As the 2021-22 Mavericks met for the last time early Friday afternoon, Jalen Brunson went teammate-to-teammate, gathering signatures on his white No. 13 jersey.
Before anyone jumps to conclusions, do not fret, Mavericks fans. These weren’t necessarily goodbye autographs. Brunson plans to have the jersey framed, but this wasn’t comparable to a high school senior getting their yearbook signed, not knowing when they’ll see those classmates again.
Not if Mark Cuban and Nico Harrison have anything to do with it. And coach Jason Kidd, for that matter. As every Mavericks fan knows, Brunson will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. But while he wisely was noncommittal Friday about his plans, Brunson sure sounded like he’d love to stay.
And his 2021-22 teammates are a big reason for that. Asked how much the Mavericks’ run to the Western Conference finals will influence his decision, Brunson didn’t hesitate.
“It influences a lot,” he said. “I think whether we went this far or not, the teammates I was playing with this year, it’s been amazing. They’ve been a great set of guys. I express my gratitude to them all the time.
“I wouldn’t be in this position without them.”
Brunson’s position is enviable. This was the last season of his rookie contract, at a salary of $1.8 million. It’s expected that Brunson’s average salary will soar to $18-to-$20 million, if not higher, and that he’ll likely receive offers in the four-year, $80 million range.
New York and Detroit widely are expected to be Brunson suitors, but as Mavericks owner Mark Cuban noted after Thursday night’s season-ending loss to Golden State, Dallas as the incumbent team has the ability to pay Brunson more than anyone else, and will do what is necessary to keep the 25-year-old second-round pick.
Harrison on Friday said that re-signing Brunson is Dallas’ “top priority” this offseason.
“We want to re-sign him,” Harrison said. “He knows that. We want him back. He’ll be a big part of our future.”
Harrison and Cuban also said it’s clear that Dallas needs a rebounder and rim-protector, ideally the same player.
“That’s no secret. We know we got beat up on the boards,” Harrison said. Said Cuban: “When one of their guys is getting 17, 18 rebounds a night, it kind of tells the story. And that’s one of the things we’ll try to fix.”
Dallas’ ability to re-sign Brunson will dictate how it goes about getting interior and probably wing help, through the draft (the Mavericks have the No. 26 pick), trade or free-agency.
With a projected $156 million in salaries, the Mavericks will be hard-capped and unless they shed considerable salary Cuban will pay luxury taxes for the first time since 2010-2011.
If Brunson gets a first-year salary of $18-to-$20 million, it could cost Cuban at least three times more than that in luxury taxes.
That’s the price you pay, though, when a player you want to keep averages career highs of 16.3 points, 4.8 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 84% free-throw shooting.
And when that player shoots above 50% for the second straight season. And when that player goes from Sixth Man of the Year candidate, after finishing fourth in voting last season, to starting 61 of 79 games, moving into the starting lineup full-time on December 12.
And for that, Brunson largely has himself to thank – and first-year coach Kidd. Since the start of training camp in September, Kidd was open about the fact that he wanted to help Brunson get a fat raise. Brunson said Friday that Kidd expressed that in their first conversation after Kidd was named coach last June.
As a former player, and like Brunson a guard, Kidd understands that first big contracts are life-changing for a player and his family.
“Since our first conversation, he basically said ‘That’s the most important,’ ” Brunson said. “He understands that side of it, but he’s been great (in other ways).
“Whatever happens, happens, but I think J, he’s been he’s been great for me. He’s pushed me. He’s always made me get better.”
Kidd certainly is one reason Brunson would like to remain a Maverick. Another would be the opportunity to keep playing alongside Luka Doncic, whose $212 million extension kicks in next season.
Dallas next season could well have a starting backcourt making a combined $55 million.
“The step – the huge leap – he took this year was unbelievable,” Doncic said of Brunson. “And he’s going to deserve all the money he gets.”
Certainly Brunson established during the regular season that he was in line for a raise, but when he averaged 21.6 points and 3.7 assists during the playoffs, including a career-high 41 points against Utah with Doncic sidelined by a calf injury, it further bolstered his value.
“It doesn’t really define me,” Brunson said Friday of that 41-point game. “That was a great moment, but it doesn’t really define what the type of player I am or anything. I just was doing whatever it took to win.”
When Brunson does finalize his contract this summer, and provided it’s with the Mavericks as expected, he probably should buy his coach dinner.
Better yet, dinner and adult beverages.
Asked whether making the conference finals was part of the Mavericks’ sales pitch to Brunson, Kidd said, “I think we’ve already pitched him. . . . but it’s not even about the Western Conference finals.
“It’s about who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish. And he’s a big part of it. He did his part.
“It’s a cool thing to bet on yourself. And that’s what he did. We’re a part of that bet. Now he has to wait and see what decision he makes. I’ll support whatever decision he makes, even if it’s not with us. He’s a great human being, not just a basketball player, but a great human being.”
Here’s betting that after Brunson gets that autographed Mavericks jersey framed, there will be more No. 13 Mavericks jerseys in his future. At least four seasons’ worth.