There are a couple of things we know for sure: One is that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wants his team (and all teams) to be 100% vaccinated before the start of the season. Another is that the Mavericks have exactly one too many roster spots occupied at the moment and will soon need to make a cut to get down to 15.
So who will go? That we don’t know, but there’s good reason to believe it’s a loser-take-all competition between three players: eyebrow-raising center Moses Brown, point guard Frank Ntilikina, a defensive specialist but an offensive liability, and pseudo-journeyman Trey Burke, who, after being cut by the Sixers in 2020, played so well for the Mavericks in the NBA‘s Orlando bubble that Dallas gave him a fully guaranteed 3-year, $9.4 million deal that December.
Normally, the first clue would come from Burke’s contract itself. Which is to say, teams try not to make a habit of cutting players with $6.3 million remaining on their contract. It happens—the Hornets waived current Clippers forward Nic Batum last November despite a $27 million balance—but it’s not preferred, unless in the service of some other motive. (Charlotte waived Batum in such a way that they created cap space to get Gordon Hayward,)
On the flip side, Brown’s deal is non-guaranteed, which is usually music to any GM’s trimming ear. And Ntilikina, a career 36.6% shooter from the field, has been so unreliable offensively that even defensive-minded Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau opted to DNP Ntilikina 22 times last season and played him just four total minutes in the playoffs.
All things being equal, Burke should be somewhat safe.
But he’s not.
In fact, The Athletic’s Tim Cato believes Burke will ultimately be the one to go. “I would have to guess it’s Trey,” Cato said during a Q & A with the Locked on Mavericks podcast that aired Tuesday. ”Followed by Moses as the next most likely option and Frank as a third.”
Burke Looks to Be First up on the Chopping Block
There are two big things working against Burke, according to Cato, first and foremost the distaste he’s created in Cuban for not being vaccinated.
“Burke just comes down to how much Cuban really wants to hold onto his ideals, his wish for 100% vaccinated roster,” said Cato. “Certainly we’ve seen his tweets. I think that if money wasn’t an issue in this scenario it would very clearly be Burke.”
Like a handful of other NBA players, Burke has pushed back on questions about his decision to forgo the COVID-19 vaccine, writing in a September 30 email response to Fox 4 Dallas’ Mike Doocy that it’s a “freedom of choice” issue and he “believes more in holistic and naturalistic medicines rather than the drug industry or what we know today as pharmaceuticals.”
Burke’s words have not sat well with Cuban, and SI reported last week that Cuban was looking to trade the point guard, though it seems the Mavericks are having trouble finding takers. Surely teams are wary of acquiring an unvaccinated player who may risk the safety of the team and potentially be forced to miss several games throughout the season due to geographical mandates. But it’s not hard to imagine that a superstar in the same situation, say Bradley Beal, would still draw interest from other teams regardless of vaccination status.
Burke, however, is far from a superstar. As it stands now, he is fourth on the Mavericks point guard depth chart. While Cato kinda/sorta believes there’s a benefit to having someone like Burke on the roster, he’s not sure there’s a need:
[Trey] is by far the most expendable player on the Mavericks—they just have players like him. They don’t need a player like him because they have people who can do that. But I guess on the flip side, if he is even slightly better this season, then they’re missing his shot creation. And so Burke can theoretically provide that, although really didn’t for pretty much all of last season. I think that there is a bit of value having him on the roster, but I don’t know that there’s really a role for him.
Last season, Burke averaged 6.6 points, 0.9 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 62 games, and his 42.8% shooting from the field was his lowest mark since 2015-16, as was his 2.45 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Moses Could Still Go
Cato didn’t outright call the race, though. He acknowledged right off the bat that “it’s very possible it’s Moses Brown” who gets shown the door, and he distilled the situation down to a choice between the 6-foot Burke and the 7-foot-2 Brown, both of whom are 22-years-old.
Cato’s colleague at The Atheltic, former Memphis Grizzlies executive-turned-analyst John Hollinger, feels similarly. In a preview of Dallas’ season, published Tuesday, Hollinger omitted Moses Brown entirely from his analysis, which led one reader to ask if that meant Hollinger assumed Brown would be waived. Hollinger responded, “I had him as odd man out but it may be Trey Burke. Will be interesting to see what they do there.”
Interesting indeed. Unlike Burke, who was the 2013 consensus player of the year at Michigan and a top-10 lottery pick, Brown went undrafted out of UCLA in 2019 and signed a two-way contract with Portland his rookie year before signing another two-way deal with Oklahoma City before last season. Brown put up impressive numbers with the Thunder, albeit as part of a tanking strategy, averaging 8.6 points, 8.9. rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 21.4 minutes.
The Mavericks like what Brown brings on the boards and as a rim protector, and in training camp they’ve had him working with former Mavericks center Tyson Chandler as part of the “Mavs Legends” program, which gives ex-players a chance to wet their beaks at coaching.
Brown’s biggest obstacle, however, is his place in Dallas’ pecking order, currently situated behind centers Dwight Powell, Willie Cauley-Stein and Boban Marjanovic. It’s never great to be a fourth stringer when trying to make a team, but Brown’s potential could be enough to overcome such overcrowding.
As for Nkilinka, Cato believes his spot is secure, mostly because he doesn’t see a reason why the Mavericks would give the fifth-year guard $1.7 million in guaranteed money this season just to turn around and cut him. He also feels that Nkilinka’s defense makes him somewhat unique to the Dallas roster.
“The indications that I’ve seen is that Frank will make the roster,” said Cato. “I think that I would be supportive of that. He seems like he offers something a bit different from the bench, even if he’s not in the rotation on an everyday basis.”