As we’re just a little over a week away from the 2022 NBA trade deadline, one team that’s going to be faced with some critical decisions is the Dallas Mavericks. After starting the season slow, Dallas has moved itself to the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference, and deploys the fifth-best defense in the league. Luka Doncic has shaken off the rust in the last month while quieting concerns of his fitness level, and Kristaps Porzingis — when available — is returning to those rim-protector days and taking advantage of smaller defenders on offense at a more efficient rate. Yet one of the more surprising aspects of the season for Dallas has been the ascension of Jalen Brunson.
The fourth-year guard out of Villanova who was drafted the same year as Doncic is having by far the best season of his career. He’s averaging 15.7 points, 5.6 assists and 3.8 rebounds, and has filled that role as a secondary playmaker for the Mavericks that they’ve been searching for in free agency to pair with Doncic. When Doncic was sidelined for 10 games due to knee and ankle sprains back in December, Brunson stepped into the starting lineup and his numbers soared. Over those 10 games Brunson put up 21 points, 7.4 assists and 3.5 rebounds, showing he’s certainly capable of a starting role not just with the Mavericks, but in the NBA. Which brings us to Dallas’ dilemma going forward.
Just as the Mavs have taken recognition of Brunson’s inspired play this season, so has the rest of the league. The New York Knicks have reportedly been enamored with Brunson, and there’s surely other teams around the league that would love to have him in their starting five. This isn’t a matter of Dallas’ interest in keeping Brunson, because it reportedly views him as “too vital” to trade, per NBA insider Marc Stein. But Brunson’s played himself into a huge payday when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer, and Dallas likely won’t be the only team trying to sign him.
So it’s safe to say the Mavericks will have a tough decision to make at the trade deadline in regards to Brunson: trade him now and get something of value in return, put all your effort into re-signing him after the season or risk losing him for nothing this summer. With so many moving pieces to this situation, let’s break down these three options for Dallas.
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Option 1: Trade Brunson at the deadline
There’s been rumblings of opposing teams’ interest in Brunson, namely the Knicks and the Detroit Pistons. But Stein reports that there’s been “no active trade discussions” between Dallas and any other team regarding Brunson with a little over a week before the trade deadline. Even more, the Mavericks are expected to keep Brunson and Dorian Finney-Smith past the deadline, per Stein.
While that may be the latest word on the street, that doesn’t mean Brunson still won’t be dealt, especially if a team walks in with an offer that entices Dallas. If the Mavs don’t trade Brunson, there’s also the risk that they lose him this summer in free agency. It’s been reported that he’s looking for a deal worth $18 million a year, which, if true, would take some cap-space gymnastics for the Mavericks to pull off. The most Dallas can offer Brunson is a four-year, $56 million deal, which he’s been “resistant to accepting,” per Stein.
If Dallas has any concern about not being able to keep Brunson this summer, then trading him now would be the best option. But any trade including Brunson would have to be for a player of equal or better value than him, as the Mavericks will be operating with little cap flexibility this summer without getting hit with luxury tax penalties. With Brunson’s trade value at an all-time high right now, dealing him before the deadline to net the biggest return seems a solid route to take. There’s a chance he gets even better than the way he’s playing right now, but in this scenario at least the Mavericks would be getting something in return, versus if he joins another team this summer.
Option 2: Sign Brunson to a new deal this summer
There’s several reasons why it would make sense for Dallas to re-sign Brunson this summer. He’s blossomed as a secondary ball-handler next to Doncic this season, easing some of the responsibility off the Slovenian guard. His versatility to operate with or without the ball is crucial for Dallas, and he’s a home-grown talent after being drafted in the second round by the Mavericks in 2018. Oh, and the team scores 5.8 points more when Brunson is on the floor this season than when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s not only a team high for the Mavericks, but also ranks in the 85th percentile in the entire league. So yes, Brunson has been incredibly important for Dallas this season.
The Mavericks are reportedly “confident” in their ability to re-sign Brunson this summer, per Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, and strongly believe that he wants to be with Dallas “long-term.” But it won’t be without luxury tax implications. Heading into the 2022-23 season, the expected salary cap for the league is set at $119 million. Right now, Dallas’ salary is set to be over $140 million, and it’s only about $4.7 million away from hitting the luxury tax threshold, which is estimated to be set at $145 million next season. Meaning, unless the Mavericks make some trades, they’ll be entering this summer with little cap space to easily re-sign Brunson.
Of course, the Mavericks could sign Brunson to the deal he’s asking for, but that would push Dallas into paying the luxury tax, something team owner Mark Cuban hasn’t done since the 2012-13 season. But it’s not like he’s unwilling to do it. Since the luxury tax was implemented during the 2000-01 season, Cuban has forked over $150 million in luxury tax payments until 2013. Cuban’s also said in the past that he’s willing to pay the tax, but only in the right situations.
“If we were [a team full of 25-year-olds], the massive luxury tax bill is nothing,” Cuban said in 2013. “But when you know as you get older, you get stuck. … It’s not just that you’re stuck for a week or a half a season, you’re stuck. Now that the rules got even more stringent, you’re even more stuck.”
Well, the Mavericks now have a team full of 20-somethings, and a top 10 player in the league in Doncic, but does Cuban believe Brunson can be the starter next to Doncic in the NBA Finals? That’s how Dallas has to think about this situation, because if Cuban decides to re-sign Brunson this summer, the Mavericks are attaching themselves to a backcourt of him and Doncic for the foreseeable future, which comes with risks of its own.
Brunson’s viewed as a “real flight risk,” according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, given his lackluster performance in the postseason a year ago. The Los Angeles Clippers effectively hunted Brunson in pick-and-rolls when he was on the floor in the first round of the playoffs, so much that Brunson’s playing time declined from 20 minutes in Game 1 to just 10 minutes in Game 7. He struggled to fight around screens, and was thrown into mismatches with guys like Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Nicolas Batum, resulting in Brunson getting played off the court toward the end of the series.
It’s a small sample size, and Brunson has grown significantly this year. But with him being an undersized guard at 6-3, and sharing a backcourt with Doncic who, despite growth on defense is still an average defender at best, there is at least a sliver of risk for Dallas to attach itself to him long term.
Option 3: Let Brunson walk for nothing in free agency
This would be the worst possible outcome for Dallas, and could happen if the Mavs don’t deal him at the deadline and get outbid this summer by another team. Not only would it leave the Mavericks with nothing in return for Brunson, but there’s a good chance he could thrive on whatever team decides to sign him this summer. But that’s the risk Dallas would be taking by waiting until the summer to let this play out. If a team swoops in and offers Brunson a deal that the Mavericks can’t match, they’ll be kicking themselves for not trying to get something in return for him at the trade deadline.
There’s also the possibility that Brunson could take less to play somewhere else if he feels like it’s a better fit for him. For instance, he could opt to go play for the Knicks and be the starting point guard without having to share ball-handling responsibilities with Doncic. Knicks general manager Leon Rose used to be Brunson’s agent, and he was also the agent of Brunson’s father, Rick Brunson, when he played in the NBA. New York would also have to create space in order to sign Brunson, because right now it’s over the cap for next season with an estimated total salary of $120 million. But the Knicks have more money to spend before hitting the luxury tax threshold than the Mavericks, so it could be easier for them to make it happen.
These are all scenarios Dallas has to weigh in what to do with Brunson, because if he’s still on the roster past the Feb. 10 trade deadline, the Mavericks will then have to decide if they want to tie themselves to Brunson for the early part of Doncic’s prime — while also paying the luxury tax — or let him walk with nothing to show for it.