When you win a championship in professional sports, there's a tendency to want to keep the entire band together to go at it again. Fans develop an emotional attachment to players beyond what they normally have. Coaches want stability so they can use the same kind of tactics they used to win it all. Players want to go to battle with peers they trust. Ownership is often naturally conservative and doesn't want change.
This phenomenon is especially true with the Dallas Mavericks. For so many years, they were known as the kind of team that was talented, but wilted in high-pressure situations. They've been so good for so long, but have cycled through scores of players to try to get Dirk Nowitzki his title. It will be incredibly difficult to break up the Mavericks' core when you attach all the emotional baggage the organization and its fans have accumulated from so many playoff failures.
Nevertheless, once the NBA lockout ends, the Mavericks will have a number of key decisions to make with free agents. Three Mavericks players made SBNation.com's Top 10 free agents list: Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and Caron Butler. Starting shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson and backup forwards Brian Cardinal and Peja Stojakovic are also free agents. Depending on how much you're willing to stretch the definition, that's five or six contributors to the title run.
The tempting thing would be to bring everyone back. The correct thing, though, is to bring none of them back.
Well, except Chandler. If Chandler's impact on the Mavericks' culture is anything close to the level the Mavericks suggest it is, it would be devastating to let him go. Sure, Chandler is 28 with an injury history and likely to be overpaid, but the damage control needed if he indeed goes elsewhere would be too great. The Mavericks pretty much have no choice there.
The others, though, should go elsewhere. Much of this argument depends on the idea that the NBA will have a hard salary cap going forward, which is by no means a guarantee. Still, there are all sorts of reasons why Dallas should not keep any of their impending free agents besides Chandler.
1. DALLAS CAN'T AFFORD THEM
The Mavericks' salary cap situation isn't very good right now. The Mavericks currently have 10 players under contract, and they make a combined $63.1 million already. You can thank the mid-tier contracts of guys like Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Brendan Haywood for that. Combined, those four will make $35.5 million next season. All are fairly important players, but combined, they ruin any chance for Dallas to have significant cap flexibility.
We still have no idea how the new salary cap will look, but none of the possible scenarios are appealing to the Mavericks. Under the current soft cap, the Mavericks could just sign all their free agents using the Larry Bird Exception that allows teams to exceed the cap to keep their own guys. That's the path the Mavericks have been pursuing for years, which is why their payroll is always so high. But it's not going to be that simple under the new cap arrangement. Even if the players win and a soft cap is in place, it's unlikely to include the kind of cap exceptions the Mavericks need to keep all of their free agents.
If the new cap is a hard cap? Then the Mavericks are in real trouble. Even the most optimistic hard cap projection would put it at somewhere between the $58.044 million figure it was last season and last year's $70.37 million luxury tax figure. If it's at that level, the Mavericks may not even be able to afford any of their free agents, including Chandler. If the owners get their way, that cap number will be even lower, and even if they don't, the hard cap level is likely to go down in the future as the new system gets phased in. Even if the Mavericks can afford those free agents next season, it will get even harder to do so in future years.
This is probably why the Mavericks were surprisingly quiet at the trade deadline last year. They surely had opportunities to parlay Butler's expiring contract and either a draft pick or young point guard Rodrigue Beaubois into some elite talent, but were worried about long-term finances and passed. It worked out better than they expected, but now, that issue is cropping up again.
2. DALLAS DOESN'T REALLY NEED ANY OF THEM THAT BADLY
We love to think of the Mavericks as this ensemble team where every single role player was essential to their success. Ultimately, though, this is mostly a reflection of their playoff opponents, all of whom past Portland were littered with stars. In a way, the Mavericks were more top-heavy than any team in the playoffs, relying on a singular star as other teams relied heavily on a group of them.
This isn't to demean the contributions of the other players on the roster, but it is to say that the Mavericks can get away with other players playing their roles if need be. The most indispensable players on the roster are Nowitzki, Chandler and (arguably) Jason Kidd. Dirk's importance is obvious, whereas Kidd and Chandler provide a kind of intangible stability on both ends (Kidd on offense, Chandler on defense) that's hard to replicate.
Other than that, as long as the role players buy in, the Mavericks can still be extremely competitive with other cheaper players in the mix. Barea's playoffs was outstanding, but with Nowitzki occupying so much defensive attention, there are several other small guards who could have thrived. Butler was replaced by Shawn Marion, and the Mavericks didn't miss a beat. Stevenson's contributions were pretty minimal anyway -- there are plenty of three-point shooters and hard-nosed defenders in the D-League that can fill in for him in a pinch. There's no need to give too much money to these players when cheaper alternatives are there.
3. DALLAS ALREADY HAS REPLACEMENTS ON THE ROSTER
As a follow-up to the previous point, the Mavericks already have younger, cheaper players on the roster to replace Barea, Stevenson and Butler. Those players are Rodrigue Beaubois, Corey Brewer and the recently-acquired Rudy Fernandez.
None of the three had great seasons last year, but there were mitigating circumstances for each. Beaubois began the year with a broken foot, and never got on track from there. Broken feet are no joke: it's so hard to recover from that injury, especially when you rely so much on your speed. The Mavericks tried to pigeonhole him into their rotation in the second half of the year, but it just didn't work. He had missed training camp, the most important time of development for a young player, and that's especially difficult when trying to pick up a system as complex as Rick Carlisle's. I suspect a healthy Beaubois can easily replicate Barea's production next year for a mere $1.24 million.
Brewer never got a chance to play in the playoffs, as Carlisle didn't give him burn even though lots of advanced stats suggested he was a better defender than anyone else on the roster. This, again, can be explained by Carlisle's system being more complex than most coaches. On offense, he loves to rely on a series of set plays with multiple options to get the ball to players in different spots on the floor than most coaches. On defense, he rotates between man-to-man and a series of matchup zones, the latter of which few coaches deploy. It's really tough for someone to come in during the middle of the season and pick it all up. Heck, Kidd himself struggled with Carlisle's system in his first year, and he arguably has the highest basketball IQ in the league. A full season of learning the system will do Brewer wonders.
As for Fernandez, he goes from a system that stifled him to one where he should thrive. The Blazers never ran plays for Fernandez, using him mostly as a spot-up shooter. Carlisle will figure out ways to deploy him to play to his strengths, running him off curls and other off-ball screens to get him in motion. Once that happens, Fernandez can give the Mavericks what Stevenson provided and then some.
Many of these players aren't as good as the guys they are replacing, but they are cheaper and younger, and the difference isn't huge.
SUMMING IT ALL UP
The Mavericks may have won the title last year, but like every team in basketball, they must look forward. The long NBA lockout promises a financial landscape that just will not allow them to keep racking up $90 million player payrolls. There are several cheaper, younger alternatives on the roster already that should be able to replace the production of their free agent role players. While keeping Chandler is a must, the other free agents are expendable.
In these weird economic times for the league, Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson and the rest of the Mavericks' brass has to think about the franchise's long-term ability to contend. Bringing back every single role player on a long-term contract will hurt more than it will help.