired him greatly. Due to Jason Kidd’s injuries and frequent DNP’s, Marion was often asked to check point guards and even some power forwards, leaving him with little spare energy to expend offensively — a really bad situation for a player who relies heavily on putbacks, offensive rebounds, and physical post play, all of which require a lot of energy.

Carter had a few notable performances at small forward (usually alongside a backcourt some combination of West/Kidd/Terry). This lineup helped offensive floor spacing because Carter is a good jump shooter, but it was prone to defensive mismatches at the 2 and 3 slots since Carter is not much of a defender and Delonte West is undersized for a 2-guard, and hence not in a good position to check elite scorers like Bryant and Durant. Odom, on the other hand, was pretty much hopeless regardless of what position he played. He usually received some minutes at small forward alongside Dirk Nowitzki, but never appeared comfortable (in fairness, he had only rarely played SF for the Lakers — usually playing the 4 alongside Bynum or Gasol) or productive.

All in all, the Mavs got decent production out of the small forward slot with Marion and Carter, and it doesn’t appear to be nearly as big a need as point guard or center, or even shooting guard. But if the Mavs choose to move Shawn Marion in a trade this summer — a very real possibility — then it suddenly becomes pretty important.

Here’s a look at the small forwards available on the open market.

Tier 1 — Above-average to quality starter

1. Nicolas Batum. Batum is unquestionably the most coveted free agent small forward on the market, and it’s pretty clear why. He’s a very long and athletic player who has shown great year-by-year improvement in his 4 seasons along with an extremely versatile skill set.

Batum has the ability to drive and slash to the hoop, hit jump shots at a good clip (and he’s 45% from the field), make three-pointers (around 39%), and utilize his length to play good team defense. On top of all that, he’s only 23 and appears to have a lot more room to mature as a player.

In terms of money, I expect Batum to command around $8-$10 million. That almost certainly puts him out of the Mavs’ price range if Deron Williams is Plan A. Batum is a restricted free agent, and his agent has put out some pretty strong statements about his impending free agency, even saying, “The first good offer we get, we’re going with it. We’re not waiting for anything.” That doesn’t sound very good for the Blazers’ prospects of retaining him since they would only have 72 hours to match any offer sheet (as per the new CBA rules) and they have a plethora of decisions to make on how to improve their team this summer.

Batum can be a very good starter on a great team, but I’m not sure he will ever ascend to an All-Star level talent, so I would expect the Mavs to pass here and leave it to some other team to overpay him.

2. Gerald Wallace. Wallace is a soon-to-be-30 swingman who is good for around 13-16 points and 6-8 rebounds a game. He’s known as a hard-nosed, reliable, and professional player — a rep that’s backed up by his relatively consistent production despite a few changes in scenery. He was most recently dealt to the now-Brooklyn Nets for Shawne Williams, Mehmet Okur, and a top-3 protected lottery pick, presumably in a misguided attempt to show Deron Williams they’re serious about improving the team in the short-term.

Wallace has reached his ceiling a few years ago, but he’s still physically strong, a very solid perimeter defender (garnering First-Team All-Defense honors in 2010), and a good offensive player — he can slash well and finish in the paint, and has historically shot well from the field (47.3% for his career).

This summer, Wallace has a chance to opt into the last year of his deal for $9.5 million if he notifies the Nets by June 13. It’s widely expected that he will decline this option and become an unrestricted free agent (due to the financial security of a long-term deal), but Nets GM Billy King has still expressed interest in re-signing Wallace this summer to a multi-year deal. King could technically try and extend Wallace right now for two more years, but only at $9.5 million per year, so Wallace would likely wait and try for a better offer in free agency.

To me, this is kind of hilarious. The Nets made the absolutely boneheaded move of trading away their lottery pick (they have exactly a 25.2% chance of retaining it) and now are forced to probably overpay Wallace this summer so it doesn’t look like they did that for nothing (unless David Stern rigs the lottery and gives them Anthony Davis, which is another story). Wallace is a solid player, but he’s not worth a top-3 pick, especially when that could be one of their biggest assets in trading for Dwight Howard. It’s pretty doubtful Wallace will be worth his next contract and I’m not sure he’s the type of player that would sway Deron Williams into re-signing, but maybe Prokhorov and Billy King know more than I do. Again — doubtful.

