DALLAS — From all appearances, Jalen Brunson, the Mavs’ professed “top priority,” will walk out the door as soon as the lawyers are done, which seems about right.
For years, Mark Cuban hasn’t been able to sign someone else’s big free agent.
Now he can’t keep his own.
The irony, if you’re even-keeled enough to call it that, is he had every opportunity — from the structure of Brunson’s rookie contract to a proposed deal as recently as six months ago — to avoid this fiasco. But the Mavs apparently rejected Brunson’s offer to sign a four-year, $55.5 million contract in January. They did so out of the belief that, if they did a deal then, they couldn’t have included Brunson in a deal for a better player at the trade deadline.
Because they were hoping for someone better then, they’ll have to settle for someone worse now.
Pretty rich, isn’t it?
Especially if you’re Jalen Brunson, who apparently will join Julius Randle as $100 million players with the Knicks. You can certainly question the Knicks’ thinking here. Or pretty much any time. You don’t retire the title of the Most Disappointing Franchise in Sports because of a clever front office. Does evacuating the roster and dropping a bank on Brunson really make the Knicks better? Certainly questionable.
A lot of you out there who consider Brunson’s performance in the playoffs a fluke, who think he’s not really a legitimate second option and maybe not even a third, probably figure good riddance. Gifting him a nine-figure deal is preposterous, especially given that, because of the luxury tax, he’d cost Cuban nine figures for one season.
Frankly, I don’t believe what Brunson did was a fluke, and I don’t think he’s worth that price tag, either.
But he’s certainly worth $13.9 million a year, which is what he’d be making if the Mavs hadn’t decided to keep their powder dry instead.
Maybe you recall that strategy has been the reason for most of Cuban’s swings-and-misses. Most notable: Overruling Donnie Nelson’s case for Giannis Antetokounmpo because Cuban was hoarding assets for Dwight Howard.
Replacing Brunson won’t be as easy as you think. Enter the Dragon? Goran Dragic is probably bunking with Luka Doncic even as you read this. But he’s 36 and coming off a three-city tour in which he made only a quarter of his 3-pointers. Spencer Dinwiddie probably moves into the starting lineup. Yet, even if he had his moments, he wasn’t as consistent as Brunson in the Mavs’ run. The Mavs reportedly will spend most of what little they have available to them under the cap on another wing and hope the addition of Christian Wood in the frontcourt offsets the loss of Brunson in the back.
Of course, it’ll also help that Tim Hardaway Jr. is returning. The Mavs should have more firepower, which is good, seeing as how the Warriors, Suns and Jazz aren’t dead, the Grizzlies are coming fast and the Clippers should be back to normal, particularly after adding John Wall.
Moral: Getting back to the Western Conference finals will be harder the next time around.
Which is why the Mavs needed Brunson. It’s not just that he’s the primary reason the Mavs even made it out of the first round this year. Or that he had a breakout season at 25.
Brunson proved Jason Kidd’s supposition that, more often than not, they need a second ball-handler on the floor. And not just any ball-handler, but a legitimate threat, and one who didn’t mind playing second fiddle to a player as ball-dominant as Luka.
Never underestimate the power of ego when it comes to pro athletes, who need a heaping dose of self-esteem to handle the pressure. But a court can only accommodate so many big heads at once.
Once Brunson got a pretty good idea that he wasn’t just a rotational player this season, his outlook changed. His father, Rick, who will be one of his coaches in New York, told ESPN as much back in April.
“It’s a great fit [in Dallas],” Rick said then, “but, at the end of the day, my son is no different than the next man. … Everyone wants what Luka has. I don’t care who you are.
“Everyone wants that feeling of, ‘Hey, I can do this, too.’ ”
Jalen will eventually realize it’s a lot harder when you have to carry a team for 82 games, and Luka isn’t coming to the rescue. The contract only makes it harder. You can bet the tabloids won’t overlook the latter, either.
Brunson could have made a nice life for himself here in Dallas, playing on a better team, in a far better backcourt. Even with inflation what it is, $14 million per annum goes a long way in the check-out line.
As The Dallas Morning News’ Brad Townsend noted recently, writing about another point guard who got away, chances are good Brunson doesn’t become a two-time MVP. Steve Nash not only was more talented, he went to Phoenix to play for a coach who was a point guard’s dream. Brunson isn’t walking into any such thing.
But you can’t blame him for wanting to run his own show, either. He doesn’t owe the Mavs anything. He gave them a shot and they passed. If you’ll pardon a final irony, as a second-round choice and one of the Mavs’ scant few picks who so much as stuck, he once made them look smart. That they look less so now isn’t on him.