The Whiteboard: Tim Hardaway Jr.’s free agency hinges on Mavericks’ offseason plans

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The Dallas Mavericks have a big offseason ahead. Luka Doncic may only be done with his third NBA season at 22 years old, but it’s crystal-clear he’s ready to start contending now.

The rest of the Mavs’ roster? Not so much.

Nobody expected the Mavericks to put up as much fight as they did in their first-round series against the LA Clippers, a team led by two superstars and expected to compete for a title. Stealing those first two games on the road and pushing the Clips to a Game 7 is an accomplishment in and of itself.

With that being said, Doncic’s eye-popping 35.7 points, 10.3 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game on 49 percent shooting from the field and 40.8 percent shooting from 3-point range weren’t enough. His 46 points, 14 assists and 7 boards weren’t enough to prevent his team’s playoff demise on Sunday, and it was impossible not to notice how little help he had throughout the series.

Dallas needs to put pieces around Doncic that actually complement his playing style, especially when it comes to shooters who won’t go as cold as the Mavs did once this series started heating up.

A look at the Mavs’ salary cap situation shows that’s a tricky proposition, mostly because of the $31.7 million owed to Kristaps Porzingis next season, with another $33.8 million on the books for 2022-23 and a $36 million player option for the year after that.

Porzingis wasn’t useless. Averaging 20.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game while canning 37.6 percent of his 6.0 long-range attempts a night is nothing to sniff at. But he also missed 29 games and disappeared in the playoffs, with his numbers nosediving to 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game on 29.6 percent shooting from 3-point range. If the Mavs wanted a floor-spacing big who produced like that, they could find one on the free-agency market for a third of the price.

Porzingis was supposed to be Dallas’ second-best player alongside Doncic, a fellow pillar to build around. Instead, the closest player to that role, if you include the playoffs, was probably Tim Hardaway Jr. — a throw-in in the original Porzingis trade and an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Tim Hardaway Jr.’s free agency comes at a pivotal time for the Mavericks

During the regular season, Hardaway put up 16.6 points per game and made 39.1 percent of his 7.6 3-point attempts a night. In the playoffs, he was Dallas’ second-leading scorer at 17.0 points per game, drilling 40.8 percent of his 10.9 long-range attempts per game. Unlike the rest of the Mavs’ supporting cast, he didn’t fade. He stepped up and showed he can fill a role on a Luka Doncic team.

Because of this, his free agency comes at an interesting and potentially complicated time. For starters, the Mavs will be handing Doncic a max contract that will most likely exceed $200 million thanks to his All-NBA selection this year and a likely selection next year. The extension won’t kick in until 2022-23, but it leaves less time to land an impactful free agent on a long-term deal, especially without moving Porzingis.

In the short-term, the Mavs have a few avenues to free up cap space. J.J. Redick’s $13 million coming off the books helps, and renouncing Nicolo Melli, a restricted free agent, will too. By declining Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million team option, and by Josh Richardson declining his $11.6 million player option, Dallas can get to about $20 million in cap space.

That raises further questions. Cauley-Stein wasn’t great in Dallas, but he’d be a useful backup big at a team-friendly price at only $4.1 million. Richardson could want a change of scenery after seeing his minutes plummet in the postseason, but is it possible he’d prefer to opt in for $11.6 million? After all, his free-agency value tanked after a season in which his numbers dipped to 12.1 points per game on just 33 percent shooting from beyond the arc. It feels unlikely he’d opt in, but it’s not as impossible as it seemed at the start of the season, or even just a few weeks ago.

Even if Cauley-Stein becomes expendable and Richardson opts out, $20 million isn’t necessarily enough space to make the kind of top-tier move Dallas needs to provide Doncic with a legitimate co-star, and the clock is ticking on that front with Luka’s massive extension set to kick in as soon as 2022.

And therein lies the rub for THJ and the Mavs: His $28.6 million cap hold doesn’t provide much flexibility, and letting him walk could create more than $35 million in cap space — the type of space it’d take to make a compelling offer for a John Collins or a Kyle Lowry.

Beyond those two higher-profile targets, however, this free-agency class doesn’t have many game-changers who would fit well with Doncic, unless Kawhi Leonard’s experience against Luka in a second straight postseason, coupled with a disappointing playoff demise for his Clippers, somehow convinced him to leave his home in LA for Dallas (not happening).

Instead of going all in on an aging co-star like Lowry, or risking the Atlanta Hawks matching an offer sheet for Collins, maybe spreading the wealth on more complementary pieces is the more prudent, albeit less exciting path. Richaun Holmes is the type of athletic, physical big who’d be perfect alongside Doncic, and he’ll be nowhere near as expensive. That kind of addition, and others in that same echelon, would leave room for Dallas to re-sign THJ — one of the few current Mavs who’s proven himself to be a good fit — to a deal in the $15 million range annually.

In an ideal world, the Mavs find a way to dump Porzingis somewhere without attaching too many draft picks, landing another key piece and maybe even freeing up precious extra cap space. That is the real crux of their offseason, and if Josh Richardson opts out, Dallas could use the space to sign a significant free agent on the market before then going over the cap to re-sign THJ.

It’d be a pity to lose Hardaway to a better offer from an outside suitor, especially since he’s one of the few players Dallas should want to keep alongside Doncic for the foreseeable future. But in an offseason where the Mavericks need to try and make some big and possibly unexpected moves, THJ’s free agency comes at a somewhat inopportune moment.

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Speaking of the Mavericks, here are three potential free agents they could pursue on the market.

While we’re at it, here’s the same idea for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Most of the focus has been on Luka Doncic’s brilliance and the Mavs’ future plans to help him, but Kawhi Leonard’s brilliance in that first-round series shouldn’t be lost on anyone.

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