Tier 2 — Wild Card

Jeff Green. I originally had felt Green should be in Tier 1, but his season-ending aortic aneurysm has led me to wonder about what kind of player he’ll be when he gets back. Even before that happened, though, Green was adjusting to a bench role with the Celtics, averaging around 23 minutes when he had seen 37 in Oklahoma City. His totals understandably went down, but his per-48-minutes statistics didn’t really waver.

His numbers look pretty good. In OKC he averaged around 15 points on 44% shooting with 5.5 rebounds. But I still think he tends to get a little overrated due to his prototypical size and athleticism and mere association with Durant and Westbrook on that upstart Thunder team. Green is certainly not average-quality, but he appears to lack a signature skill or role to fill on a really good team.

The Thunder, at the time of his trade to Boston, were choosing between sending him or James Harden to the Celtics. They smartly, of course, chose to keep Harden, but at the time it was a legitimate debate. Since then, Harden has progressed into an elite shooting guard and propelled the Thunder to a second-straight Western Conference Finals, while Green (through no fault of his own, really) just hasn’t improved as a player, even when he was healthy.

Green will be an unrestricted free agent this summer because the Celtics withdrew his qualifying offer and voided his one-year $9 million contract due to his medical issues. I can’t see Green making that kind of green (sorry) this summer, especially coming back from a serious heart issue, but I wish him the best in getting his career back on track and overcoming his setback. It’s hard to gauge what the market price for him will be, but if he’s cheap enough, I would not be surprised to see the Mavs swoop in and give him a chance to prove himself on a 1-year deal (a la Delonte West).

Tier 3 — Good rotation player

1. Grant Hill. Hill is an old man, basically the small forward version of Jason Kidd. The 39-year-old played around 28 minutes a game for the Suns this year, but had career-low numbers in basically every category. He’s still not a bad player by any stretch, but it’s clear he’s on the way out.

In particular, his body didn’t hold up great this year and that will be concerning for potential suitors. That may have been partly a function of the shortened season, but after playing 82, 81, and 80 games the previous 3 seasons, the vaunted Phoenix Suns training staff could only squeeze 49 games out of him this year.

Hill will likely get a 1-year veteran’s minimum deal, and I think he would be okay with that. There has been a lot of speculation that he will try to go wherever Steve Nash goes because they’ve grown close over the last several years and might contemplate retiring together. I don’t see the Mavs being interested — they need to focus on getting younger.

2. Matt Barnes. Barnes is a 32-year-old who made $1.9 million coming off the bench to provide energy, defense, and rebounding for the Lakers this year. He’s also well-known to Dallas fans for his part in the 2007 Golden State series and his claim in 2011 that to beat the Mavs, all you gotta do is “punk ‘em” and they’ll back down.

I’m not going to lie — I’ve always thought of Barnes as a real shady, douchey character. But I would like it if the Mavs signed him. He’s very much like DeShawn Stevenson in that he’s got tattoos, he brings a certain thug quality and edginess to the team (he’s not a “milk drinker” as Carlisle would say), and he will probably be pretty cheap since the Lakers went out in bad fashion.

He’s not quite as good a perimeter defender as Stevenson and he’s merely a decent three-point shooter (around 33% for his career), but he’s a very good rebounder (5.5 a game) and could take some of the load off Shawn Marion’s shoulders.

3. Andres Nocioni. Nocioni is an interesting 32-year-old Argentine player who used to be quite awesome for the Chicago Bulls, but has seen a big drop-off in his game since injuries (mainly knee tendinitis) and team changes (to the Kings and Sixers) stalled his career. I don’t know who reported this, but there’s a perception that Rick Carlisle is a huge fan of Nocioni’s game and would be interested in acquiring him. These rumors ramped up around March of this year when Nocioni was waived, but nothing materialized.

Personally, I don’t think Nocioni has much left in the tank, but I’ve given him the benefit of the doubt by putting him in this Tier, I guess. He hasn’t had a solid year since 2008, when he averaged 11.4 ppg and 4.8 rpg on 42.7% from the field and a great 40% from three. If he can return to the player he was in Chicago, he would be an incredible addition, but that seems like a long shot and the Mavs are already trying to rehabilitate one swingman next year (Kelenna Azubuike) so I think they should and will pass.

4. Steve Novak. Novak is a three-point extraordinaire who really should thank Jeremy Lin for every penny he makes for the rest of his career. A career 43.6% three-point shooter, he inexplicably bounced around for the last few years (including brief stops in both Dallas and San Antonio) despite eye-popping numbers — like 75% three-point shooting in Dallas and 54.8% in San Antonio. It’s astounding to me that 2 of the top franchises would let a shooter like that slip away unnoticed, but it appears he just never really was given an extended opportunity as a role player.

He got that this year, and really flourished and gained publicity as a key scorer (benefiting greatly from Lin’s dribble penetration) for the Linsanity-era Knicks of February 2012. He continued to contribute and shoot the lights out for the rest of the season as he shot an unholy 47.2% from three on the year. Quite simply, this year, he was the best spot-up three-point shooter in the game, bar none.

Novak has expressed interest in returning to the Knicks this year, but he will no doubt have countless suitors as an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Knicks are also a bit limited in the type of offer they can make to Novak since they will probably try to re-sign both Lin (probably for the mid-level exception) and Landry Fields (as I noted in the shooting guard post, Fields is eligible for the Early Bird exception, which allows the Knicks to sign him for up to the mid-level exception — a figure which other teams can’t exceed — and still leave open their mid-level exception to re-sign Lin or another free agent). This would leave open the Knicks’ bi-annual exception, which would be worth around $1.98 million next season.

Exceeding that might be a little steep for the Mavs, who would probably only expect Novak to play (at most) 20 minutes and shoot threes. But you can never have too many shooters on a great team, a fact the Mavs know very well given their success in 2011 and the Spurs’ success with a similar approach this season.

In the end, I think the Mavs will only be players for the Tier 3 guys, of whom I like Barnes and Novak the most. There are any number of unforeseeable trades and draft picks that could also yield a quality small forward, but those possibilities will become clearer as the summer moves forward.

Once again, thanks for reading for this long and I hope you enjoyed it. My post on power forwards should be forthcoming within the next few days.


Why I am rooting for the Spurs

There’s a first time for everything. And from the first time I laid eyes on the San Antonio Spurs, I hated them. Everything about them. It was Game 4 of the 2003 Western Conference Finals. I distinctly remember sitting in those nosebleed seats 45 minutes before the game watching Tim Duncan shoot free throws, and directing as much sports-hate as I could his way. It didn’t work. The Mavs would lose that game 102-95 and the series, in part due to Dirk’s high ankle sprain, but also because the Spurs could do no wrong.

Just think of their history these past 15 years. David Robinson got injured in the 1997 season, enabling an otherwise good team to tank and end up with a 20-62 record, which landed them No. 1 pick Tim Duncan. They dominated the ’99 lockout-shortened season and faced the 8th-seeded Knicks in the Finals, the first and only 8 seed to make it to the NBA Finals. They drafted two future Hall-of-Famers — and two of the greatest international players ever — in Parker and Ginobili with the 28th and 57th overall picks, forming a core that has remained elite for an unheard-of 10 straight seasons. The Spurs got past the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the 2007 NBA playoffs after the league suspended Boris Diaw and Amar’e Stoudemire for 2 games for leaving the bench during an altercation. The Spurs rolled on to the NBA Finals and swept the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers. Hell, even when the Spurs lost, they did so in spectacular fashion — on a ridiculous Derek Fisher shot with 0.4 seconds left in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference second round (after Tim Duncan had just hit an incredibly falling-down 2 to give the Spurs a lead) and in an epic 2006 Western Conference second round series to Dallas in a Game 7 (that went to overtime courtesy of the greatest clutch shot Dirk has ever hit, bar none — that beautiful and-one lay-up straight up the middle over the outstretched arms of Manu Ginobili).

Spurs fans may complain, but these were all ridiculous strokes of good luck that contributed immensely to their “perfect storm” from 2003 to 2007. As a Mavs fan, this period (with the exception of that ’06 series) was torturous to watch. We could be just as good as the Spurs in the regular season, sometimes even better, yet it wouldn’t matter come playoff time. Nothing seemed to faze them and any playoff disappointment was quickly resolved the next year with a title.  No heartbreaking collapses, no referee conspiracies, no accusations of softness.

They always had the defense, the coaching, the superstars, and the knowledge they were our “big brother.” Seemingly random players would, when inserted into their lineup, thrive, contribute, and deliver for them time after time (examples: Stephen Jackson, Steve Kerr, Devin Brown, Beno Udrih, Brent Barry, Robert Horry, Michael Finley). And they were always there to spoil the party, whether it be the Mavs’ or the Suns’ or the Jazz’s. And top of it all, they were boring as hell.

So as you can see, plenty of reasons to hate the Spurs. And I did. I also hated them for Duncan’s blank facial expressions and general monotony, Popovich’s curtness and generally douchey vibe, Ginobili’s frustratingly ridiculous skill and smoothness, and Parker’s relationship with Eva Longoria (back when she was fine).

But I don’t hate them near as much anymore. Don’t get me wrong — when the Mavs are playing them, it’s on…always. That will never change. But I just don’t link these Spurs to the ones of that era, the ones that I despised and always rooted against. I don’t know what changed. Maybe it’s just because the Mavs won a title last year and the Spurs were swept in the first round (poetic since the reverse happened in 2007). Maybe it’s because Pop changed their sleep-inducing offense to something sexier. It could also be that in the new era of super-teams, there are tons of teams more repulsive and hate-worthy than the Spurs (i.e. Lakers and Heat mainly, but you could argue for others), who don’t pose and preen in front of cameras, are almost never a top media story, and just don’t have obnoxious personalities.

More than anything, I’ve realized how similar we are to the Spurs — we both share an intelligent front office (most of the time, at least), a great coach, an unselfish approach to playing, and a top-5 power forward to ever play basketball. They’ve just been a lot smarter for a lot longer, on top of being a lot luckier.

It might sound sacrilegious, but in these playoffs, I’ve been rooting for the Spurs. After so many years of hating them as a Mavs fan, I’ve now found it impossible, as a basketball fan, to not admire them. Their selfless passing, always-reliable three-point shooting, great development of role players, savvy coaching — everything is just textbook-perfect fundamental basketball. Tim Duncan looked old, immobile, and in need of retirement as few as 2 years ago, and here he is dominating in the post, schooling young bucks like Blake Griffin, and leading his team their best run ever. Tony Parker, probably the most underrated NBA point guard ever, is destroying teams in the pick-and-roll, in transition, in the mid-range game, in the paint…basically everywhere. Ginobili, with that hilarious bald spot now, is still making great passes, flopping around on defense, and playing great off the bench. And Popovich is still in charge of it all, getting his team to come back from a 20+ point deficit yesterday and inventing the Disturb-a-DeAndre (based on the Hack-a-Shaq) at the same time.

If the Spurs win it all this year, it won’t be because they played an Eastern Conference pussy team or won it in a down year or benefited from some crazy blessing from the basketball gods. It will be because they are the best team and, in fact, one of the most dominant in a long time. They’ve had to overcome struggle and pain the last few years, getting bounced by the Suns in 2010 and by the 8th-seeded Grizz last year, not knowing if their core would break up. And they have been written off or overlooked all year when, really, they had been quietly preparing and transforming just for this time, when they could show the world their legitimacy (sounds eerily familiar). As a fan of the 2011 champion Dallas Mavericks, I can respect their story. Because we’ve gone through it.

These Spurs are different. But they’re still not flashy. They’re not the tank-to-get-rich Thunder, the trade-to-get-rich Lakers, or the sign-to-get-rich Heat (a vast oversimplification, of course, but they are the 3 teams I’m rooting against the most).

And they’re not the 2003-2007 Spurs either. And that means I can’t hate them nearly as much. In fact, I’m rooting for them to win it all this year. There truly is a first time for everything.